New Year’s Eve is a special time for MMA. Even on American shores, it’s an excuse for a stacked evening of fights. In Japan, though, it’s extra special. Gone are the days of Pride’s extravagant shows, but the spirit lives on. The latest promotion to carry that torch is the Rizin Fighting Federation. The organization even takes it one step further by hosting a three-day festival that includes a two-night MMA event. This year’s show is the World Grand Prix 2017.
The Grand Prix takes place in the bantamweight division, where the field has been narrowed to eight men. These men will step into the ring on the first evening at 2nd Round, and the winners will have to make it through two fights on the second evening at Final Round in order to take the tournament championship.
The show also features a number of notable competitors, including Mirko “Cro Cop” Filipovic, Takanori Gomi, Gabi Garcia, Rena Kubota and more.
Combat Press writers Zach Aittama and Bryan Henderson preview the entire event in this edition of Toe-to-Toe.
Rizin’s three-day festival and two-night MMA event centers around the league’s bantamweight grand prix. The field is down to eight contestants — Kyoji Horiguchi, Gabriel Oliveira, Ian McCall, Manel Kape, Kevin Petshi, Shintaro Ishiwatari, Takafumi Otsuka and Khalid Taha — plus alternates Anthony Birchak and Je Hoon Moon. Which two fighters land in the finals? Who wins? Are any of the lesser-known fighters — Oliveira, Kape, Petshi and Taha — legitimate contenders to take home the tourney crown?
Aittama: The tournament field features a solid mix of top Japanese talent and rising prospects, including former UFC fighters Horiguchi and McCall. The four lesser-known fighters have shown the ability in their past fights to present some danger to their more experienced foes. The undefeated Brazilian prospect Oliveira took out Japanese MMA legend Tatsuya Kawajiri with a beautiful step knee in his Rizin debut. Unfortunately for Oliveira, he is up against the odds-on tournament favorite, Horiguchi. The former UFC title challenger, who walked away from the UFC following seven wins and just one loss in the promotion, has the skills to thwart Oliveira’s dangerous southpaw attacks.
The match-up that may be getting the most press is McCall’s Rizin debut against outspoken Portuguese fighter Kape. The 24-year-old Kape destroyed Erson Yamamoto in just over a minute in the opening round of the tournament. He doesn’t have the high-level experience just yet, but Kape is a well-polished fighter with a speed and physical advantage against almost everyone in the tournament field. He’s a live dog against the former No. 1-ranked flyweight, who hasn’t fought in nearly three years following a string of bad luck that led to six canceled UFC bouts between 2015 and 2017. If Kape pulls off the upset, he has a chance to cause some damage in the tournament. However, he would have to face Horiguchi in the semifinals.
Bantamweight King of Pancrase Ishiwatari has wins in 14 of his past 16 fights, with his only losses coming against UFC vets Horiguchi and Jonathan Brookins, who he also beat in a rematch. The Japanese veteran is underrated due to his lack of exposure outside of Japan, but he is the most talented fighter on his side of the bracket and is likely to make it to the final. Ishiwatari is tasked with taking out Petshi first. Petshi, 27, has won four straight, including submission wins in three of those bouts. Petshi struggled in his opening-round bout against the South Korean Moon, but pulled off the split-decision victory with his grappling. Ishiwatari will have a large advantage on the feet against the Frenchman, but Petshi has never been knocked out in his 16-fight professional career.
The final tournament quarterfinal features current Deep bantamweight and former featherweight champion Otsuka against undefeated German fighter Taha. Otsuka, who made his pro debut in 2006, is one of the longest-tenured fighters in the field. He has fought many of the best fighters Japan could offer. Primarily a grappler, Otsuka presents some major problems for Taha should he get the fight to the floor. Taha, 24, has a destructive, aggressive style that led to him finishing nine of his 11 career victories. Taha ran through Keita Ishibashi in the opening round, but he has only defeated one fighter with 10 wins or more. In this battle of veteran against prospect, experience is likely to win out.
The biggest question mark on the fight card is how McCall will perform against the self-proclaimed prodigy Kape. McCall was once considered the best flyweight in the world before the UFC ushered in the division. He even fought to a majority draw against Demetrious “Mighty Mouse” Johnson in the champion’s flyweight debut. Unfortunately for McCall, he has only won two fights in the past six years. Kape has the physical tools and improving skill set to beat McCall. This grudge match could produce one of the best fights of the tournament, but the scene has been set for an upset. Let’s not forget, Kape picked his opponent prior to the tournament, specifically walking into McCall’s bracket and getting in his face at the announcement presser.
