Kyoji Horiguchi's Impossible Task

Horiguchi has gone up weightclass before, but now he's taking on Japan's best kickboxer, Tenshin Nasukawa, at Rizin 13 this weekend.

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Sep 28 2018, 5:50pm

Screen capture via YouTube/Rizin

When Fightland profiled Kyoji Horiguchi in 2014, the young Japanese fighter was just beginning his run in the UFC. Asked about his motivation to begin fighting, Horiguchi replied that he had begun watching mixed martial arts when he was at high school and had been drawn to the fights of Norifumi ‘Kid’ Yamamoto. Horiguchi remarked: “He was knocking out guys much bigger than him. I’m not so big myself and wanted to do the same. That’s how it started.”

Kyoji had begun his martial arts training the same way that many Japanese children do, in traditional karate. Horiguchi learned under the instruction of Mr. Hirou Nihei. Beginning his MMA career as a sort of Kid Yamamoto knock-off, the more Kyoji allowed that karate training to show through in his fights, the better he performed. The influences of Yamamoto and Nihei, and of American Top Team combined to make Horiguchi something truly unique in mixed martial arts and in 2017 he was able to do exactly what Yamamoto had: he went up a weightclass and stopped three men over two nights to be crowned the Rizin bantamweight champion.

At this point it is no exaggeration to say that Kyoji Horiguchi is the finest mixed martial artist that Japan has ever produced and the gulf between Horiguchi and the remaining talent outside of the UFC is substantial. The move to bantamweight was for a challenge. After Horiguchi made it look a doss, Rizin dug out Ian McCall as a respected flyweight name and Horiguchi stopped him with the first punch thrown. Everything Rizin lines up for Horiguchi seems to be just to keep him busy, and Horiguchi has been able to knock opponents down faster than Rizin can line them up. Finally, Rizin pulled the trigger and booked the fantasy match that fans have been dreaming of since the first Rizin events: Kyoji Horiguchi would take his first professional kickboxing match, against perhaps the best kickboxer in Japan, the undefeated Tenshin Nasukawa.

Horiguchi has that same presence as Yamamoto in the ring—he is simply electric—but outside of the ring he has always been understated and cheerful: the most harmless knockout artist you will ever meet. Yet as he navigated a course through the finest stretch of his career there was much more happening below the surface. Explaining his decision to leave the UFC and return to Japan, Horiguchi revealed that it was partly influenced by Hirou Nihei being diagnosed with cancer. What wasn’t revealed to the public is that during almost the same space of time, Kid Yamamoto was also battling cancer.

And so at Rizin 13, as Horiguchi strides into the greatest test of his career, tasked with besting an unbeaten fighting prodigy in a completely different combat sport, he does so having laid to rest both his teacher and his idol in a few short months.

A Brief Introduction to Tenshin

We have written about Tenshin Nasukawa at length before—both a stylistic study and then a reflection on his toughest match—so we will keep it brief here. Nasukawa, like Horiguchi, is at his best out in space and has little desire to place opponents on the ropes most of the time. What Nasukawa does very well is counter punch—both up the center of kicks and over the top of his opponents punches when he can drawn them into over-extension. The style of drawing the opponent’s rear hand, angling off on the retreat, and firing one’s own power hand over the open side has been around for a hundred years or more (below is Benny Leonard doing it in the 1920s), but it has suddenly found new prominence between fighters like Conor McGregor, Stephen Thompson, and Tenshin Nasukawa.

Here is a great example of Nasukawa drawing out the right hand and countering through the open side, twice in quick succession. It is a pretty unique clip because the majority of the time Nasukawa’s opponent will crumble when he lands it, but Rodtang’s head might actually be full of concrete.

And the same can be seen here. Notice how Nasukawa draws Rodtang’s right hand into extension and throws his left hand in from that slight angle. Attacks from the open side can not be rolled off on the lead shoulder and back with a well-timed turn of the body, making them considerably more dangerous than if you tried to fire a straight from a similar angle on the closed side.

Nasukawa also has a brilliant check hook and a solid southpaw kicking game—pounding the opponent’s right arm with the round kick and looking to drive stepping knees in when he can. With that out of the way, let us talk match up specifics.

The issues Nasukawa has faced have come as opponents have pressed him to the ropes. He needs space to retreat and angle for that left hand counter to work at its best, so when he hits the ropes he will either try to check hook and duck out the side door, or simply run to get off them. Doing this over and over again left him exhausted in the fourth and fifth rounds against both the aggressive Rodtang and the cautious Suakim. This led to many occasions where Nasukawa performed a rolling thunder, or even double legged his opponent in order to take breathers on the mat.

