2017 signals the third year in the history of Rizin Fight Federation. In that time we've seen Kron Gracie shine on the MMA stage, Heath Herring return to the sport, a Heavyweight Grand-Prix, an Openweight Grand-Prix crowning Mirko "Cro Cop" champion 10 years after his triumph in Pride FC—beating an Estonian sumo wrestler in the process—and Gabi Garcia club a 49-year-old professional wrestler to near-death. Time flies, doesn't it?
April 16th sees the first show of Rizin FF in 2017 and its inaugural event to be hosted in Yokahama Arena—a venue which provided the platform for multiple Pride cards with famed fights such as Fedor Emeliananko vs. Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, Quinton "Rampage" Jackson vs. Kevin Randleman and Mirko Cro Cop vs. Heath Herring.
With Rizin still rising, so to speak, the promotion is yet to attract the name power of the then-emerging stars Pride enjoyed, but Rizin FF 5 – Sakura showcases a broad cross-section of what this exciting banner has to offer. Below, we highlight some of the best fights to look out for come Sunday morning, which will be broadcast on FITE TV in North America and Europe.
Kyoji Horiguchi vs. Yuki Motoya
This marks Kyoji Horiguchi's first appearance for Rizin after the UFC controversially let one of the world's best flyweights escape its grasp—making the 125lbs landscape look a whole lot more barren.
Horiguchi comfortably dealt with the likes of Ali Bagautinov, Neil Seery, Chico Camus, Darrell Montague and Jon delos Reyes during his time in the UFC, finishing with 7-1 record in the promotion—his sole loss coming against untouchable UFC flyweight champion Demetrious Johnson at UFC 186, falling to an armbar submission with just a second left on the clock of their fight.
Only aged 26, the signing of this Japanese flyweight was a coup for Rizin as the organisation signed one of the country's few MMA stars who is yet to reach his prime.
Horiguchi entered the UFC with the reputation of being one of the division's few knockout artists, but only managed to finish two opponents by strikes in his time. You would naturally expect a highly-publicised signing such as Horiguchi to be fed an easy opponent in his Rizin debut to help him regain his knockout form, but Yuki Motoya is no slouch.
The majority of Motoya's career has been fought at bantamweight and boasts a record of 18-4, with five of his wins coming by knockout and six by submission. We last saw Motoya square off against Brazilian Allan Nascimento, winning a split decision to extend his unbeaten streak to 11 fights—his last official loss coming in 2013, though it's worth noting he had a knockout loss to Felipe Efrain chalked off as a No Contest after Efrain failed to make weight.
27-year-old Motoya could prove a long-term rival if both he and Horiguchi remain on the Japanese MMA circuit. Make sure you watch what will at least be the first chapter between these two Japanese fighters.
Satoshi Ishii vs. Heath Herring
Fresh off winning gold for his country at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, China, Japanese judoka Satoshi Ishii entered the world of MMA to much fanfare. But those celebrations were abruptly cut short as he lost his debut to the wily Hidehiko Yoshida in a battle of two Japanese Olympic gold medallists.
Ishii's MMA career is not exactly simple to digest. He has racked up wins against aging big names such as Jeff Monson, Pedro Rizzo, Tim Sylvia—and former UFC heavyweights Sean McCorkle and Phil De Fries—but has also been comprehensively beaten by what you would expect to be aging big names in the aforementioned Emelianenko and Cro Cop (x2). Ishii is now riding a three-fight loss streak, starting with a knockout loss to Czech heavyweight Jiri Prochazka in the 2015 Rizin Heavyweight Tournament Quarterfinals, and then consecutive dull decision losses to the Bellator duo of Rampage Jackson and Muhammed "King Mo" Lawal.
Now, Ishii is returning to the Rizin stage against another aging name in Heath Herring, who will be taking his second fight since making his long-awaited return to MMA as an alternate opponent at last year's Openweight Grand-Prix against Amir Aliakbari. This came after an eight-year hiatus which saw Herring last compete against Brock Lesnar at UFC 87.
Herring was initially scheduled to travel to the famed Saitama Super Arena to perform in a commentary capacity for Rizin's English-speaking broadcast. But after Shane Carwin pulled out with injury not long before the tournament's start, Herring stepped up to the plate.