On the other side of the bracket, Ishiwatari is the heavy favorite to make it to the finals. Petshi will test his defensive wrestling and submission defense, but Ishiwatari is the more well-rounded and experienced fighter. Taha will be a problem for Otsuka if the fight remains on the feet, but Otsuka is a highly skilled grappler with an ability to avoid damage, get takedowns, and work from top position. Otsuka can hold his own on the feet, but that’s a recipe for disaster against a powerful striker like Taha. Ishiwatari holds a win over Otsuka at the New Year’s Eve event in 2014. The Pancrase titleholder dismantled Otsuka on the feet and soccer-kicked his way to victory in the first round. Should the rematch happen in the Rizin ring, Ishiwatari holds all of the advantages.
This leads us to the finalists and a rematch four years in the making. In their first meeting, Ishiwatari dropped Horiguchi in the first 15 seconds of their fight and nearly finished him with a rear-naked choke. Horiguchi showed off his toughness in a back-and-forth battle where both fighters were at times hurt and seemingly out of the fight. Horiguchi pulled through the dangerous exchanges and scored a thrilling fifth-round knockout. The first fight was truly something special. Ishiwatari has been calling for a rematch ever since Horiguchi left the UFC. If the fight does come to fruition, expect fireworks from both fighters. Horiguchi is still one of the five best flyweights in the world, and despite being one of the smaller fighters in the tournament, he should be the man with his hand raised following the event.
Henderson: Oddly, the man my colleague picked to win the tournament is also the man who meets what is in my opinion the most dangerous opponent in the opening round of this two-night finale to the bantamweight tournament. Oliveira has a lot to contend with against the former UFC flyweight title contender, but his big win over Kawajiri and a string of victories over seasoned opponents across South America suggests that he’s a legitimate player in this tournament. While Kape could score a win over the injury-plagued McCall, it really depends on whether McCall’s health issues have drained him of his former elite abilities. Meanwhile, Oliveira can’t be counted out completely against a prime Horiguchi. If one fight has the potential for a stunning upset, it’s Oliveira’s clash with Horiguchi.
With that said, Horiguchi is likely to advance past his Brazilian counterpart and then top the winner of the fight between McCall and Kape. On the other side of the bracket, I, too, like Ishiwatari and Otsuka to advance. From there, Ishiwatari should add another victory over Otsuka and engage in a heated rematch with Horiguchi.
As noted earlier, Horiguchi already has a victory over Ishiwatari. Horiguchi belongs at flyweight, but he’s demonstrated his capability to conquer opponents at the bantamweight level as well. It’ll be a great rematch, but Horiguchi should indeed emerge as the victor.
The first night of action, dubbed 2nd Round, features plenty of non-tournament fights. Among the most notable names are Gabrielle Garcia and Reina Miura, two ladies who typically fight at or well above even the women’s lightweight class. Garcia fights Shinobu Kandori, and Miura scraps with Cindy Dandois. Will Garcia and Miura both emerge with victories?
Henderson: The biggest problem with Garcia and Miura is the ability for Rizin to find them legitimate opponents. These ladies instead act as freak-show fighters who often take on outsized and overmatched opponents.
In this case, Garcia draws the more obscure and overmatched opponent. Kandori is 53 years old and has not competed professionally since Y2-freaking-K. After a debut loss way back in 1995, Kandori did pick up four wins — she even avenged that initial loss — but we can only imagine the level of competition that existed way back then. Garcia, meanwhile, is a freakishly large athlete with a very strong Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu base. The 32-year-old has already topped Destanie Yarbrough and Yumiko Hotta, a fighter who actually lost to Kandori way back in the year 2000. If Garcia can’t put away Kandori, it would be a huge embarrassment for the California-based Brazilian.
Miura has a much tougher challenge on her hands. Her opponent, Dandois, is just 33 years old and has made the rounds to Invicta Fighting Championships, Cage Warriors and the UFC. Dandois typically fights as either a bantamweight or a featherweight, and she’s defeated the likes of Marloes Coenen, Maria Hougaard Djursaa, Sheila Gaff, Megan Anderson and Jessamyn Duke. She’s also come up short against Yana Kunitskaya, Tonya Evinger and Alexis Davis. Needless to say, Dandois is no slouch. Miura holds a victory over Shayna Baszler, but the 21-year-old has otherwise faced very low-level opponents. Miura might not be fortunate enough to emerge with the win in this one. Dandois, a skilled judoka and grappler, put the aforementioned Anderson away with a submission, and she might do the same to Miura.
