Tatsuya Kawajiri (Taro Irei/Sherdog)

Rizin FF 2017 in Yokohoma: Sakura Preview and Predictions

“I want to bring world-class fighting back to Japan” — Kyoji Horiguchi

That’s exactly what the top-five flyweight will be doing when he makes his much-anticipated debut at Rizin 2017 in Yokohoma: Sakura on April 16.

The main event features Japanese MMA legend Tatsuya Kawajiri looking to defend his country’s honor against UFC veteran Anthony Birchak. Kawajiri makes his return to Rizin after a disappointing debut against highly skilled grappler Kron Gracie on last year’s New Year’s Eve event. Birchak is out to prove the UFC brass wrong — the company cut him following a victory over Dileno Lopes at UFC Fight Night 90.


The aforementioned Horiguchi puts his ranking on the line against surging Japanese flyweight Yuki Motoya. Horiguchi was unexpectedly cut from the UFC following seven wins and just one loss inside the Octagon. The former Deep champion Motoya has won 15 of his past 16.

Undefeated Japanese kickboxing phenom Tenshin Nasukawa returns to MMA in a quest for his third career win. He goes up against Italian striker Francesco Ghigliotti. Nasukawa is a highly decorated kickboxer with 18 wins, no losses, and 14 knockouts. He picked up the Combat Press Kickboxing “Knockout of the Year” award for his victory over Lumpinee stadium champion Wanchalong as an 18-year-old.

There are several other key bouts on the evening’s card. Four-time shootboxing S-Cup champion Rena Kubota puts her undefeated record on the line against Hungarian striker Dóra Perjés. 2008 Olympic gold medalist judoka Satoshi Ishii meets Pride and UFC veteran Heath Herring. Former PXC and Shooto champion Yusuke Yachi goes to war against UFC veteran Daron Cruickshank. In the opening bout of the evening, the 23-year-old Zst flyweight champion Seiichiro Ito takes on K-1 star Kizaemon Saiga.

The pay-per-view event, which costs $14.99 for purchase, airs live at 2 a.m. ET on Sunday, April 15, on Combat Press via FITE TV.

Featherweights Tatsuya Kawajiri and Anthony Birchak headline this event. Both men have experienced rough stretches since they signed on with the UFC — Kawajiri went 3-3 inside the Octagon and lost his first post-UFC fight with Rizin, and Birchak went 2-2 with the UFC. Birchak faced the more odd UFC release: he was coming off a win when the UFC let him go. Does Birchak prove the UFC was wrong to let him go, or does Kawajiri right his ship at Birchak’s expense?

Kawajiri is truly one of the legends of Japanese MMA. He made his name fighting up the Shooto ranks in the early 2000’s, but he didn’t burst onto the map until he knocked out Vitor “Shaolin” Ribeiro to win the Shooto welterweight world title in 2004. He signed with Pride’s newly added lightweight division following the win to compete against some of the best lightweights in the world. Kawajiri was a top-10 fighter long before the UFC brought back the lightweight division at UFC 63. So, to judge his career on his recent UFC doesn’t feel right. We’re talking about a fighter with more professional wins than Conor McGregor has fights. “The Crusher” didn’t sign with the UFC until he was 36 years old, well past the prime of his career. Yet, Kawajiri picked up three wins in his Octagon run, including a top-15 victory over Dennis Siver and a decision win against Jason Knight. His three losses under the UFC banner were against top-10 fighters Cub Swanson, Clay Guida and Dennis Bermudez. His last UFC appearance against Swanson was up for grabs in the final round of the fight. With all that in mind, we can’t really say Kawajiri had a disappointing UFC run. He is one of the best lightweights in MMA history, but he doesn’t quite get appreciated for it because most of his major accomplishments happened on the other side of the world.

