The past year has been a return to form for Japanese combat sports. The return of K-1, evolution of Pancrase and success of foreign and domestic promotions has opened what seems to be a renewed sense that Japanese martial arts will once again rise to the highest levels of the sporting world. The athletes themselves have made some of the biggest contributions to this revival.

As 2015 closes, an original promotion debuts with a new concept for the world of mixed martial arts. The former executive of the once powerful Pride Fighting Championships, Nobuyuki Sakakibara, is returning to the world of martial arts with a new idea. The idea is to gather all of the world’s best fighters under one banner, not under one promotion, but a federation where promotions from around the world will send their best athletes to compete on a world stage. The goal is similar to that of the Olympics or World Cup, to feature the best athletes from around the sporting world under one stage, The Rizin Fighting World Grand Prix. A goal that Sakakibara hopes to develop into a tradition lasting many years into the future.

Despite the lofty goals already set for the promotion’s future, the first Rizin Fighting Federation event will be held at the Saitama Super Arena in Tokyo, Japan on Tuesday, Dec 29. The Saraba Festival (Farewell Festival) will mark the first of two events scheduled for the days leading up to Japan’s honored tradition of holding high level martial arts on New Year’s Eve. The Expo and events feature many of the greatest Japanese fighters to ever set foot in a ring or cage, giving much to the idea that this upstart promotion is trending towards success.

One of Japan’s fighting legends returns to MMA competition for the first time in over four years. Kazushi Sakuraba is one of the pioneer’s of not only Japanese MMA, but his fights with the famous Gracie family changed the course of the sport forever. Sakuraba spent his years following a successful collegiate wrestling career learning how to fight under the tutelage of Nobuhiko Takada. Sakuraba developed fighting skills while working his way up the promotional ladder in the Japanese professional wrestling world. The young fighter would get an opportunity to fight for real when he replaced fellow pro-wrestler Hiromitsu Kanehara in the UFC: Ultimate Japan heavyweight tournament on Dec 21, 1997. Sakuraba would face Brazilian Marcus Silveira in a bout that would become infamous for the referee John McCarthy’s mistake. McCarthy stopped the bout prematurely when Sakuraba attempted a takedown and looked to have stopped moving. McCarthy eventually reversed the decision to a no-contest, the bout was rescheduled for the championship bout later in the night when “Tank” Abbott had to pull out of the finals with an injury. Sakuraba didn’t leave it in the hands of the judges, snatching the Brazilian’s arm to get his hand raised for the first of many times to come.

Sakuraba changed the way that grappling was perceived in the sport in the years to come. Sakuraba took Pride FC by storm, earning victories over UFC champions Carlos Newton and Vitor Belfort on his way to his most famed matches with the Gracie family. Sakuraba locked up four-time world jiu-jitsu champion Royler Gracie’s right arm in a kimura from half guard. Gracie scrambled to get his right butterfly hook inside Sakurba’s left thigh, but the Japanese fighter sat down on Royler’s left leg and continued to crank the submission when the referee called a halt to the bout. In what was considered a verbal submission, Sakuraba defeated the much more decorated grappler with a move that famed judoka Masahiko Kimura used to defeat Royler’s father Helio Gracie in a famous Gracie Challenge match in 1951.

Sakuraba faced three-time UFC tournament winner Royce Gracie in the quarterfinals of the Pride FC 2000 Grand Prix. The 90-minute match was a grueling affair that cemented Sakuraba’s nickname of the “Gracie Hunter.” Throughout the six, 15-minute rounds Sakuraba was able to avoid prolonged grappling exchanges and land devastating strikes. The special rules tailored for the Gracie fighter proved detrimental as Sakuraba’s wrestling, athleticism and conditioning played against the once dominant Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu of Royce. The bout came to a halt when Royce’s brother Rorion threw in the towel with his father Helio in the corner. The Gracie family’s defeat at the hands of Sakuraba would once again attempt to be avenged by a Gracie family member.