Out of shape for his standards, Herring was showing the ring rust expected following such a long lay-off. However, Aliakbari also showed signs of visibly tiring as the fight wore on and Herring was arguably unfortunate to have lost a unanimous decision on the night.
The match-up between Herring and Ishii is an interesting one. Herring has nothing to lose—a win over Ishii, who still has a relatively large name in spite of his indifferent career, would prove Herring has an MMA career to properly revisit in his once adopted home of Japan. Meanwhile, a loss for Ishii would confirm to most that his significant judo credentials have not translated well to the ring.
Tatsuya Kawajiri vs. Anthony Birchak
Tatsuya Kawajiri is another of Rizin's recent Japanese acquisitions from the UFC, and he will be joined with another recent victim of the American promotion's roster purge in Anthony Birchak.
Spending most of his career on the Asian MMA circuit, sometimes dabbling in Strikeforce, Kawajiri found a niche in being one of the UFC's key featherweight gatekeepers—beating emerging talent in Sean Soriano and Jason Knight, as well as fellow 145lbs elder statesman Dennis Siver. Kawajiri ended his UFC run with two unanimous decision losses to top featherweights Dennis Bermudez and Cub Swanson.
Following the back-and-forth Swanson loss, the 38 year old asked for his release from the UFC and was promptly snapped up by Rizin and was scheduled to face Kron Gracie on its New Year's Eve show—losing by rear-naked choke in the second round.
A bantamweight during his time at the UFC, Birchak will be returning to featherweight to face Kawajiri, but, unlike his Japanese foe for Sunday, Birchak actually left the promotion on a win—besting Dileno Lopes in a split decision to round off his UFC record at 2-2.
It's fun to see western MMA fighters explore avenues outside of their comfort zone and away from what is a monopolised US market. Birchak was certainly tested in his UFC run, coming up trumps against Joe Soto with a knockout win inside two minutes, and suffering a first-round knockout loss to striking extraordinaire Thomas Almeida.
Birchak may be a tad undersized for Kawajiri, but he is sure to bring the fight to the Yokohama Arena.
Amir Aliakbari vs. Geronimo dos Santos
Despite his limited fight time, Amir Aliakbari entered the Rizin Openweight Grand-Prix as the betting favourite. It's no wonder—the hulking Tehran, Iran, native has stellar Greco Roman wrestling pedigree, having won gold at the 2013 World Wrestling Championships in the 120kg category. Aliakbari's transition to MMA from wrestling was expedited when FILA, the International Wrestling Federation, banned the Iranian for life following a doping offence—which saw him stripped of his gold medal.
Before entering the Rizin tournament as a 3-0 heavyweight, Aliakbari had already fought and won at Rizin 2, knocking out Joao Isidoro in less than three minutes. In the tournament, Aliakbari bested Herring and Valentin Moldavsky in two rather controversial decision wins, but came a cropper when he faced Cro Cop in the Grand-Prix finals—suffering a knockout in the first round.
While Aliakbari has impressed with his extensive wrestling skills, he showed that tournament fighting—which requires multiple fights over a short period of time—is not perhaps suited to his physique, given how he gassed in each of his contests.
Aliakbari gets to show his skills in one fight this time around and the heavily-muscled Geronimo dos Santos, a super heavyweight, has got the call.
Dos Santos is the perfect fighter for Rizin as the organisation tries to provide the nostalgia experienced when watching old tapes of Pride— with the now-defunct promotion just surpassing ten years since its last ever event before folding. Dos Santos is 6'3" and has weighed in close to 300lbs, without a hint of body fat, for some of his fights and reminds you of the comic book-like characters Pride officials had a pleasure in promoting in the past.
The Brazilian is also an interesting fighter to watch. Aged 36, he has over 50 fights under his belt with an unheralded record of 39-17. Of those 39 wins, dos Santos only has 3 decision victories—with 25 coming by knockout and 10 by submission. He also has eight knockout losses (one of which was to Josh Barnett and another to Junior dos Santos), seven submission defeats and one sole loss coming by decision.
This fight will not last the duration and I cannot wait to see what goes down in this built-for-Japan car crash waiting to happen.
More Daron Cruickshank
You would be hard pressed to find a fight fan who doesn't find Daron Cruickshank entertaining.