Birchak doesn’t have the storied history of Kawajiri, but the Arizona native proved he is a solid fighter with his work on the regional scene before the UFC came calling. The former Maximum Fighting Championship titleholder won’t back down from a fight, which has led him to many of his wins in his nearly eight-year career. The 30-year-old has finished nine of his 12 career wins, with his biggest victories coming against UFC fighters Joe Soto and Ryan Benoit. His back-and-forth barnburner with Benoit will go down as one of the crowning achievements of Birchak’s career, but a win over Kawajiri would be the biggest. Birchak is a well-rounded former champ with a knack for exciting fights, as evidenced by his exciting one-round slugfest with Thomas Almeida. He went down in the fight in devastating fashion, but he bounced back from his Nelmarking at the hands of Almeida in his next fight against Brazilian prospect Dileno Lopes at UFC Fight Night 90. Birchak was another casualty of the UFC’s far-reaching roster changes. This will be his first opportunity to get back to the dance with a win over a legend of the sport.

Kawajiri’s list of victims is far too long to name, but his 35 career wins feature top former UFC lightweights Yves Edwards, Caol Uno and Josh Thomson, among others. Kawajiri is an excellent wrestler with one of the best top control games in the division. He is a well-rounded fighter who likes to test his opponents on the feet and the mat. He has finished 22 of his 35 wins, with 12 of those finishes coming by way of knockout. The speed has gone away as he has aged, but his wrestling ability is still at a high level. Kron Gracie was able to submit Kawajiri in his Rizin debut. Gracie is by far the least experienced fighter to defeat Kawajiri. However, the match-up was absolutely terrible for the Japanese fighter because of Gracie’s high-level submission and grappling ability. Kawajiri’s chances of victory significantly increase when he takes on Birchak instead of one of the best grapplers in the world.

Birchak is an all-out action fighter who is going to pressure from the opening bell. He has nothing to lose in this match-up as he makes his Rizin debut on enemy territory against one of Japan’s darling athletes. Birchak doesn’t want to get taken down and controlled by Kawajiri, which could potentially make him more reserved in the bout, but I actually believe the opposite is going to happen. Birchak will push the pace and make Kawajiri work. In Kawajiri’s last few fights, the Japanese fighter has visibly slowed and hasn’t shown the best decision-making skills on the feet. There are some openings Birchak can take advantage of because he will be the much faster fighter on Sunday night. My heart is telling me Kawajiri is going to return to form, but Birchak is a dangerous opponent should he stay off of his back. Kawajiri should ultimately pull out the victory here, but don’t be surprised to see Birchak get a finish within the 20 minutes he has to work.

It would be surprising to see the UFC go after Kawajiri again, but Birchak could be on the promotion’s radar with a win or two. He has made it well known he is going to Tokyo with the intentions of bringing back the winner’s trophy. He has taken to social media and made his rounds in the MMA media to get the fans excited to see him fight. His work marketing himself will go much further if he can get the win over Kawajiri. However, Birchak is making all of the right moves even if he faces a tough obstacle in Japan on Sunday. As for Kawajiri, win or lose, he will retire as a legend of the sport.

Kyoji Horiguchi was another confounding UFC release. He went 7-1 inside the Octagon, but now he lands in Rizin for a fight against Yuki Motoya. Does Horiguchi continue to prove he’s one of the best 125-pounders in the world?

The UFC’s decision to let Horiguchi walk earlier this year is truly dumbfounding. This is a fighter who not only always brings excitement to the cage, but he wins against everyone he faces except for the pound-for-pound best fighter in the world. In what world does it make sense to release one of the top three fighters in a division? Should the UFC release Stephen Thompson because he failed to take the welterweight title from Tyron Woodley in his two attempts? He couldn’t possibly fight anyone else in the division? Right?!

Other than the initial shock of Horiguchi’s release, it showed where the UFC brass sits on potentially highly paid free agents getting resigned. They won’t. The UFC has let some of its top fighters walk over the past year in order to combat rising fighter pay for fighters who don’t have much to offer in the marketing department. Call it what you want, but the UFC is losing talented fighters like Rory MacDonald, Ryan Bader, Lorenz Larkin and others because the promotion puts the brand above the fighters. Since the sale of the UFC in 2016, the new ownership has been cutting costs across the board. Fighters, staff and the fans have taken a hit because of this, but it is not all doom and gloom. Opening up the competition through free agency will inevitably help the likes of Bellator, Rizin and Absolute Championship Berkut. Fighters are starting to have options if the pay doesn’t match their skill set, which in turn spreads the talent around the world. The excellent marketing tool that is the “UFC veteran” label will help the smaller shows continue to grow, especially in areas where the UFC has dropped the ball, such as Japan and Asia.

