For the first time in UFC history, the opening fight of a UFC card may be more viewed than the main event. The reason for that is the throwback schedule of the company’s most recent trip to Japan. Longtime fans of PRIDE, DREAM, Sengoku, and the like will be familiar with the early morning start time for UFC Fight Night 52 (12:30am ET), but depending on their dedication, may not be able to make it to the main event (likely airing around 6am). Luckily, for those who are looking to get a bit of sleep on Friday night, the card will be available on UFC Fight Pass whenever they wake up on Saturday morning. The card features 12 fights in total, and they are evenly split between Fight Pass ‘Prelims’ and the ‘Main Card’, even though some of the so-called preliminary bouts are more intriguing than those getting main card treatment. The fight with top billing on the undercard fits that description, as Alex Caceres (10-6, 1 NC) welcomes former Sengoku champion Masanori Kanehara (23-11-5) to the UFC. Caceres has shown consistent improvement since coming to the UFC through ‘The Ultimate Fighter’, and especially since dropping down to 135lbs. ‘Bruce Leeroy’ has gone 5-2 with 1 no contest since dropping down to his proper weight. The combination of his length, reckless striking, and aggressive grappling has given opponents fits, and he even gave Urijah Faber a good test in his last bout. Kanehara was on quite the streak up until his last fight as well, as he had won six in a row before picking up a DQ loss for pushing his opponent out of the ring in his last fight. Kanehara is well-rounded, but has started to show some knockout power of late, which could prove interesting against Caceres — who has been rocked several times in the past. Still, bettors seem to like the experience of Caceres, as he sits at -290 (bet $290 to win $100) at 5Dimes Sportsbook. In the featherweight division, Katsunori Kikuno (21-6-2) finally drops down to the weight many feel he should have been at for years. The tricky karateka has always put in game efforts at lightweight, but was often outsized which hurt him at the higher levels of the sport. This was especially evident in his last bout against Tony Ferguson, who dwarfed him and ended up getting the finish. Now facing a fighter of similar size Kikuno should be able to employ his pinpoint striking while avoiding massive reach and strength disadvantages. His first test will be a good measure of that, as Sam Sicilia (13-4) doesn’t have the technical skills on the feet to hang with Kikuno, but he is aggressive and hits hard to go along with a solid wrestling game. Sicilia has dropped 3 of his past 5 fights, but got back on track against Aaron Phillips in May, picking up a unanimous decision. If he can put his wrestling to use similarly in this bout he’ll have a good shot, and that’s why the line has remained close. Kikuno sits at -155, with the comeback on Sicilia at +145 (bet $100 to win $145). In what seems like a mismatch, Hyun Gyu Lim (12-4-1) returns from his main event appearance against Tarec Saffeidine back in January to take on a man who was one of the biggest underdogs in any UFC bout this year, Takenori Sato (17-9-7). Lim is a massive welterweight with big power and solid takedown defense. He is also incredibly durable and has no issues coming forward to push the pace. Those attributes will all benefit him against Sato, who is a solid grappler but doesn’t offer much else. Sato was brought in to the UFC as cannon fodder for Erick Silva and he was treated as such back in February. Prior to that he was on a 10-fight unbeaten streak, but aside from a surprising win over Kiichi Kunimoto, the level of competition was not very strong during that stretch. It’s hard to see Sato’s skillset allowing him to fare too much better against Lim than he did against Silva. As a result, Lim is tied as the second biggest favorite on the card at -570. Perhaps the best, and most evenly matched, fight on the entire UFC Japan card is the bantamweight tilt between undefeated Masanori Tanaka (10-0), and a man who should be unbeaten in the UFC, Kyung Ho Kang (12-7, 1 NC). This should be a fantastic grappling match, as both fighters have solid wrestling, judo, jiu-jitsu, and overall scrambling ability. It also helps that each man prefers to fight on the ground, and neither is shy about trying to advance position or attempt submissions. Tanaka should be the faster of the two men, while Kang will have size and strength advantages, so it will be interesting to see who has the advantage once they hit the mat. Often in the past, Tanaka has been able to put himself in bad positions and scramble out of them, but against one of the better grapplers he’s ever faced in Kang, he may not be able to get away with that. On the flip side, Kang has slowed down in fights in the past, and against a fighter who will apply constant pressure like Tanaka, he may struggle to keep up. Regardless of the outcome this should be a close, competitive, and extremely entertaining fight. Tanaka currently has the edge on the books going at -150 to Kang’s +140. Japan’s Kazuki Tokudome (12-5-1) looks to bounce back from a two-fight losing streak as he welcomes Johnny Case (18-4) to the Octagon. Tokudome started his UFC career with a victory over Cristiano Marcello, but has dropped decisions to Norman Parke and Yui Chul Nam since. Offensively, he possesses a well-rounded game, but defensively his glaring weakness is his striking defense. He lacks any sort of head movement or awareness of what his opponent will be throwing next. That could be a problem against Case who is at his best on the feet, with a solid mix of technique and combination. Normally the Midwest produces grapplers, but Case — an Iowa native — bucks that trend, as the biggest hole in his game is his takedown defense. That was evident in Case’s most recent bout as he was the beneficiary of one of the worst decisions of 2013 against EJ Brooks in RFA. If Case has not improved his takedown defense he could be in for another fight where he ends up on his back for the majority of 15 minutes. Still, given his skills on the feet and Tokudome’s striking defense, it’s hard to count the debuting fighter out completely. That sentiment carries over to the betting lines, where Tokudome is just a -140 favorite, while Case is a +130 underdog. Starting the night off is a featherweight battle between the always unpredictable Maximo Blanco (10-6-1, 1 NC) and New Zealand’s Daniel Hooker (11-4). The book on Blanco is pretty much set at this point: He’s an incredible physical talent who also possesses solid technical skills, but lacks in the mental aspect of the game. Across his 18-fight career he has been disqualified twice, seen one no contest, and had numerous points deducted in his fights. Despite those mental lapses, it’s impossible to write off the Venezuelan because of his ability to affect offense in awe-inspiring ways. This is also a hometown fight of sorts for Blanco, who has lived in Japan since he was a teenager. Daniel Hooker doesn’t have too far to go for this fight either, so he won’t have to deal with the time change that may impede some of the North Americans on this card. The Kiwi is on a six-fight winning streak, and has finished bouts in a variety of ways, including using elbows to put away Ian Entwistle in his UFC debut as he was fending off a leglock attempt. Hooker will have height and length advantages here, and he would be wise to use them as Blanco should be the stronger fighter inside and certainly will be the better wrestler. Bettors are still hesitant to trust Blanco however, as he is only a -150 favorite despite his extensive high-level experience.
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