Aittama: My colleague pretty much summed up why the only fighter they could get for Garcia has been on this planet for half a century. The women’s MMA landscape above 145 pounds is barren, let alone for a fighter who stands 6-foot-2 and weighs over 200 pounds. Even if the promotion can find fighters like the aforementioned Yarbrough or Lei’D Tapa for Garcia going forward, Garcia’s grappling level already places her well above almost every other fighter even close to her weight in the sport. Garcia may be in the position of ushering in new female challengers going forward, but all of her fights have taken place in Japan, which doesn’t exactly have the largest women training and competing in the sport. In fact, it’s usually the opposite: the smaller top-level fighters tend to be produced through the Japanese MMA scene.
Rizin is in the fighter-development business, but growing talented fighters in Garcia’s weight division across the world doesn’t exactly favor the company’s model of promotion or appeal to the Japanese audience, which is its sole market. What’s more likely is that Rizin will need to mine for potential opponents currently competing in other combat sports. The organization could potentially try to convert Japanese judo players Kanae Yamabe, Megumi Tachimoto and Maki Tsukada, or even a world-champion freestyle wrestler like Adeline Gray, Zhou Qian or Hiroe Suzuki. Ultimately, Rizin is likely to continue to feed overmatched opponents to Garcia because, honestly, there aren’t many girls around her weight that could compete with her. She’s a Fabio Gurgel black belt with multiple IBJJF and ADCC world championships. Even if the company brings over a high-level judoka or wrestler, Garcia has steadily developed her striking on the feet over the past three years. So to say there is a gap in talent and skill is a grave understatement. Kandori will be just another victim for Garcia.
As for the fight between Miura and Dandois, it is appropriate matchmaking for “King” Miura’s development as a fighter. She is in a similar position to Garcia in a way, since she fights at around 160 pounds. The division around her just doesn’t really exist, and certainly not on the highest level. However, Miura is at least closer to the rest of the female fighters in the world, so fighters like Dandois are willing to make the move up in weight to challenge her.
Miura is a good grappler with a strong top game and a knack for locking up armbar submissions. Dandois employs a similar game, but she is largely a one-dimensional fighter with a striking output that leaves much to be desired. Miura will be tested on the mat, which could lend to her using her developing striking skills against Dandois. The Belgian fighter has only ever lost to solid opponents and holds victories over combat-sports legends like the aforementioned Coenen and Jorina Baars. It’s likely she could wrap up a submission in a transition. However, Miura is a dangerous opponent who will likely outweigh Dandois by 15 or 20 pounds.
The second night of fights, dubbed Final Round, features Mirko “Cro Cop” Filipovic in a heavyweight showdown against Tsuyoshi Kosaka. Is Cro Cop capable of delivering another big win on the Japanese stage?
Aittama: Cro Cop is beyond capable of putting on a show against Kosaka. Filipovic has finished all of his past seven opponents, including six by way of knockout. The all-time heavyweight great has been through some ups and downs in his career, but even as a 43-year-old, he is still one of the best strikers in the heavyweight division. His destructive left high kick and accompanying punches have built one of the greatest highlight reels in the sport’s history. His resume truly speaks for itself — it includes victories over greats like Wanderlei Silva, Josh Barnett and Igor Vovchanchyn.
Cro Cop’s opponent, simply known as “TK,” is as tough as they come. Kosaka was one of the original great Japanese heavyweights. He came up under the RINGS promotion all the way back in 1995. The 47-year-old took a long hiatus from the sport following the downfall of Pride FC in 2006. As the head coach of ALLIANCE, Kosaka turned his efforts to his students, which include UFC veteran Katsunori Kikuno and King of Pancrase champ Kento Kambe. Kosaka returned to the ring with a second-round knockout of James Thompson in 2015, but fell short against sumo great Baruto Kaito in the heavyweight grand prix in 2016. Kosaka is incredibly tough and still a capable fighter, but Filipovic’s skills will likely be too much for him.
If you want to be reminded of what made Pride FC so great, tune in for the fireworks show that Cro Cop will bring to the ring on New Year’s Eve. Expect Filipovic to score a spectacular finish against one of the toughest veterans in the sport.
Henderson: At 43, Cro Cop is well past his prime, but he’s still the younger fighter in this battle of true veterans.
Kosaka, while tough, never quite reached the same heights as Cro Cop. “TK,” who also made several appearances inside the UFC, has fallen to the likes of Frank Shamrock, Gilbert Yvel, Randy Couture and Renato “Babalu” Sobral in RINGS. He dropped fights to Antonio Rogerio Nogueira in Deep and Mike Kyle in Pancrase. He lost to Fedor Emelianenko and Mark Hunt under the Pride banner. A younger Kosaka also scored big wins over Kimo Leopoldo and Pete Williams in the UFC and served up a blemish to Fedor’s otherwise perfect record at the time when he took a cut stoppage TKO over the famous Russian fighter, but he’s never really conquered the heavyweight division.