This is where Horiguchi comes in. He is without a doubt one of the best flyweights in the world. Depending on where you place Henry Cejudo in the rankings, the argument could be made that Horiguchi is the No. 3 flyweight in the world behind UFC champion Demetrious “Mighty Mouse” Johnson and Joseph Benavidez. In his incredible UFC run, Horiguchi picked up wins over Ali Bagautinov, Neil Seery, Chico Camus, Louis Gaudinot and Darrell Montague. The 26-year-old’s blend of speed, skill and talent garnered him a shot at Johnson’s belt after just four fights in the promotion. Horiguchi succumbed to a last-second armbar submission at the hands of Mighty Mouse, but Johnson was incredibly hesitant to stand with Horiguchi over the nearly 25-minute affair. Johnson tore apart top contenders Cejudo and Benavidez in under one round, but Horiguchi was able to surprise Johnson with his speed and timing on the feet. Horiguchi finished out his UFC career on a three-fight winning streak, but a difference in opinions on his worth brings him back to Japan.

Before Horiguchi made his UFC debut, he was unquestionably the best Japanese bantamweight outside of the promotion. He held wins over champions Shintaro Ishiwatari, Hiromasa Ogikubo, Yuta Nezu and Manabu Inoue, with his lone loss coming against Shooto champion and Bellator veteran Masakatsu Ueda. The karateka began his martial-arts journey as a five-year-old and he fell in love with MMA when he watched the early days of Pride and K-1 as a teenager. Horiguchi followed in the path of his eventual mentor, Norifumi “Kid” Yamamoto, and became one of the best prospects in Japanese MMA. After seven years of nearly flawless performances, the 26-year-old may be the best fighter to ever come out of Japan.

Motoya is looking to prove otherwise. While Horiguchi was making his name fighting in Shooto, Motoya was working his way up the ladder in the rival Deep organization. Motoya didn’t find the early success Horiguchi was able to achieve, but he has since rattled off an incredible 15 wins in his last 16 outings. The former Deep flyweight kingpin never lost his belt, instead vacating the title for his desires to compete against the best fighters in Rizin. The 27-year-old was considered the top flyweight in Japan in Horiguchi’s absence.

Horiguchi made strides in his game after traveling to some of the best gyms in the United States. He made a stop at American Kickboxing Academy before his fight with Mighty Mouse, but he made his home at American Top Team under coach Mike Thomas Brown. Horiguchi evolved from a dynamic striker into a complete mixed martial artist. His improvements in wrestling, grappling and overall fight IQ were apparent after just a few months of training. He will need every bit of this training when he clashes with Motoya, a highly skilled grappler who makes his money by catching submissions in transition.

Motoya has continued to show marked improvements in his stand-up game, but his last outing against Allan Nascimento demonstrated just how skilled Motoya is in the ground game. Motoya won’t get many opportunities to get a hold of Horiguchi, but he needs to make every clinch, wrestling, or grappling exchange matter. This is much easier said than done against someone with Horiguchi’s tremendous improvements in his overall game.

Horiguchi dominated the wrestling exchanges in his last outing against top-10 opponent Bagautinov. What makes Horiguchi the odds-on favorite in this contest isn’t his well-rounded skill set or his striking ability, but his speed. Horiguchi is a naturally gifted athlete with some of the fastest attacks in the sport. He blends his karate background with a desire to throw heavy punches in boxing range to create a deadly combination of timing, distance and power. Horiguchi doesn’t get advertised as one of the biggest power punchers in the division, but he has knocked down or knocked out his opponents an astounding 19 times in 20 career fights. Horiguchi is truly dangerous in every phase of the game, which is why he will continue his run as one of the best flyweights in the world with a victory over Motoya.

