On Saturday, Tatsuro Taira will make his UFC debut against fellow newcomer Carlos Candelario. Boasting a record of 10-0 as a pro and 11-0 as an amateur, Taira is one of the biggest prospects out of Japan. Having just turned 22 in January, the Japanese flyweight is the second-youngest fighter on the UFC roster behind fellow prospect Muhammad Mokaev.
After a relatively short career in Japan that saw him capture both the Shooto Flyweight belt and finish eight of his ten opponents, Taira signed to the UFC and moved to Vegas in order to train at Xtreme Couture and the UFC Performance Institute.
Taira will debut on Saturday as a moderate favourite (-280) which will come as no surprise to those who followed his career in Japan.
Rookie of the Year
Having registered a perfect 11-0 record as an amateur, winning the amateur Shooto Flyweight belt along the way, Taira turned pro in 2018 under the Shooto banner. He immediately entered the Rookie of the Year tournament at just 18 years of age and began to make waves.
His first fight was against Yo Otake - a scrappy striker who, like Taira, turned pro in MMA off the back of an undefeated amateur record (6-0).
Taira immediately displayed a fight IQ we don't typically see from debuting talent on the regional circuit. Utilising his long frame for the division, Taira frustrated his opponent by switching stances to disrupt the rhythm of the fight and land a few leg kicks.
Taira immediately started to strike his way into grappling exchanges: something we would soon come to learn would be a staple of his game. Taking Otake to the ground, Taira worked in some ground and pound from the top mount position. However, the strikes were only a distraction for the real killer blow: a mounted triangle choke.
Using his top mount to drag Otake away from the fence and rotate their positioning, Taira secured the mounted triangle setup and finished the submission off his back.
Three months after his impressive debut finish, Taira took on undefeated pro Ryo Oyakawa at the conclusion of Shoot's Rookie of the Year tournament. Taira had already beaten Oyakawa twice in the amateur scene but had managed a stellar start to his professional career with a record of 3-0.
In almost a carbon copy of his fight with Otake, Taira showed patience on the feet before gradually working his way into grappling range and finding another first-round submission. This time, his finish of choice: a guillotine.
Crowned Shooto's Rookie of the Year, whispers began to crescendo in the Japanese MMA circuit about this gangly teenage flyweight who could strike and grapple effectively.
Becoming a Man
In 2019, Shooto abandoned all plans of slowly building Taira's résumé against other newly-turned pros. His first outing of the year would come against 20-fight pro Yuto Sekiguchi.
While Taira would find himself going to decision for the first time in his professional career, the performance was nothing short of dominant; Sekiguchi landed a handful of strikes the entire fight.
In the opening round, Taira chained a double-leg takedown off the back of a leg kick and jab to ground Sekiguchi. For the remaining four minutes of the round, Taira swarmed Sekiguchi with strikes while hunting the submission. He worked his way into various positions - namely half guard and top control - and kept Sekiguchi pinned to the mat throughout.
In the second round, much of the same. After walking Sekiguchi down, Taira initiated the clinch and scored a body lock takedown. This time, Taira had little intention of looking for the submission. He landed several elbows that could have stopped Sekiguchi but, to his credit, he showed resilience and heart that Taira could not crack.
If the fight had been scored per round, every single one would have been a 10-8. The fight, however, was scored as a whole as Taira swept the scorecards.
Three months later, Taira was matched against 29-fight pro Takahiro Kohori. The fight wouldn't go past the first minute of the opening round.
Though his dominant and incisive grappling is what he's most credited for, Taira's striking is just as good. He has a natural bounce on the feet and comfortability beyond his years. You won't ever find him striking in the pocket. He fights on the front foot but with real patience in his game. Prodding leg kicks, roundhouse kicks to the body, and jabs are his primary tools. Displaying all three of those against Kohori, he ducked under a spinning elbow attempt and pulled off a massive slam takedown. Seconds later, after multiple unanswered strikes, the referee was forced to step in.
To cap off a stellar 2019, Taira added another finish to his growing unbeaten record. His victim, this time, 8-1 Yamato Takagi.
To avoid striking with Taira, Takagi started the round with two takedown attempts that were expertly stuffed. Finding himself against the fence, Taira initiated a whizzr kick (Uchi Mata for my Judokas out there) to land his own takedown. After some control time on the ground, Taira allowed Takagi back up.
On the feet, Taira landed a leg kick that partially dropped Takagi. A few seconds later, another heavy leg kick grounded his opponent for good. Pouncing on a hurt Takagi, Taira flattened him out and landed successive strikes to the head before the fight was mercifully stopped. Another first-round finish.
Due to the outburst of the Coronavirus pandemic, Taira wouldn't fight again for an entire calendar year.
At the back-end of 2020, Taira made his much-anticipated return against former two-time Shoot Flyweight champion and 40-fight veteran Kiyotaka Shimizu. This was by far Taira's toughest test to date. He had fought fighters with long careers but none of those had the wins and pedigree that Shimizu boasted. After all, Shimizu had fought a who's who of household names in Japan: Hiromasa Ougikubo, Yuki Motoya, Takeshi Kasugai, Yoshiro Maeda, and Takaki Soya to name a few.
Shimizu's explosiveness as the shorter fighter was something Taira dealt with flawlessly throughout the fight. By enacting his usual patient striking style, Taira's leg kicks worked to slow Shimizu down and reduce his landing power. The quick right straight to the body, combined with quick jabs, worked to keep Shimizu at a distance. Whenever Shimizu did manage to close the distance, Taira would simply circle away.
