Ayaka Hamasaki (Jeff Vulgamore/Combat Press)

Rizin 20 Preview and Predictions

Rizin and Bellator — it’s become a New Year’s match made in MMA heaven. Last year, it gave us a bantamweight title showdown between Rizin’s Kyoji Horiguchi and Bellator’s Darrion Caldwell. This year, it gives us two cross-promotional events, beginning with Bellator 237 on Saturday, Dec. 28, and concluding with a packed Rizin 20 card on New Year’s Eve.

Rizin 20 features three title showdowns, a one-night lightweight tournament, two kickboxing affairs, and plenty of additional star power.

The women’s atomweight title is on the line when champion Ayaka Hamasaki collides with challenger Seo Hee Ham. These two ladies have been at the top of the division for quite some time, and they’ve even battled each other on two previous occasions. In their first encounter, which took place in late 2010, Hamasaki decisioned her South Korean foe. In a rematch exactly one year later, Ham only lasted a round. Since their last fight, Hamasaki has gone 13-2 and captured additional gold with Invicta FC and Rizin. Ham has posted a 12-3 mark in the years that followed, but her losses came in an ill-advised move to strawweight for a stint in the UFC.


Rizin and Bellator had hoped to book a battle of champions in the light-heavyweight division between Rizin’s Jiří Procházka and Bellator’s Ryan Bader, but the fight did not come to fruition. Instead, Procházka will defend his crown against C.B. Dollaway, who recently requested his release from the UFC while serving a two-year suspension from the USADA. Now, the UFC veteran has a chance to return to action and win a championship in the process.

With Horiguchi sidelined, the Rizin bantamweight title is up for grabs between contenders Kai Asakura and Manel Kape. The 26-year-old Asakura was already a rising star within the promotion before he stunned Horiguchi with a 68-second knockout in a non-title affair in August. He has since added a 54-second finish of Ulka Sasaki to his resume. In addition, he’s already eked out a split verdict over his upcoming opponent. Kape has gone 3-1 since his previous loss to Asakura, and all three of his wins in this stretch have come via stoppage.

The one-night tournament showcases Bellator’s Patricky “Pitbull” Freire and Rizin’s Johnny Case. Pitbull meets 10-1 upstart Luiz Gustavo in the semifinals. Case draws the 16-3 Tofiq Musaev for his first fight of the evening.

The 2018 year-end show featured kickboxer Tenshin Nasukawa in a modified-rules bout against legendary boxer Floyd Mayweather Jr. This year, Nasukawa gets a more traditional kickboxing match against Rui Ebata. In other kickboxing action, Taiga Kawabe squares off with Taiju Shiratori.

The stacked lineup also features such notable names as John “Macapá” Teixeira, Lindsey VanZandt, Rena Kubota, Satoshi Ishii, Shintaro Ishiwatari, Hiromasa Ogikubo and Miyuu Yamamoto.

Rizin 20 takes place at the Saitama Super Arena in Saitama, Japan. The festivities kick off at 1 a.m. ET on Tuesday, Dec. 31. The event airs live on Combat Press via Fite TV pay-per-view stream.

Women’s atomweight champion Ayaka Hamasaki is set to defend her belt against Seo Hee Ham. The two ladies have met twice before, but the most recent of those contests took place eight years ago. Will Ham finally turn the tables on Hamasaki and win this trilogy fight?

A lot has changed in eight years. Ham has established herself as a member of the atomweight elite. Hamasaki has ventured across the Pacific and proven her own elite status while competing with Invicta FC. Now, these two ladies reunite on more even ground.

In their first two contests, Hamasaki and Ham were competing as strawweights under the Jewels banner. Hamasaki was just 2-0 when they clashed in the finals of the Lightweight Queen tournament. She was 5-0 by the time she defended the strap against Ham in their rematch. It wasn’t until 2014 that she made the move to atomweight, where she quickly established herself with an Invicta title run. Ham, meanwhile, dropped to 105 pounds in 2013 and eventually snagged the Jewels crown in the division. This led to a UFC contract and a move back up to strawweight, but a rough 1-3 run inside the Octagon prompted her dismissal. She returned to 105 and captured the Road FC title before joining Rizin, where she’s picked up her two most recent wins.

Ham has been brilliant as an atomweight. The South Korean was undersized for the strawweight division, but she’s perfect for this smaller weight class. “Hamderlei” has proven as much with victories over Naho Sugiyama, Alyona Rassokhyna, Saori Ishioka, Mina Kurobe, Jinh Yu Frey, Jung Eun Park, Tomo Maesawa and Miyuu Yamamoto. The 32-year-old is a solid striker with some finishing ability, but she tends to win on points.