This card stands out as a showcase for women’s atomweights. Rena Kubota and Dóra Perjés meet in a bout that will be contested at 108 pounds, while Saori Ishioka meets Bestare Kicaj and Kanna Asakura faces Aleksandra Toncheva at the typical Japanese atomweight limit of 106 pounds. Which three women emerge with victories, and who among them proves to be a top-10 or top-15 atomweight?

For the longest time, most of the world’s top female fighters resided in Japan. The first women’s bout was held in the early 1990s, well before the days of Gina Carano and Ronda Rousey. Megumi Fujii, the woman at the top of the sport for so long, is still considered to be one of the greatest female fighters to ever strap on the four-ounce gloves. Her run of 22 straight victories and 19 finishes to begin her career is still to this day one of the greatest resumes in the sport’s history. Many of the legends we know as pioneers of women’s MMA traveled to the land of the rising sun to compete against the best female competition in the world. The early days of women’s MMA in Japan truly began to flourish with the creation of all-female promotion Smackgirl more than 15 years ago and continued to grow with promotions like Valkyrie and Jewels.

The best female fighters in the world now reside in the western hemisphere with the addition of women’s divisions to the top promotion in the world, the UFC, and the creation of the top all-female mixed martial arts organization, Invicta Fighting Championships. Japan still produces some of the world’s top female martial artists, though, including Invicta atomweight champion Ayaka Hamasaki and top strawweight prospect Mizuki Inoue, but both women have since left Japan for bigger opportunities in the United States. The rest of the world has finally caught up to Japan’s concerted effort to build female athletes. However, the emphasis on women’s MMA has been resurrected in Japan with the growth of Rizin. The promotion signed talented fighters competing in other combat sports to compete under the Rizin banner in the hopes of building new stars for the Japanese audience. This plan to nurture homegrown fighters is starting to pay off with the successes of Shootboxing star Kubota and freestyle wrestling champion Kanako Murata.

The three fights on this event are a precursor to the future women’s atomweight grand prix that takes place in October.

Kubota, 25, is the queen of shootboxing. She is undefeated through three career MMA fights with three wins by way of stoppage, including an incredible flying armbar in her debut. She has an opportunity of a lifetime in her transition from striking arts to mixed martial arts. Kubota is one of the most popular fighters in Japan because of her dominance in the ring. The four-time S-Cup champ has yet to face high-level competition in her MMA career, but she already holds victories over top-10 atomweight “V.V” Mei Yamaguchi and former UFC fighter Seo Hee Ham under shootboxing rules. She also has victories over Japanese MMA legends Hisae Watanabe, Emi Fujino and Saori Ishioka.

To say the promotion has something special in Kubota is an understatement. She currently sits in the top-10 of the Combat Press Kickboxing rankings women’s pound-for-pound list. Her accomplishments in the shootboxing ring won’t be eclipsed by another fighter any time soon. She has some work to do in her MMA career, but she is making all of the right decisions. Kubota made the move to the Abe Ani Combat Club, which features the aforementioned Hamasaki, Inoue and Fujii. She has made vast improvements in her grappling since joining one of the top gyms in Japan. For now, Kubota doesn’t have the resume necessary to break into the top-10 at atomweight, but it is only a matter of time. She truly is one of the brightest prospects in the division, and with the help of a crew of legends, she has a chance to become one of the greats. Can she match Fujii’s incredible 22-fight winning streak to begin her career? Only time will tell, but she is on the right path.

The other Japanese fighters will have their hands raised in victory on Sunday as well.

Asakura lost to Alyssa Garcia in her Rizin debut, but she got back on track with a first-round submission victory over Natsuki Shimomakise at Deep Jewels 15 in February. Asakura, 19, has six wins in her professional career and three by way of submission. The Paraestra Matsudo fighter has already proven she is a talented fighter with a bright future ahead of her.

