Underappreciated and unbeaten, Fujii can make history Thursday

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There are 22 reasons most mixed martial arts observers consider Megumi Fujii the finest female fighter on the planet. Thursday night the 36-year-old Japanese darling, all 115 pounds of her, expects that number to grow by one. By first-round submission, no less.

"When I got my 21st win people started to mention that if I got my 22nd win it would be MMA's first 22-fight win streak," Fujii said Wednesday with the help of a translator. "That's when I started accepting and recognizing that I am the best female fighter in the world."

Win 22, a slick armbar submission against Lisa Ward, set Fujii up for the most important bout of her impressive, underappreciated career, which began in 2004 and has unfolded at a steady clip ever since. Opposite Fujii in the finals of Bellator's inaugural tournament for women competing at 115 pounds, California's Zoila Frausto (9-1) has an opportunity to accomplish something no other woman has done: defeat Mega Megu.

What makes Fujii so good, say, compared to the better-known Strikeforce 145-pound champion Cristiane "Cyborg" Santos?

"I'm better at balancing my striking and grappling, putting it all together," Fujii said without hesitation. "I'm probably better at that than Cyborg."

While Fujii has just one stoppage win to her name, a technical knockout in her first Bellator bout this summer, she fights with an aggressive elegance that's beautiful to watch. Eighteen times in 22 fights Fujii's hand was raised following some form or choke or joint lock. It's an incredible ratio, one rooted in early exposure to grappling and submissions from her judo-trained father.

"I trained in Russian sambo, wrestling, Brazilian jiu-jitsu and I did a lot of grappling martial arts," she said. "I wanted to put all the techniques together and to do that I had to fight MMA. I just wanted to see what happens."

While the majority of her impressive career has unfolded in Japan, the opportunity to regularly compete on American soil has provided her a chance at the sort of exposure she's never enjoyed before. Hardcore fans know her and adore her. But even as her male counterparts reached mainstream and even iconic status in her homeland during last decade's MMA boom, Fujii was left to toil with the other women on small promotions, some featuring awkward gender-biased rules differences like shorter rounds and restrictions on the amount of time they could grapple.

"I do think there's something cultural about it," Fujii said when asked about the differences of fighting in Japan or the U.S. "They seem to like the male fighters more than the female fighters in Japan. But there are a lot of female fighters, even though the male fighters are more popular."

Competing in the U.S., said Fujii, "seems to bring more recognition for me."

It's well deserved. As she approaches the back end of her career, Fujii admits like any athlete she's not able to do things physically she once could. Her body doesn't hold up as well to the rigors of training and fighting -- she said it was "really difficult" to fight four times in six month as part of the demanding Bellator tournament -- as it did when she began six years ago. She said she compensated by "getting more skills. I'm getting more techniques." In part that's a result of her training with the likes of heavyweight Josh Barnett, who will corner Fujii tonight at the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Hollywood, Fla. "It's really been satisfying for me."

Fujii has excelled to the point where some have wondered where she would rank in a gender-neutral pound-for-pound, if such a thing existed. Acknowledging the physiological differences of men and women, it's hard to argue that Fujii's success against her peers and the skills she displays aren't worthy of mention alongside the likes of Anderson Silva, Georges. St. Pierre and Jose Aldo.

"I can't quite compare myself to male fighters because they have different fighters and different strengths," She said. "But if I could compare myself to the men, I think do I rank fairly high."

A win over Frausto on Thursday night (Fox Sports Net, check local listings) would make Fujii the first mixed martial artist to carry 23 wins against zero losses.

"I will submit her in the first round," Fujii predicted.

"I don't have any belts but people recognize me as the top female pound-for-pound fighter in the world," she said. "If I win the tournament I can truly be recognized as No. 1 in the world."