Hot off the heels from a submission loss to Paul Felder, "The Detroit Superstar" has carved out a nice niche in Japan—taking full advantage of the country's MMA rules with a vicious soccer kick TKO win over Shinji Sasaki, before following that up with a slick submission win over kickboxer Andy Souwer, taking advantage of the Dutchman's inefficiencies on the ground.
However, Cruickshank's ground game and submission defence often proved his own folly in the UFC, and that caught up with the American at Rizin 3 as he succumbed to the guillotine choke to Satoru Kitaoka. Now, Yusuke Yachi is the man Cruickshank hopes to best to get back on the winning track under the Rizin banner.
26-year-old Yachi is a Krazy Bee product, training alongside JMMA legend "Kid" Yamamoto, and boasts a solid 16-6 record with most victories coming by decision. With that in mind, Yachi's last fight saw him crush Filipino opponent Mario Sismundo within 20 seconds, folding him with a knee to the body and finishing off the job with strikes.
Yachi has a well-rounded skill set and hasn't tasted defeat by knockout in over three years. He will certainly test Cruickshank, and Cruickshank will definitely test the chin of Yachi's with his kickboxing talents.
Two of Japan's young shining stars return to MMA
She may only be 3-0 in her MMA career, but Rena Kubota has quickly become the face of women's MMA in Japan, buoyed by her kickboxing and shoot boxing career which has seen her earned multiple championships.
Rena may have an extensive striking background, but she surprised the MMA world with her competency on the ground, showcased in her two submission wins to start off her MMA career under the Rizin banner—setting off with a flying armbar win on her debut before catching decorated wrestler Miyu Yamamoto with a guillotine choke—and KOing scrappy upstart Hanna Gujwan in her last outing on New Year's Eve.
Next up for Rena is Hungary's Dora Perjes. Perjes was previously unbeaten, with all seven wins coming by submission, before her last fight—coming up short in a unanimous decision loss to Finnish strawweight Vuokko Katainen in 2015. Despite a two-year break, Perjes could provide the sternest test for Rena yet.
The other surging Japanese talent to watch out for is flyweight Tenshin Nasukawa. Only making his MMA debut against Ukrainian Nikita Sapun on 29th December 2016, Nasukawa quickly followed that up with another fight, this time against American Dylan Origo, just two days later—both victories coming by TKO and a guillotine choke respectively.
Though Sapun had Nasukawa in trouble with a tight-looking armbar, the Japanese striker gritted his teeth and was patient enough to escape the submission attempt before finishing his opponent off with strikes—showing wily submission smarts with a sense of calm belying his mere 18 years.
And then there's his kickboxing and Muay Thai pedigree. In a similar vein to Rena, Nasukawa already had plenty of eyeballs on his fighting career well before stepping into the Rizin ring. Nasukawa is widely considered a "striking phenom" in Japan, boasting a professional record of 17-0 and an amateur record of 99-5. [H/T Lawrence Kenshin]
Next up for the Japanese prodigy is Italian fighter Francesco Ghigliotti, who has no amateur nor professional bouts to his name on records kept online.
It's not the most enamouring match-up, but like Rena, Nasukawa is certainly a name worth looking out for as his MMA career blossoms.
The obligatory freakshow fight
You may recall a professional wrestler named "Alpha Female" storming the ring to confront Gabi Garcia immediately following her fight against Yumika Hotta to set up some sort of grudge match down the road. That "beef" then spilled to social media and beyond.
Well, Alpha Female, otherwise known as Jazzy Gabert, will be making her Rizin bow this weekend against "King" Reina Miura in a catchweight fight set at 90kg, which works out at around 200lbs.
Berlin-born Gabert, who carved out a pro wrestling career in Europe before moving to Japan and appearing on TNA in between, only has one MMA bout to her name—a TKO victory over Manuela Kuhse back in October. Miura only has two contests under her belt—both wins for Japanese promotion Deep—a submission win over Eriko Iwamoto and a unanimous decision against WMMA stalwart and former UFC fighter Shayna Baszler at lightweight.
With three fights between them and, in addition, a weird match-up in terms of weight, this fight could well go on to live in infamy.
And the rest
Saori Ishioka (JAP) vs. Bestare Kicaj (SWI) – Female atomweight bout
Kanna Asakura (JAP) vs. Aleksandra Toncheva (BUL) – Female atomweight bout
Kizaemon Saiga (JAP vs. Seiichiro Ito (JAP) – Flyweight bout