Japanese star tries hand at UFC

One of the biggest fighting stars in Japan, Takanori Gomi is far from famous in the United States.

He hopes to change that by capturing the Ultimate Fighting Championship lightweight belt, a pursuit that begins tonight when the 31-year-old makes his long-awaited UFC debut against Kenny Florian in the main event of a UFC Fight Night card in Charlotte, N.C.

Speaking through an interpreter on a conference call, Gomi said he’s had more than 30 fights and is “still looking for a challenge. That’s the main reason to move on to the U.S. and the UFC.”

Gomi will have to get acclimated to more than just the cultural differences. Japanese mixed martial arts is fought mostly inside a ring as opposed to a cage and features slightly different rules.

One rule difference is particularly disconcerting to Gomi, who was the final lightweight champion in the defunct Pride Fighting Championships.

“There is no elbow fighting in Japan, so that’s (his biggest) concern fighting in the United States,” he said.

Gomi’s concern is warranted. Florian possesses some of the most lethal elbows in the sport.

Florian, whose only two losses in 10 lightweight fights have come in title bouts, said he has been waiting for an opportunity to take on the Japanese star for some time. He thought he would never get the chance.

“He’s been one of the best fighters in the lightweight division for many years. I’m a big fan of Pride, and Gomi has been at the top of the food chain for a long time,” the 33-year-old Florian said. “I’ve watched him fight for a long time, and I think as fighters we all want to fight the best. I never thought that Gomi would come over to the UFC, but I think it shows he’s looking for a big challenge in his career.”

Florian said the bout appeals to MMA fans who have followed the sport as a whole and not just the UFC and offers the chance for a broad audience to see one of the best strikers Japan has produced.

“I think it’s a huge treat for the hard-core fans who’ve been following this sport for a while,” Florian said. “It’s always surprising to have newer fans who ask me who I’m fighting and I say Takanori Gomi — ‘Who is that?’ And I’m like, you haven’t been following this sport, obviously. This guy is one of the best.”

The card also features a heavyweight bout between Las Vegan Roy Nelson and 6-foot-11-inch Stefan Struve.

Struve has won three consecutive fights since losing to Junior dos Santos in Struve’s UFC debut. Nelson is fighting for the first time since winning the Season 10 title on “The Ultimate Fighter” with a first-round knockout of Brendan Schaub in December.

The card, the UFC’s third in 10 days and the first in Charlotte since UFC 5 in 1995, also features a lightweight bout between Ross Pearson and Dennis Siver and a middleweight match featuring Nate Quarry and Jorge Rivera.

It will be aired tape delayed on Spike (Cable 29) at 8 p.m. and serve as the lead-in to the Season 11 premiere of “The Ultimate Fighter.”

Contact reporter Adam Hill at ahill@reviewjournal.com or 702-224-5509.

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