Even in this crazy year, fight fans can count on one constant: MMA on New Year’s Eve in Japan. This year, the Rizin Fighting Federation has put together 16 bouts for Rizin.26, an event worthy of ushering out a year many would rather forget.
The stacked lineup is full of highlights for both the MMA faithful and kickboxing aficionados.
The MMA bill is topped by a highly anticipated rematch between current Rizin bantamweight kingpin Kai Asakura and former titleholder Kyoji Horiguchi. The two first met in a non-title affair when Horiguchi held both the Rizin and Bellator gold. Asakura finished the former UFC flyweight in just over a minute. The rivals were set to fight again at the New Year’s Eve show last year, but a leg injury forced Horiguchi to the sidelines and set the table for a title bout between Asakura and Manel Kape. Kape left with the strap, but it eventually found its way back to Asakura. Now, Horiguchi hopes to not only avenge his prior loss, but regain the belt he was forced to vacate.
The world’s top kickboxer is also poised to fight on the year-end extravaganza. Tenshin Nasukawa has become a star at a young age. He’s the pound-for-pound best, but he’ll have to make it through Muay Thai crossover Kumandoi Phetjaroenvit if he wants to maintain his standing at the peak of the mountain.
The Rizin.26 offering also features women’s atomweight gold on the line when Ayaka Hamasaki meets Miyuu Yamamoto. The card also serves as host for the MMA debuts of Olympic wrestler Shinobu Ota and young kickboxing sensation Ren Hiramoto.
Rizin.26 takes place on New Year’s Eve at the Saitama Super Arena in Japan. American fight fans will get to celebrate the turning of the calendar far earlier in the day: the U.S. start time for the show is midnight Thursday. The event airs live via pay-per-view stream on the LiveNow platform.
The MMA headliner for this show is a rematch between Kai Asakura and Kyoji Horiguchi, but with gold on the line. Can Horiguchi avenge his prior loss and become the Rizin bantamweight champ?
Horiguchi, a former UFC flyweight title challenger, was on quite an incredible run when he first met Asakura last year. Since the end of 2012, his only previous setbacks had come in the UFC to Demetrious “Mighty Mouse” Johnson and in Rizin to Tenshin Nasukawa in a kickboxing bout. Meanwhile, he’d managed an overall 7-1 UFC mark and disposed of Hiromasa Ougikubo (twice), Ali Bagautinov, Manel Kape, Ian McCall and Darrion Caldwell (twice). Along the way, he held both the Rizin and Bellator bantamweight titles and upped his knockout tally to 14.
Asakura’s ability to shrug off any potential intimidation from Horiguchi and starch him in just 68 seconds was remarkable. It doesn’t mean he can turn in a repeat performance. This is a fighter who also suffered knockouts at the hands of .500 fighter Je Hoon Moon and Kape in the pair’s rematch. As fast as he vanquished Horiguchi, Asakura could become the victim of an equally memorable finish.
Horiguchi needs to find a way to overcome Asakura’s length. The UFC veteran seemed to struggle to land in the short amount of time he had in their first fight. Asakura enjoys three inches in height over the former champ and easily landed his strikes while Horiguchi whiffed. Even when his opponent closes the distance, Asakura seems to find a way to connect. Horiguchi has to press the action and make this a phone-booth fight. If he can keep it in close quarters, then Horiguchi might be able to land a big punch that dazes Asakura. This was Kape’s route to victory, and it’s the best chance for Horiguchi as well. If, on the other hand, Asakura can keep Horiguchi at range, then he’s likely to score another victory.
Japanese kickboxing phenom Tenshin Nasukawa is one of the big stars in this lineup. Will he breeze to an easy victory when he clashes with Kumandoi Phetjaroenvit?
This is by no means a cake walk for Nasukawa.