Hamasaki is no slouch, though. Her own shift to atomweight has included wins over the aforementioned Sugiyama, Kurobe and Frey, as well as Mei Yamaguchi, Herica Tiburcio, Amber Brown, Kanna Asakura and Suwanan Boonsorn. Hamasaki’s grappling chops have led to eight submission victories, but she has also gone the distance in quite a few outings.

The difference between these two women, surprisingly enough, has been Hamasaki’s striking ability. The judo practitioner and grappler held her own against Ham in the Lightweight Queen tournament, and then she took a corner stoppage TKO when Ham suffered an injury in the rematch. Hamasaki was still quite green at the time, and her striking, while still taking a backseat to her grappling, has undoubtedly continued to improve over the years.

Ham’s own improvements cannot be denied. She’s found increased finishing ability in the aftermath of her UFC run. Even her setbacks inside the Octagon weren’t all bad news. She was able to go the distance with a bigger kickboxer in Joanne Calderwood and almost came out on top against Danielle Taylor. Yet, Hamasaki seems to have her number. The Japanese fighter should sweep this trilogy, albeit in a close fight.

The show also features a one-night, four-man lightweight tournament. How does the field shape up? Who wins the whole thing?

It’s a strong group.

Patricky “Pitbull” Freire has to be viewed as the favorite, of course. The longtime Bellator star is on a six-fight winning streak that includes four knockout finishes. His only loss since the start of 2016 came against Michael Chandler, one of the best lightweights in Bellator history. Pitbull has a habit of finishing opponents with his fists, but he draws another killer — his nickname is literally “Killer” — in Luiz Gustavo for his semifinal bout.

The 23-year-old Gustavo is an interesting prospect in this field. The Brazilian, who fights out of the Evolução Thai MMA camp, has six first-round stoppages and 10 finishes overall. His lone defeat came in his only trip to the scorecards against Mikuru Asakura. Pitbull’s chin has failed him before, so we can’t count out an upset and a star turn for Gustavo.

Johnny Case is the other big name in this bracket. A veteran of more than 30 fights, the former UFCer has gone on a 5-0-1 run since departing the Octagon. The MMA Lab product is a capable fighter, but he struggled with the likes of Rick Glenn, Jake Matthews and Anthony Rocco Martin. “Hollywood” has run through Yusuke Yachi, Satoru Kitaoka and Roberto de Souza since joining Rizin. He did start out his UFC career with four straight victories, so there’s a chance he could catch fire in this tournament.

Case’s semifinal opponent, Tofiq Musaev, followed a 4-3 start to his career by reeling off 12 straight wins. He’s scorched through three Rizin adversaries thus far, with finishes of Nobumitsu Osawa and Damien Brown, plus a decision nod over Daron Cruickshank. Musaev packs a lot of power behind his strikes, with 13 career knockouts to his credit.

Rizin found four lightweights who like to bang. This could lead to plenty of fireworks in a one-night tournament. It’s sure to be entertaining, and it could even create a new star if anyone is able to top Freire.

Sadly, fans won’t get a showdown between Bellator light-heavyweight kingpin Ryan Bader and his Rizin counterpart, Jiří Procházka. Instead, Procházka will defend the Rizin belt against former UFC fighter C.B. Dollaway. Will Procházka prevail?

It’s a real shame that the proposed clash between Bader and Procházka didn’t materialize. Procházka has put up ridiculous numbers in his four years with Rizin and deserves the chance to test himself against a proven fighter like Bader. Instead, the Czech fighter gets what should be another boost to his resume.

Dollaway squirmed his way out of a two-year USADA suspension by requesting his release from the UFC and signing on with Rizin. It brings a close to a 20-fight chapter in Dollaway’s career. That story was full of ups and downs, however, and ended on a low note when the 36-year-old was finished by UFC newcomer Khalid Murtazaliev. Between 2014 and 2018, Dollaway managed just a 4-4 mark that included losses to Lyoto Machida and Michael Bisping. Granted, Dollaway was fighting some of the best middleweights and light heavyweights in the world, but consistency was always a big problem during his UFC tenure.

Dollaway sure isn’t doing himself any favors by accepting a fight against Procházka. The champion is an absolute beast who has run through Brandon Halsey, Muhammed “King Mo” Lawal and Fabio Maldonado over his last three fights. Procházka also holds victories over Vadim Nemkov and Darko Stošić. He’s knocked out 22 opponents over his career, and Dollaway isn’t exactly known for having an exceptional chin. This all adds up to another finish for Procházka.

