Yoshihiro Akiyama turned 39 years old this summer. It’s been more than two years since he’s fought professionally -- and more than five since he’s won a fight.
He’s not really in a position to ask for anything. But if he were, he says he’d aim high.
“If I could have chosen anyone to fight [this weekend], it would be the champion,” Akiyama told ESPN.com through a translator. “That would be great.”
Akiyama (13-5) returns to the Octagon on Saturday, for the first time since February 2012. He will meet Amir Sadollah on a UFC Fight Night card in Saitama, Japan. The event will air in the U.S. on Fight Pass, the UFC’s Internet subscription service.
With no disrespect to Sadollah (6-4), one might have thought it would have taken a bigger name opponent to lure Akiyama out of a 31-month layoff. Akiyama, however, says he never considered retirement and just accepted the first bout he was offered.
“It was always the expectation that I would participate in the UFC again,” Akiyama said. “I never say 'no' to any decision made by the UFC. I respect any path the UFC has chosen for me.
"Regarding Amir, he is powerful and I’m quite looking forward to it.”
To the U.S. fan base, it might seem that Akiyama disappeared after he dropped out of a fight against Thiago Alves at UFC 149 in July 2012. A knee injury forced him from the card and eventually snowballed into a long layoff.
In Japan, where Akiyama resides, it’s far different. The former judoka turned model and mixed martial artist is never far from the spotlight. He models regularly and appears on several television shows -- mostly of the reality genre and not linked to fighting.
Akiyama says he trained regularly during his layoff, and other than the knee, he affirms his health has been fine. He visited Las Vegas late last year to train at Xtreme Couture, mostly to be near UFC headquarters. He attended UFC 167 in November.
In his last fight, the UFC persuaded Akiyama to drop from middleweight (185 pounds max) to welterweight (170) after suffering three losses in a row at middleweight. Now two years older, it would not have been a shock to see him back at middleweight for this fight, but he’s committed to 170.
“This feels like it’s actually the best weight for me,” said Akiyama, who said he got up to 198 pounds during the break. "I've consulted a trainer, and the weight loss really hasn't been too difficult."
One opponent who might change his mind and send him back to 185 pounds is former Pride middleweight champion and UFC veteran Wanderlei Silva, who is facing a possible suspension in Nevada for skipping a random drug test.
Akiyama, who UFC president Dana White once said turned down another fight offer because he wanted to fight only Silva, was not aware of the commission issues Silva is facing but said it doesn’t change his desire to fight him at some point.
“Yes, I still want to fight Wanderlei Silva,” Akiyama said. “I’ve been very fond of him in terms of his skills and everything about his fights. We’re on the same stage, so yes, I want to fight him. Nothing changes my mind about that.”
Of course, first comes Sadollah on Saturday -- the matchup the UFC wanted. If Akiyama looks good, perhaps he will be in a position to make requests for his next fight.
“I’m definitely still aiming to be a champion,” Akiyama said.