The 26-year-old Kumandoi has held WBC gold and an Omnoi stadium championship in the Muay Thai realm. He’s beaten the likes of Puenkon Tor Surat and Rodtang Jitmuangnon, so he’s not an opponent to be taken lightly. That said, this is a Muay Thai practitioner who is traveling outside of his home country for the first time and competing under a different rule set while taking on perhaps the pound-for-pound best kickboxer on the planet.
Nasukawa, 22, is already 39-0 as a kickboxer. He’s recorded 30 knockouts, including two finishes of rival Taiki Naito. He has also edged Koji “Kouzi” Tanaka, Kyoji Horiguchi and the aforementioned Rodtang on the scorecards. The youngster is already such a big star that Rizin managed to put together an exhibition bout between him and boxing great Floyd Mayweather Jr. for its 2018 New Year’s Eve show. Mayweather won, but the match allowed the Japanese star to become more well known around the globe.
Nasukawa’s kickboxing chops and the location of this contest give him a distinct “home-field” advantage. Kumandoi could always play the spoiler and has nothing to lose by going for broke in this affair, but Nasukawa should once again show the world why he’s a pound-for-pound stud.
Miyuu Yamamoto has an opportunity to capture the women’s atomweight strap, but she has to fight one of the best atomweight ladies of all time in Ayaka Hamasaki. Is this more than Yamamoto can handle?
Hamasaki has just three career losses. The first two came against strawweights Claudia Gadelha and Livinha Renata Souza, both of whom went on to compete inside the UFC’s Octagon. The third setback came to Seo Hee Ham, the other women’s atomweight GOAT. So, yes, Yamamoto might have bitten off more than she can chew.
The “Fighting Queen Bee” is, after all, just 6-4 through 10 fights. This is primarily due to a rough start that included losses in three of her first four outings after turning pro in 2016. Rena Kubota and Andy Nguyen handed her stoppage losses to kick off her campaign. Then, after collecting a win over Cassie Robb, she was submitted by Irene Cabello. She really put herself on the map with more recent wins over Kanna Asakura and Suwanan Boonsorn, but Hamasaki is a completely different ballgame.
Hamasaki is among the best to ever compete in her weight class. At age 38, her run could be nearing its end, but she’s still an elite fighter who should be able to end the unlikely recent success of Yamamoto, whose only more recent defeat came to the aforementioned Ham.
There are a few fights in this lineup that might seem bizarre to casual fans or those who don’t follow Asian combat sports. What’s up with the special-rules bout featuring Takanori Gomi, the pairing of 66-fight veteran Hideo Tokoro with an MMA rookie, and the openweight affair between Ikuhisa Minowa and Tsuyoshi Sudario?
Welcome to the wild world of Japanese MMA on New Year’s Eve. There’s a lot to unpack here.
Gomi, a former Pride champion who found mixed results in his UFC tenure, is a legendary fighter in his homeland. “The Fireball Kid” is hardly a kid anymore — he’s 42 years old — and he hasn’t seen MMA action since mid-2018. He returns in what has been labeled a “special standing bout” exhibition contest against kickboxer Koji “Kouzi” Tanaka. The two men will trade punches only for a set of three three-minute rounds after which no decision will be rendered. Tanaka, whose trash talk has included referring to Gomi as “Saggyball Pops,” should get the better of Gomi in what essentially amounts to a sparring match.
The grizzled vet Tokoro will serve as the debut opponent for Olympian Shinobu Ota, who is making the transition to MMA after a decorated career as a Greco-Roman wrestler. This is another common occurrence in Japan, where Olympic heroes are thrown into the deep end of the MMA pool. The 26-year-old Ota has the potential to be a champion in the future if he’s brought along properly. Rizin is aiming to give him a high-profile win immediately by matching him with a 43-year-old whose last regular MMA action came in 2017. Ota could win this purely based on his wrestling, but he’ll have to watch out for Tokoro’s submissions.