Sakuraba faced Renzo Gracie at Pride FC 10 in the same year. With Renzo locked onto Sakuraba’s back near the ground, Sakuraba locked on his famous reverse ude-garami and fell to the mat. Renzo attempted to get back to his feet and free his arm, the manuever however, cost him. Sakuraba broke the hold on Renzo’s left arm following the two fighters making their way to the feet. Sakuraba immediately spun for the submission, forcing Renzo to desperately fall to his back where Sakuraba expertly passed across his body and took hold of the top position. The damage was done, Renzo’s arm had clearly snapped, but it took Sakuraba informing the referee that he had injured his opponent to call an end to the bout. Sakuraba would defeat Renzo’s brother, the late Ryan Gracie, at Pride FC 12. The legacy of Sakuraba would forever be entrenched in the culture of Japanese martial arts.

In the main event of the evening, the aforementioned Sakuraba returns to face one of the best Japanese MMA fighters competing today, Shinya Aoki. Aoki has compiled wins over some of the best fighters in the world over his 12-year fighting career. The current ONE Championship lightweight champion has earned titles in Shooto and DREAM with victories over current and former top-10 fighters like Eddie Alvarez, Tatsuya Kawajiri, Gesias Cavalcante, Joachim Hansen, Caol Uno and many more. The grappling specialist can further his claim as one of the best submission artists in MMA with a win over the Japanese icon Sakuraba.

The first day of the Rizin Fighting World Grand Prix will feature the quarterfinals of the eight-man 100-kilogram tournament. The eight tournament participants have qualified or been chosen to represent their promotions in the tournament featuring fighters from eight different countries around the world. Representatives hail from Bellator MMA, Jungle Fight, Konfrontacja Sztuk Walki (KSW), BAMMA, Bushido Europe and Gladiator Championship Fighting (GCF). The tournament features a number of former and current champions with the most notable fighters being 2008 Olympic gold medalist Satoshi Ishii, former Strikeforce light heavyweight champion Muhammed “King Mo” Lawal and former KSW light heavyweight champion Goran Reljić. Karate world champion Yuta Uchida makes his MMA debut against Russian combat sambo specialist Valentin Modavsky in the tournament’s reserve match.

Heavy hitting featherweights clash as DREAM featherweight champion Hiroyuki “The Streetfight Bancho” Takaya takes on Road to UFC: Japan reality television show participant Daiki “DJ.taiki” Hata. Takaya brings with him 14 knockout victories in 20 career wins against the ever-exciting former DEEP bantamweight champion. Takaya and “DJ.taiki” will surely put on a show for the Japanese audience.

One of Japan’s most loved fighters Hideo Tokoro returns to fighting on New Year’s Eve for the first time in four years. Tokoro has been exciting Japanese audiences with his aggressive grappling and striking style for over 15 years. The DREAM Japanese Bantamweight GP winner looks to get back on the winning track after three straight losses, his most recent to L.C. Davis in a fight of the year contender at Bellator 135. Tokoro will face 26-year-old kickboxer-turned-MMA fighter Kizaemon Saiga. The former K-1 fighter with 15 wins and only six defeats is undefeated in his early MMA career having won two bouts under the Pancrase banner, making his debut in Oct 2014.

Bellator MMA representatives A.J. Matthews and James Thompson meet opponents with different paths in martial arts. Matthews takes on 25-year-old Russian prospect Anatoly Tokov while Thompson takes on Japanese MMA pioneer Tsuyoshi Kosaka. Tokov has won 14 fights in a row, finishing nine of his opponents along the way. Matthews is a 27-year-old American prospect who has put together two wins in a row after a career setback following Bellator’s reality show, Fight Master. Expect a hungry Matthews after a move to Phuket Top Team for this bout.