In the second round, Taira punished Shimizu's attempt to close the distance by shooting for a double leg takedown in the middle of the cage. Up until this point, we knew that Taira had an array of submissions in his arsenal but hadn't seen him really take an opponent's back. He immediately hopped on Shimizu's back and started to work for a rear-naked choke.
Shimizu had never been submitted in his career and escaped two submission attempts that, for a second, looked as though they were about to put him to sleep. While Taira didn't manage to pull off the feat, he drowned Shimizu for the entire round with an exhaustive display of grappling: constantly transitioning, landing strikes, and hunting for the submission.
When Taira gets his opponents to the mat, it's always with the intention of finishing them. Don't confuse his patience on the feet with that of a man lacking killer instinct. Taira ended the final round on top landing strike after strike on Shimizu as the bell concluded the fight. Despite a dominant and largely flawless display, Taira's first action was to shout out of frustration and immediately circle the cage bowing in apology to the fans.
After handing one JMMA veteran a loss, Taira set his sights on another in Yoshiro Maeda. Maeda, 38-18-3 at the time, had fought around the world. Most notably, he was a 3-fight WEC veteran who had fought the likes of Rani Yahya and Miguel Torres in the United States. In Japan, Maeda had fought under the PRIDE and DREAM banners in addition to smaller promotions. Masakazu Imanari, Chase Beebe, Bibiano Fernandes, Kleber Koike Erbst, Takafumi Otsuka, Masanori Kanehara and many others had shared the cage with Maeda.
If Shimizu had been Taira's toughest opponent to date, Maeda was about to one-up that. Or so we thought. Within the space of 61 seconds, Taira was back to finishing ways.
As Maeda looked to close the distance, Taira landed a check right hook, knee and another right hook that staggered the veteran. Capitalising on his wobbled legs, Taira circled behind Maeda and backpacked him. While he never managed to submit Shimizu, Taira ensured Maeda wouldn't escape from him. Locking in a body triangle, Taira dragged the backpack position to the ground and put Maeda to sleep - the first time he had been submitted in seven years.
A legitimately brutal finish that would grant Taira a shot at the Shooto Flyweight belt at just 21 years of age.
Capturing Gold and Leaving Japan
In July 2021, Taira became the youngest Flyweight champion in Shooto history. He did so in a truly emphatic manner with less than 30 seconds left of the first round. It was an amalgamation of his best moves that granted him the victory.
Taira landed a leg kick on then-champion Ryuya Fukuda who was riding a 3-fight winning streak. Fukuda returned fire but Taira read the kick, caught it, and initiated a grappling exchange against the fence. Patented body lock takedown? Check. Ground and pound to break his opponent's guard? Check. Slithering into top mount to work in the triangle choke? Check. First-round submission? Check. Taira had won the belt in an almost identical fashion to his professional MMA debut.
To cap off an unforgettable 2021, Taira fought at Vale Tudo Japan against Alfredo Muaiad. The Chilean brawler was 6-2 in Latin America and very much a showcase fight for Taira. It would also be his final fight in Japan. Most Shooto champions have contract clauses that extend by an extra fight every time they defend their title. Taira and his team, however, smartly negotiated a contract that excluded this clause. As such, Taira was free to fight whoever and leave the promotion whenever he desired.
Making quick work of Muaiad, Taira dispatched the Chilean with a rear-naked choke after rocking him on the feet with a right hook. Yet another first-round finish.
Two months later, Taira joined Iridium Sports Agency and signed to the UFC (5th Feb 2022). He is one of only four Japanese fighters under contract with the promotion.
Can Taira Win In His UFC Debut?
This weekend, Taira will enter the UFC octagon to face off against Candelario who also makes his debut off the back of the Contender Series. Though he lost his contender series bout against Victor Altamirano, UFC president Dana White presented him with a contract due to his performance.
Candelario is an exciting striker who has started to fall in love with his wrestling and grappling. On the feet, his nickname, "Cannon", certainly suits his style. He fights like he's just been shot out of one. High pace and high volume are the keys to his striking game.
However, Candelario has shown some suspect defence on the feet that leads to him getting hit quite a bit. Against a fighter in Taira whose whole striking game is built around finding holes in his opponent's defence, the fight could get ugly quick for Candelario. Especially when you consider how heavily he gassed against Altamirano in the final round of their fight. Taira's grappling is exhaustive and the finishes are never forced. if he can establish the top control early, Taira could very well drain Candelario's cardio.
The biggest question mark over Taira is how he will cope with adversity. Candelario is all action on the feet and on the ground. If he clips Taira or if he's the one who ends up in top control, no one knows how Taira will fare or recover. In all of his professional fights, Taira has beat the brakes off every single opponent he has faced. In his two fights that went the distance, he didn't lose a single round. When fighters are routinely dominant, you start to wonder how they will look when their backs are against the wall. As the second youngest fighter in the organisation, Taira won't be short of confidence at the start. It'll be interesting to see how that confidence holds up if Candelario can establish his usual chaotic style.
Irrespective of the outcome on Saturday, Taira will undoubtedly be a staple of the UFC's Flyweight division for years to come. An exciting prospect with a serious killer instinct, especially when the fight ends up on the mat. Training at Xtreme Couture will only contribute to a more refined skill-set as he ages, especially when you consider some of the other 125'ers he can drill with: former champion Brandon Moreno, surging contender Amir Albazi and JP Buys among others.
From Okinawa to the octagon, Taira's set to make a big splash in the UFC.