“Minowaman” is as essential to Japan’s New Year’s Eve shows as a champagne toast. The middleweight has made a career out of toppling giants. The 44-year-old’s 100-plus fights include clashes with Semmy Schilt, Kimo Leopoldo, Mirko “Cro Cop” Filipović, Eric “Butterbean” Esch, Zuluzinho, Don Frye, Errol Zimmerman, Bob Sapp and Hong Man Choi. He’s also been competitive in fights that don’t qualify as freakshows. This New Year’s Eve, Minowa battles sumo wrestler Tsuyoshi Sudario, who won his MMA debut at Rizin.24 in September when he broke his opponent’s nose. Minowa is a clever grappler who is an expert at tapping men twice or three times his size, but these fights are always a roll of the dice. The aging middleweight will either pick up another submission or get squished, literally.
Which fight is the sleeper match-up on this card?
The Rizin Fighting Federation has really taken the ball and run with it when it comes to New Year’s Eve shows. This card is stacked with excellent fights and the usual spectacles that only Japan can deliver. That’s why the women’s atomweight affair between Kanna Asakura and Ai Shimizu qualifies as a sleeper.
This fight, which features an established atomweight star against an undefeated up-and-comer, could easily go overlooked on a show with the likes of the Asakura brothers (no relation), Kyoji Horiguchi, Tenshin Nasukawa and Ayaka Hamasaki in the lineup. However, fans should perk up for this one.
Kanna’s only recent losses came to the two ladies in the women’s atomweight title match that’s also part of this lineup. She was submitted via armbar by Hamasaki and topped on the scorecards by Miyuu Yamamoto. Meanwhile, her list of victims includes Saori Ishioka, Rena Kubota (twice), Tomo Maesawa and Alesha Zappitella. She’s the type of test that a 5-0 upstart like Shimizu needs.
Shimizu’s perfect run comes with a lot of question marks. Her opponents held a combined mark of just 13-16 prior to their encounters with “Princess Bee.” The 31-year-old has appeared in the Rizin, Deep Jewels and Bellator organizations, but her toughest competition has consisted of Andy Nguyen, a King of the Cage regular who was 6-8 at the time, and Tabatha Ann Watkins, a .500 fighter who had previously appeared with Bellator. Shimizu barely squeaked by against Nguyen with a split verdict. Shimizu has a chance to prove herself here, but she could end up getting schooled by Asakura.
Kickboxing fans have a couple of sleeper matches on the docket as well. Ren Hiramoto, a skilled kickboxer who is still just 22 years old, makes his pro MMA debut opposite Kyohei Hagiwara. The five-fight veteran is a manageable opponent for Hiramoto. Hagiwara is a striker, but he could opt to test Hiramoto’s ground capabilities. Meanwhile, Yoshnari Nadaka, another young kickboxer, is set for action — in his own sport — against a formidable foe in Phetmalai Phetjaroenvit.
BW Championship: Kai Asakura vs. Kyoji Horiguchi
Kickboxing: Tenshin Nasukawa vs. Kumandoi Phetjaroenvit
Catchweight (150 pounds): Mikuru Asakura vs. Satoshi Yamasu
Custom Rules: Takanori Gomi vs. Koji Tanaka
Women’s AtomW Championship: Ayaka Hamasaki vs. Miyuu Yamamoto
BW: Yuki Motoya vs. Naoki Inoue
Catchweight (148 pounds): Kyle Aguon vs. Kleber Koike Erbst
Catchweight (150 pounds): Kyohei Hagiwara vs. Ren Hiramoto
BW: Hideo Tokoro vs. Shinobu Ota
Kickboxing (110 pounds): Yoshinari Nadaka vs. Phetmalai Phetjaroenvit
BW: Ulka Sasaki vs. Kenta Takizawa
Women’s AtomW: Kanna Asakura vs. Ai Shimizu
Catchweight (139 pounds): Taiyo Nakahara vs. Kazuma Kuramoto
Openweight: Ikuhisa Minowa vs. Tsuyoshi Sudario
Women’s Catchweight (112 pounds): Sakura Mori vs. Eru Takebayashi
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