Kosaka last fought over nine years ago against UFC veteran Mark Hunt at Pride Total Elimination Absolute in the opening round of the Pride FC Openweight Grand Prix. Kosaka has proved to be an entrepeneur since, developing fighters of his own at the ALLIANCE gym in Tokyo including new Pancrase light flyweight champion Kento Kanbe. Thompson has fought all over the world in his 12-year career. Despite a loss in his last bout to Bobby Lashley at Bellator 145, Thompson has won five of his last six bouts heading into this clash with the former Pride and UFC veteran Kosaka.

The ever-popular 2008 K-1 Koshien Youth tournament champion Hiroya Kawabe made his K-1 debut at the age of 15. The 2014 KRUSH 65-kg GP champion has fought many of the best fighters his division has to offer, even fighting in the famed Rajadamnern stadium in Bangkok, Thailand. HIROYA takes on Road to UFC: Japan participant Akiyo “Wicky” Nishiura in a kickboxing rules match. Nishiura has fought many of the best MMA fighters in Japan during eleven year career. Nishiura fought to a draw with Lion Fight and WBC Muay Thai champion Tetsuya Yamato in 2010.

In a special rules match, one of Japan’s best 70-kilogram kickboxers, Hinata Watanabe, takes on 2000 Olympic freestyle wrestler Kazuyuki Miyata. Hinata is currently on of of the best runs of his career, holding wins over current or former top-10 fighters Andy Souwer, Josh Jauncey and Artur Kyshenko. The 29-year-old will have to fend off the takedowns of Miyata in this special rules, part kickboxing, part MMA match. Miyata is on a three-fight winning streak heading into the contest.

The first event of the three-day Rizin Fighting Federation expo will air live at 1 a.m. ET in Russia on MatchTV. The event will be broadcast on Spike TV in the United States on tape delay.

Fight Card Predictions
Fight Prediction
OW: Kazushi Sakuraba (26-16-2) vs Shinya Aoki (38-6) Aoki by decision
Rizin GP Quarterfinal: Satoshi Ishii (14-4-1) vs Jiří Procházka (14-2-1) Ishii by decision
Rizin GP Quarterfinal: Goran Reljić (15-5) vs Vadim Nemkov (3-0) Reljić by decision
Rizin GP Quarterfinal: Teodoras Aukštuolis (7-2) vs Bruno Cappelozza (7-3) Cappelozza by first-round knockout
Rizin GP Quarterfinal: Muhammed “King Mo” Lawal (16-4) vs Brett McDermott (5-2) Lawal by first-round knockout
Rizin GP Quarterfinal Reserve Bout: Valentin Moldavsky (2-0) vs Yuta Uchida (0-0) Uchida by first-round knockout
FW: Hiroyuki Takaya (20-11-2) vs Daiki Hata (17-9-7) Takaya by decision
BW: Hideo Tokoro (32-28-2) vs Kizaemon Saiga (2-0) Tokoro by first-round submission
WW: AJ Matthews (8-3) vs Anatoly Tokov (21-2) Tokov by first-round submission
Mixed Rules 70-kg: Kazuyuki Miyata (14-9) vs Hinata Watanabe (36-15-1) Hinata by decision
Kickboxing 65-kg: Akiyo Nishiura (1-2-1) vs Hiroya Kawabe (28-13) Hiroya by third-round knockout
FlyW: Yuki Motoya (15-4) vs Felipe Efrain (9-2) Motoya by first-round submission
HW: Carlos Toyota (6-7-1) vs Kirill Sidelnikov (7-4) Sidelnikov by first-round knockout
HW: Tsuyoshi Kosaka (26-18-2) vs James Thompson (20-15) Kosaka by first-round knockout

About The Author

Zach Aittama
Staff Writer

Zach Aittama became a fan of martial arts at an early age. Hooked on the sport after one experience, Zach started training Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and Muay Thai as a teenager. Watching the sport only increased his interest, building a fascination for combat sports around the globe. Years of training and amateur bouts later, Zach continues to train while working and attending school full-time. Zach started writing for Fight Sport Asia in 2014 and joined the Combat Press staff in July of 2015.

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