TOKYO - He has been labeled the sexiest man in Japan.
His unmistakable bronze tan, polished white smile and runway fashion sense have made him a society-page pinup here.
He is married to a famous Japanese model and commands rock star-style attention and paparazzi-like flashbulbs everywhere he goes.
But come Sunday morning, Yoshihiro Akiyama knows none of that will matter.
By his estimation, he will not only carry the weight of helping indenture the new UFC in Japan but carries the weight of the nation itself on his shoulders.
“Not only for just me but for all the Japanese fighters, it’s very important to have success here,” said the 36-year-old. “Last year, we had big disaster here. So all the Japanese fighters want to have a good outcome, so we can encourage all the people who suffered from the disaster.”
A magnitude 9.0 earthquake struck Japan last March triggering record tsunamis, killing 15,000 and devastating the island nation.
Images of the devastation remain fresh in the minds of the Japanese, and symbols of the nation’s resilience and strength to rebuild are everywhere.
Akiyama sees his effort at UFC 144 as a small opportunity to bring hope and a sense of accomplishment back to his proud nation.
Riding a three-fight losing streak, the man they call Sexyama knows winning isn’t a given — especially against a desperate Jake Shields, who is coming off back-to-back losses.
“Of course, he’s a former Strikeforce champion, and he has more experience, and he has power,” said the 13-4-2 fighter. “I consider myself a challenger in this fight.”
Akiyama’s popularity was evident at Wednesday’s UFC open workouts with Japanese media following him like pigeons to bread.
He is banking on that same loyalty when he steps into the cage.
“The crowd really encourages me, and I am feeling very strong because I am fighting in Japan,” Akiyama said.
Yushin Okami — although far more established in the UFC and a former middleweight contender — commands far less attention for the UFC 144 card.
That may fit perfectly into his new-found approach to the sport.
Coming off a title loss to Anderson Silva, Okami says he’s a different man.
“In the past, I was really nervous going into the fight, and I would force myself to think, ‘I’ve got to do this, I’ve got to do that,’” said the 26-6 fighter, who will face Tim Boetsch here Sunday afternoon.
“But right now, I’ve learned more about trying to relax and enjoy myself.”
He has set up camp with Team Quest and fellow middleweight Chael Sonnen in Oregon.
Okami says he has been working his entire game but has focused primarily on his standup.
“I’ve been doing training for all techniques but especially for striking these days,” Okami said. “It will be nice if I can show everything that I have in the octagon.”
UFC 144 marks the fight club’s first venture to Japan in nearly a dozen years.
The event goes Sunday at Saitama Super Arena in Saitama, Japan and will air Saturday night in North America.