When last the UFC set foot upon the shores of the Land of the Rising Sun, the year was 2000, Matt Hughes had yet to win a UFC championship belt, Kazushi Sakuraba was the bane of anyone with the last name “Gracie”, and a company named Zuffa LLC was forming to purchase the UFC from its original owners, the Semaphore Entertainment Group. To put it plainly, that was a LONG time ago. So here we are, in the year 2012, and the biggest, most popular MMA organization in the world is returning to the place where combat sports aren’t considered so much athletic endeavors as they are ways of life. Do you think the UFC’s latest event – UFC 144 on Saturday night – is going to be as much of a stinker as UFC 29 was back in the day? Well, since UFC 29 was an extremely large pile of suck, the bar has been set pretty low. But given that UFC 144 features lightweight champ Frankie Edgar defending his belt against someone not named BJ Penn and Gray Maynard, and there are a whopping seven moderately- to very interesting bouts scheduled for the pay-per-view broadcast, I’d say the UFC’s return to Japan could be a pretty good one. As the prelims are going to air on the FX network, and I sure as heck get FX as part of my cable plan, here’s a preview of those four preliminary bouts. The preview of the main card will come tomorrow.

-Takanori Gomi vs. Eiji Mitsuoka – Gomi’s entrance into the UFC came about four years too late for us to witness firsthand his full fury, and thus far, other than watching him plaster Tyson Griffin, what we’ve seen from the “Fireball Kid” has been pretty lackluster. But somewhere in that aging lightweight frame is a spark of explosiveness, ready to ignite on an equally-aged opponent’s jaw – and guess what? UFC 144 foe Mitsuoka fits that “aged” description perfectly. Mitsuoka is the epitome of “grappling stalwart”, and has been in the game almost as long as Gomi (fun fact: I was there when Mitsuoka drew with Betiss Mansouri at a King of the Cage on the Soboba Indian Reservation). He never reached the same heights, though, and when it comes down to throwing down, the former Shooto and PRIDE champ should have more than enough left to scorch the KOTC vet. Watch for Gomi to TKO him early.

-Norifumi “Kid” Yamamoto vs. Vaughan Lee – Kid once knocked an opponent out in four seconds with a flying knee. However, you wouldn’t know he was capable of being exciting based on his two Octagon performances, which were basically grappling clinics with Yamamoto playing the role of grappling dummy. So what do you do if you’re UFC matchmaker Joe Silva and you’ve got to have the Japanese fighters on your roster shine when your organization comes to Japan? Feed him a tomato can, of course. And make no mistake, Brit bantamweight Lee is a tomato can who has neither defeated anyone of consequence nor faced anyone of consequence. While Lee does seem to know how to apply a submission or two, this one is going to be all about Kid finally showing US fans that he can deliver the whammy when necessary. Kid via TKO.

-Steve Cantwell vs. Riki Fukuda – A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, Cantwell once won a WEC light-heavyweight belt. But those days are gone, and now the well-rounded but generally overmatched dude is riding a four-fight losing streak that just reeks of impending unemployment. On the flipside, Japanese wrestler (yes, there is such a thing) Fukuda looked pretty solid against Nick Ring before getting shafted on a bad decision, so this one should be a somewhat straightforward case of “American gets roughed up by Japanese guy both on the feet and on the ground”. The only X-factor here is the fact that Fukuda is coming off a knee injury. Will that impede him from putting Cantwell out of a job? I don’t think so. Fukuda by decision.

-Takeya Mizugaki vs. Chris Cariaso – Almost three years ago, Mizugaki was the top contender for the WEC’s bantamweight belt. Since then, every top fighter he’s faced (Urijah Faber, Scott Jorgensen, Brian Bowles) has trounced him. But hey, here comes Cariaso, who may be scrappy, but is the farthest thing from a top fighter. I’m picking Mizugaki to outlast Cariaso and take the decision, mostly because I see this matchup as another case of Joe Silva tossing a Japanese fighter a softball on their home field.