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Breaking down UFC 116: Yoshihiro Akiyama vs. Chris Leben

Despite how it came off, Akiyama meant no disrespect toward Leben in recent comments

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Justin M. Bowen

Yoshihiro Akiyama trains for the media and fans during a UFC open workout. Akiyama had to cancel his bout with Nate Marquardt at UFC 128 after the disaster in Japan. Dan Miller will replace him.

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When Yoshihiro Akiyama recently expressed his disappointment on fighting Chris Leben at UFC 116 instead of the injured Wanderlei Silva, it appears a few details were lost in translation.

The Japanese fighter has been criticized over the last few days for commenting that Leben, who replaced Silva on UFC 116’s co-main event, is not a big-name fighter.

During an open workout Wednesday, Akiyama (13-1) clarified he’s well aware of the popularity Leben (20-6) holds with American fans but added that popularity hasn’t traveled overseas.

“I’m very familiar with Chris’s popularity in the states,” Akiyama said through his translator. “But overseas, Wanderlei is a much bigger name in Korea and Japan. For me to improve the popularity of MMA in Japan, which is one of my goals, it’s harder with a lesser name in Chris.”

Akiyama has fought only once for the UFC since signing with the organization last year. He won a split decision over Alan Belcher at UFC 100 in his first professional fight on U.S. soil.

Akiyama’s lack of fights in the UFC prompted Leben to suggest he doesn’t have the right to complain and just needs to do his job.

Although Leben says he doesn’t read news reports concerning MMA, Akiyama’s comments had made their way to him through secondhand sources.

“I take it a little personal,” Leben said. “The bottom line is he fights for the UFC, and he’s signed to fight on this card. His opponent got hurt. His job is to get in there and mix it up.

“For him to say I’m not a worthy opponent kind of throws me off. I’ve got 10 wins in the UFC. He’s got one win by split decision. I don’t think that qualifies him to say I’m not a worthy opponent.”

Considering comments made by Akiyama on Wednesday, however, it appears as if the former K-1 standout thinks very highly of Leben from a competitive standpoint.

He went on to say that trying to switch preparations from Silva’s style to Leben’s will be difficult and one of the reasons he considered withdrawing himself from the fight.

“He has a great left. I have a very high respect for his striking abilities,” Akiyama said. “Honestly, I didn’t have much time (to prepare). I’m going to take that in stride and say it’s a good experience.”

Whether Leben feels slighted by Akiyama or not will be irrelevant once the two meet Saturday at the MGM Grand Garden Arena.

Thought to be well out of title contention as recently as a year ago, Leben suddenly finds himself on the verge of the middleweight division’s elite with a win over Akiyama.

Despite accepting the fight on just two week’s notice, Leben says he’s put his whole heart into winning and won’t be happy with anything less.

“I want to win this fight more than any other fight in my life,” Leben said. “I need to win this fight. This is going to put me where I want to be.

“Just a few weeks ago, I was thinking being among the top in the division was a long ways away. Now all of a sudden, it’s six days away.”

Quick Hits:

Leben showed terrific takedown defense in his last fight against a top-level wrestler in Aaron Simpson.

Akiyama’s takedowns will be in the Judo style, which relies heavily on getting into the clinch before throwing an opponent to the ground.

When asked which is easier to defend, Leben leaned toward Akiyama’s style, saying it’s not as explosive as the wrestling attempts.

“I think wrestling is better than Judo because you can have the double-leg takedown,” Leben said. “It’s more explosive. Judo guys don’t shoot from the outside. They have to get into the clinch.”

While both fighters will have to make late adjustments in the cage due to the late notice, Leben believes he’ll hold an advantage, saying Akiyama relies more on a game plan than he does.

“He’s been training for a right-handed Wanderlei Silva,” said Leben, who’s a southpaw. “He likes to train a lot for his opponents. I don’t. What I care about is what I’m going to do.”

Last Time Out:

Akiyama: Split decision win over Alan Belcher at UFC 100.

Leben: Second round by TKO over Aaron Simpson at TUF 11 Finale.

The Lines: Akiyama, minus-205; Leben, plus-165

Final Words:

Akiyama: On how close he was to pulling out of the event: “I was 50-50. Eventually, it just got to the point where I’m not doing it for myself. I’m doing it for my fans.”

Leben: On what it would mean to win two fights in the span of two weeks: “I did something that nobody in the sport has done. Since the first tournaments, nobody in the UFC has done something like this and fight two weeks apart. I think Josh Koscheck was the closest guy when he did two in a month. I’m splitting that in half.

Brett Okamoto can be reached at 948-7817 or brett.okamoto@lasvegassun.com.

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