Cro Cop, on the other hand, has spent time among the elite. The Croatian had plenty of legendary battles while he was a member of the Pride roster, and he only struggled as an older fighter in the UFC’s heavyweight division. Now, he’s on a run that includes knockout finishes of Satoshi Ishii (twice), Gabriel Gonzaga (in the UFC), Muhammed “King Mo” Lawal and Baruto Kaito, who handed Kosaka his most recent loss. That’s not bad for a 40-something athlete.
I second my colleague’s prediction of another spectacular finish for Cro Cop. Kosaka has suffered eight knockout losses over the course of his career, which makes this pairing seem like a handpicked attempt by Rizin to give Cro Cop another highlight for his reel.
If viewers have to pick just one part of this two-day event to watch, should they tune in for the 2nd Round or the Final Round?
Henderson: By no means is either day a complete wash outside of the tournament. However, the easy answer is to tune in to the Final Round for the final four of the grand prix, plus fights featuring Mirko Cro Cop, Takanori Gomi, atomweight prospects Rena Kubota and Kanna Asakura, and up-and-coming flyweight Shinju Nozawa-Auclair, who will attempt to avenge a previous amateur loss to Chelsea LaGrasse. That lineup is just a little heavier on star power and intrigue than the first day’s docket that features Gabi Garcia, Reina Miura, Jiří Procházka, Shizuka Sugiyama, Satoru Kitaoka and Kiichi Kunimoto.
Aittama: I don’t know why someone would ever choose to not watch both cards, but I’ll play the game.
The first event features the opening round of the bantamweight grand prix, which is the single most important reason to tune into this event. The semifinals and finals take place on the second day, but each and every quarterfinal fight could deliver action. As for the super fights on the card, top light heavyweight prospect Procházka takes on the always game Karl Albrektsson, former Dream champion Hiroyuki Takaya brings his heavy hands to the ring against exciting Mongolian Baataryn Azjavkhlan, Deep lightweight kingpin Kitaoka takes on UFC veteran Kiichi “Strasser” Kunimoto, and former K-1 mainstay Kizaemon Saiga meets the brash The Outsider titleholder Kai Asakura in what should be an action-packed striking affair.
Like my colleague stated, the Final Round will be the better show from top to bottom. To kick things off, the fans will take in the bantamweight grand prix semifinals and then get directly into the four-man kickboxing tournament that features one of the best Japanese combat-sports prospects this decade, Tenshin Nasukawa. The tournament also features three-division King of Pancrase champion Mitsuhisa Sunabe. There is another tournament featured on the card as well, which features another high-level striker and the best female shoot boxer ever, the aforementioned Kubota, in addition to top prospects Maria Oliveira, Kanna Asakura and The Ultimate Fighter Season 23 vet Irene Cabello. Also, let’s not forget about the surging former PXC and Shooto titleholder Yusuke Yachi, who competes in a bout against Gomi that could be a passing of the guard.
Which fight is the sleeper match-up on this card?
Aittama: The one-night kickboxing tournament is flying under the radar because the names don’t necessarily stick out in the western MMA world. However, the four-man field features one of the best Japanese prospects this decade, a former multiple-division champion, an amateur boxer turned MMA fighter, and an exciting kickboxer with something to prove.
Tenshin Nasukawa, 19, is undefeated in his professional martial-arts career. The Japanese phenom has racked up 19 wins in the kickboxing realm, four wins under MMA rules, and one excellent knockout victory in a mixed-rules bout with Kizaemon Saiga. Nasukawa began training in karate at the age of five and put together an impressive amateur kickboxing record of 99 wins and five losses, with 37 knockouts, all before he even left high school. Nasukawa knocked out a current Muay Thai stadium champion, Wanchalong, in his professional Muay Thai debut, and capped it off by dismantling former world-champion boxer Amnat Ruenroeng in his very next outing. Nasukawa hasn’t slowed down in 2017, a year in which he’s posted three wins under the Rizin banner and two huge knockout wins over Ryan Sheehan and Ignacio Capllonch to capture and defend his ISKA 55-kilogram crown.
Nasukawa will welcome Yuya “Cat” Yamamoto to Rizin. The R.I.S.E. journeyman has racked up a record of 13-6-4 in his kickboxing career. Yamamoto is a skilled action fighter who recently turned his attention to Lethwei, a sport which is basically Muay Thai with headbutts and timeouts. Yamamoto won’t go away easy, but Nasukawa is a fight finisher. The Japanese youngster has put a stop to 15 of his 19 career bouts.
