Who was the first UFC champion from Japan?

Reflecting on some of the great Japanese mixed martial artists to compete in the UFC.

Japanese flag
Japanese flag / Ezra Shaw/GettyImages

In the 30-year history of the UFC, there have been a handful of great Japanese fighters.

However, despite the abundance of high-level fighters coming out of the island, none have gained enough success and fame to appeal to the casual audience. With many title challengers and fan-favorites fighting out of Japan, none were able to capture undisputed UFC gold in the modern era. Sorry, but Jiri Prochazka does not count as Japanese.

Though no Japanese native became a champion in the Octagon, six did compete for the belt. Kyoji Horiguchi, Kenichi Yamamoto, Yushin Okami, Hayato Sakurai, Caol Uno, and Yuki Kondo all had their shot at the championship but none were successful. Uno got the closest of the group by fighting BJ Penn to a draw in a 2003 vacant lightweight title fight.

Okami would also gain notoriety in the UFC leading up to his title shot for being the last person to technically beat Anderson Silva before the Brazilian's eventual loss to Chris Weidman. Silva and Okami first met in 2006 in Hawaii when the former would be disqualified due to an illegal kick.

Japan's lack of a UFC champion is not for a lack of skill development within the country. Many of the country's young stars opt to not fight in the promotion as other companies such as RIZIN and ONE Championship actually hold more weight and popularity in their region.

However, though no fighter from Japan has held the belt in the modern era, the country does technically boast a UFC 'champion.' Kazushi Sakuraba, known as 'The Gracie Killer,' was the winner of the UFC Ultimate Japan heavyweight tournament in 1997. Sakuraba is not in the UFC record books as a promotional titleholder but is one of the final winners of the original tournament format.

Has there ever been a Japanese UFC champion?

It is also worth noting that Lyoto Machida — who is of Japanese descent — did capture the UFC light heavyweight championship. However, Machida was born in Salvador, Bahia, and represents Brazil as his home country. Machida's father, a karate master, moved to Brazil as an adult after being born and raised in Japan.

The lack of a UFC champion from Japan could be over sooner than later with Tatsuro Taira quickly emerging as a flyweight contender.

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