The vacant bantamweight title is on the line when Kai Asakura meets Manel Kape. Will Asakura cap off an incredible year with a championship victory?

Buckle up, folks. If this is anything like their first fight, which ended in a split decision favoring Asakura, we’re in for one hell of a ride.

These two men engaged in an all-out slugfest when they locked horns at Rizin 10. Kape rocked Asakura multiple times and had the Japanese fighter bloodied before it was over. Somehow, Asakura still managed to answer back and do enough to win over the judges.

We’re likely to see another wild fight on New Year’s Eve. Asakura has gone on to boost his own confidence with wins over Kyoji Horiguchi and Ulka Sasaki. Kape dropped a decision to Sasaki, but he’s used his fists to destroy Seiichiro Ito and Takeya Mizugaki. He also holds a win over Ian McCall.

Kape is an overlooked member of the lighter weight classes. His only recent defeats have come against Horiguchi, Asakura and Sasaki, all of whom are top-notch fighters. Only Horiguchi managed to stop him, and Asakura barely escaped with a win. Kape’s going to be determined to change the narrative here. He proved in the pair’s first fight that he can tag Asakura, but this time he’ll actually drop the Japanese fighter for the win.

Should MMA fans care about this show’s kickboxing offerings?

By now, even MMA and boxing fans should be at least vaguely familiar with Tenshin Nasukawa as a result of his fights with Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Kyoji Horiguchi. He doesn’t have quite the same level of banner match-up this time around against Rui Ebata, but it’s still a chance to see a highly talented kickboxer in action against a worthy foe. Ebata is 41-2-3, after all, and makes for an intriguing fight against Nasukawa. Nasukawa is the bigger fight, however, and should ultimately win this bout.

The fight between Taiju Shiratori and Taiga Kawabe is a rematch of their October clash at Rizin 19 that went to Shiratori on the scorecards. Kawabe’s had a rough year and could be in for another loss on New Year’s Eve.

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

This is a tough pick. The rematch between Lindsey VanZandt and Rena Kubota is compelling. Patrick Mix’s undefeated mark makes him one to watch when he takes on Yuki Motoya. Mikuru Asakura’s clash with John “Macapá” Teixeira could be interesting. However, it’s Hiromasa Ogikubo that really deserves some attention.

The runner-up on The Ultimate Fighter 24, Ogikubo has looked strong at flyweight while struggling at the bantamweight level. However, his recent bantamweight loss came against the surging Kyoji Horiguchi. He did manage a win over the aforementioned Motoya, but it was a split decision.

This could be the do-or-die fight for Ogikubo as a bantamweight. If he loses, he may want to consider heading back to 125 pounds. He has a tough opponent in Shintaro Ishiwatari.

The 34-year-old Ishiwatari is up to seven career losses, but consider the names on that list: “The Korean Zombie” Chan Sung Jung, Horiguchi, Jonathan Brookins and Horiguchi again. He avenged the Brookins loss, too. In addition, Ishiwatari has posted wins over Motonobu Tezuka, Caol Uno, Victor Henry, Rafael Silva and Ulka Sasaki. He provides a tough test for a fighter who might be one weight class above where he belongs.

Fight Picks

Fight Pick
Main Card
Women’s AtomW Championship: Ayaka Hamasaki vs. Seo Hee Ham Hamasaki
LW Tournament Semifinal: Johnny Case vs. Tofiq Musaev Case
LW Tournament Semifinal: Patricky “Pitbull” Freire vs. Luiz Gustavo Freire
BW: Yuki Motoya vs. Patrick Mix Mix
FW: Mikuru Asakura vs. John “Macapá” Teixeira Asakura
Women’s Catchweight (112 pounds): Lindsey VanZandt vs. Rena Kubota VanZandt
LHW: Vitaly Shemetov vs. Simon Biyong Biyong
Catchweight (231 pounds): Jake Heun vs. Satoshi Ishii Ishii
LHW Championship: Jiří Procházka vs. C.B. Dollaway Procházka
BW Championship: Kai Asakura vs. Manel Kape Kape
BW: Shintaro Ishiwatari vs. Hiromasa Ogikubo Ogikubo
Kickboxing (123 pounds): Tenshin Nasukawa vs. Rui Ebata Nasukawa
Kickboxing (137 pounds): Taiju Shiratori vs. Taiga Kawabe Shiratori
Women’s AtomW: Miyuu Yamamoto vs. Suwanan Boonsorn Yamamoto