On the other side of the bracket, top Japanese strawweight Mitsuhisa Sunabe will put his striking skills to the test against former amateur boxer and pro MMA fighter Yamato Fujita. The 25-year-old Fujita held his own in his first pro MMA fight against Nasukawa, but he was unable to pick up the victory. He will be in a better position to get a victory when he takes on Sunabe, who will be making his Rizin debut. There is a real argument that Sunabe is the best strawweight in the world under MMA rules. With the unseating of formerly undefeated strawweight Yoshitaka Naito in ONE Championship, Sunabe’s run of 13 straight wins stands out as the most in the under-promoted weight class. However, this is kickboxing. Fujita has a grasp for the standing game that will certainly make him a threat to Sunabe, who will also be giving up nearly 10 pounds.
Henderson: Maria Oliveira and Kanna Asakura should combine for an excellent battle of rising atomweight prospects. Asakura has garnered a lot of attention as a young — she’s only 20 — Japanese fighter on the rise, but Oliveira has one more win on her record and is just one year older than her counterpart. The Brazilian hasn’t received anywhere near as much attention on a global scale, but this is only her second fight on a major stage.
Oliveira did lose two of her first three pro fights, including a majority-decision loss to fellow prospect Thaty Bergamaschi. She’s been on fire ever since, but she’s done much of her work as a strawweight. Oliveira’s early opponents had subpar records, but she eventually faced the undefeated Valesca Machado and emerged with a victory. As an atomweight, she made her Rizin debut with a victory over Alyssa Garcia. The Parana Vale Tudo fighter has seven finishes in her career, including six by way of knockout.
Asakura, a skilled wrestler and grappler, launched out of the gates with three wins before suffering a decision loss to Syuri Kondo. Another two victories followed, but then she dropped a decision to the aforementioned Garcia. She’s gone on to add four more victories, including a decision nod over veteran Saori Ishioka.
While Oliveira is underrated, Asakura might be a bit overrated. Both fighters still have a lot to prove, and this encounter will be a great test of their skills.
Pair this card with…
Henderson: Fond memories of Pride. This card has the look and feel of its predecessor. There are freak-show fights, plenty of seemingly lopsided match-ups, the presence of Mirko Cro Cop and Takanori Gomi, a strong tournament bracket and more. Anyone who loved the heyday of Pride will certainly enjoy this two-night event.
Aittama: A changing of the guard. The next generation of Japanese prospects are on the rise and many of them are featured on this very fight card. Despite the claims that the sport died in Japan with loss of Pride FC and the fall of Dream and Sengoku, it’s actually been slowly rebuilding over the past five years. The emphasis on growing and developing talent to compete worldwide has spread to almost every gym in Japan. Let this event be a reminder that not all is lost. The sport is once again on the rise in the Land of the Rising Sun.
Rizin FF World Grand Prix 2017: 2nd Round Fight Picks
BW Tournament Quarterfinal: Kyoji Horiguchi vs. Gabriel Oliveira
BW Tournament Quarterfinal: Ian McCall vs. Manel Kape
BW Tournament Quarterfinal: Kevin Petshi vs. Shintaro Ishiwatari
BW Tournament Quarterfinal: Takafumi Otsuka vs. Khalid Taha
Women’s HW: Gabrielle Garcia vs. Shinobu Kandori
LHW: Jiří Procházka vs. Karl Albrektsson
Women’s LW: Reina Miura vs. Cindy Dandois
FW: Hiroyuki Takaya vs. Baataryn Azjavkhlan
BW Tournament Reserve Bout: Anthony Birchak vs. Je Hoon Moon
FlyW: Kai Asakura vs. Kizaemon Saiga
Women’s FlyW: Kana Watanabe vs. Shizuka Sugiyama
165-pound Catchweight: Satoru Kitaoka vs. Kiichi Kunimoto
Rizin FF World Grand Prix 2017: Final Round Fight Picks
HW: Mirko “Cro Cop” Filipovic vs. Tsuyoshi Kosaka
Women’s FlyW: Shinju Nozawa-Auclair vs. Chelsea LaGrasse
159-pound Catchweight: Takanori Gomi vs. Yusuke Yachi
Women’s AtomW Tournament Semifinals: Maria Oliveira vs. Kanna Asakura
Women’s AtomW Tournament Semifinals: Rena Kubota vs. Irene Cabello
Kickboxing Tournament Semifinals: Mitsuhisa Sunabe vs. Yamato Fujita
Kickboxing Tournament Semifinals: Tenshin Nasukawa vs. Yuta Hamamoto
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