Asakura welcomes debuting Bulgarian prospect Toncheva to Japan. Toncheva impressed in her amateur career with two IMMAF European Open championships and three wins in a week to win the IMMAF strawweight world championship. Toncheva has finished five of her eight career wins, but she faces her stiffest test to date when she meets Asakura on Sunday. Asakura will be the smaller fighter, just like in her debut loss, but she has the submission skills to hand Toncheva her first loss.

Ishioka is a 10-year veteran of the sport with fights against some of the best in Japan. “Shooting Star” is a Jewels mainstay with 14 career victories. She never won a title inside the Jewels promotion, but she battled tough against some of the best competition the sport has to offer, including the aforementioned Ham and Fujii. Ishioka welcomes Switzerland’s Kicaj to the ring. Kicaj, 29, is a relative newcomer to the sport, but her record remains unblemished in three career fights. Ishioka is clearly the superior fighter with worlds more experience in the ring. Ishioka will lock up her 10th career stoppage win on her path to the Rizin women’s atomweight grand prix.

Which fight is the sleeper match-up on this card?

The fight with the most potential for fireworks is clearly the battle between UFC veteran Daron Cruickshank and former PXC and Shooto champion Yusuke Yachi, a pair of exciting strikers.

Cruickshank has taken on a new role in Rizin as a mustache-bearing, flag-waving, all-American known for his aggressive striking arsenal. The UFC alum picked up victories over former Shooto champ Shinji Sasaki and two-time K-1 MAX champion Andy Souwer in his first two fights under the Rizin banner. Cruickshank, 31, took a tough submission loss against current King of Pancrase and Deep champion Satoru Kitaoka in his last outing. However, he showed signs of life early in the fight. He was able to send Kitaoka crashing to the mat at one point in the first round. Cruickshank was cut from the UFC following three straight losses, all of which came by way of submission. However, “The Detroit Superstar” won’t need to worry too much about the ground game against the exciting Krazy Bee product Yachi.

Yachi, 26, burst onto the scene by winning the 2009 Shooto Rookie MVP award as a 19-year-old. The protege of Japanese MMA superstar Norifumi “Kid” Yamamoto, Yachi impressed in his early career with victories over Shooto champions Takeshi “Lion” Inoue and Akitoshi Tamura. He picked up wins over Kyle Reyes and Jang Yong Kim on his path to the PXC featherweight title. After a few victories inside the Pancrase organization, Yachi made his Rizin debut in spectacular fashion. It took just 19 seconds for the slick Japanese striker to put away Filipino Mario Sismundo with a knee. Now, the Japanese prospect gets the biggest opportunity of his career against the best opponent he has ever faced.

From the moment Cruickshank makes his over-the-top entrance to the ring, this fight is truly going to be celebrated by fans of the sport. Neither man will back down in striking exchanges, which makes this fight even more intriguing. Cruickshank’s downfall has always been the submission attack, but while Yachi does employ a well-rounded game, he is more than happy to oblige in a stand-up war with the karate-based American. The fists and feet will be flying early and often as both men have plenty to gain in the developing Rizin 70-kilogram division.

Fight Picks

Fight Pick
Main Card (Fite TV, 2 a.m. ET)
FW: Tatsuya Kawajiri vs. Anthony Birchak Kawajiri
HW: Amir Aliakbari vs. Geronimo Dos Santos Aliakbari
Catchweight (128 pounds): Kyoji Horiguchi vs. Yuki Motoya Horiguchi
Women’s Catchweight (108 pounds): Rena Kubota vs. Dóra Perjés Rena
FlyW: Tenshin Nasukawa vs. Francesco Ghigliotti Nasukawa
HW: Satoshi Ishii vs. Heath Herring Ishii
Women’s Catchweight (198 pounds): Reina Miura vs. Jazzy Gabert Reina
LW: Yusuke Yachi vs. Daron Cruickshank Yachi
Women’s AtomW: Saori Ishioka vs. Bestare Kicaj Ishioka
Women’s AtomW: Kanna Asakura vs. Aleksandra Toncheva Asakura
FlyW: Kizaemon Saiga vs. Seiichiro Ito Ito