Points Karate in a Nutshell

From the moment that this match was announced, it seemed something like Mayweather vs. McGregor for the fight fan who considered himself too good for that circus. Granted, kickboxing is considerably closer to MMA than boxing but the idea of a fighter taking up a new sport and immediately jumping in with a great will always seem like a stretch too far. Though there is some precedent to offset a fight fan’s usual pessimism: Gegard Mousasi beat Kyotaro Fujimoto in a kickboxing match on New Years Eve (albeit ten days after Kyotaro went the distance with Semmy Schilt), and Alistair Overeem famously upset Badr Hari after years away from kickboxing, previously only having competed at a fairly low level.

But outside of a matchup between Japan’s two most promising young fighters, this fight might also tell us something more about the kickboxing game at large. The kickboxing meta has always favored a closer range and combination work. The threat of a takedown in MMA necessitated striking from a greater range and points style karate found tremendous success within MMA where you never really saw it in kickboxing. Horiguchi is one of the best examples of long distance karate in MMA and that style is always built on two ideas: drawing the opponent into overreaching through the exaggerated distance, or bursting in through that distance with alarming speed.

When “The Machida Riddle” was still unsolved, Lyoto Machida would establish an extended distance, control it perfectly, and then step in to intercept his opponent when they committed to chasing him. This style of counter punching created perfect sen-no-sen or intercepting counters, and by timing his step in as his opponent was advancing, Machida could appear considerably faster than he actually was.

Kyoji Horiguchi is best at the other portion of competition karate—he actually is exceptionally fast and he makes his money fighting from beyond his opponent’s reach and then bursting in before they know what is happening. He does all that Machida stuff, but it is probably safe to assume that the best kickboxer in Japan isn’t going to run face first onto a counter like Horiguchi’s MMA opponents often have.

The Bounce

When a boxer steps in to lead, it is typically with the jab and he drives from his back foot to extend his stance. Boxing is about economy of motion and a good percentage of fighters, a good percentage of the time, want to use that first attack to get into range to either follow up or draw counters they can continue working against. Points karate isn’t that—the man who gets there first, wins. When you watch a man like Horiguchi or Michael Page burst in on his strikes, know that there’s more going on than just extending into it as a boxer does with his jab. Attention is paid to drawing the opponent around the ring and trying to catch them stepping onto the strike, and often the strike itself is hidden in bouncing—which in turn can be used to cover more distance than leading straight out of the stance.

Converse with a couple of decent point fighters and you will quickly learn that everyone has their own philosophy on bouncing, but most good point fighters use some variant on the idea for a couple of reasons. Firstly, bouncing is a tremendous means of complicating the action. Strikers get good at reading tells and these are even easier to pick up on if the opponent comes in straight off a static base—watch any UFC event from the previous decade to see a ton of that. Add in the bouncing and suddenly you are trying to pick up on a dropping of the hands or a shuffling of the feet while everything in your vision is moving up and down.

Most importantly though, bouncing is a marvellous means of hiding what the feet are doing and moving the fighter into a closer range before he has performed that fencing-like lunge into a longer stance. You can watch any number of clips of Christophe Pinna demonstrating this idea on YouTube—the feet go together so that you can perform your thrust after an initial bounce in. You might not make double the distance of a fighter just lunging straight from his stance, but perhaps you can add an extra fifty or sixty percent range to your advance and that is more than enough to catch a man out.

Pretty much any Horiguchi blitz is preceded by a bounce in, maintaining his stance and then a movement into the actual movement.

In fact the current TKO heavyweight, Ciryl Gane uses a very similar bouncing to get in on right hands and establish clinches. As did the late and underappreciated Ryan Jimmo. Gane’s speed is glacial compared to Horiguchi’s but the attacks still flow so nicely out of the bounce that Gane’s opponent is caught completely unprepared.

Bouncing effectively makes fighting from a longer range more viable. Lyoto Machida didn’t do a lot of bouncing to lead but his opponents were so woefully out of their depth at his extended range that they often simply sprinted at him as Ryan Bader did. Do that against Tenshin Nasukawa and you will get murdered with a counter ten times out of ten. But with convincing bouncing and feinting from that uncomfortable range well, as Nasukawa put it in one of Rizin’s pre-fight packages:

The Hypothetical Gameplan

In terms of what Horiguchi can do against Nasukawa—this could be an uphill battle. The thing about the bouncing, bursting, long range style of fighting is that it gets very energy consuming. As fights go on, Horiguchi abandons his bounce and strides around the ring, returning to it when he wants to hide his burst. More than ten or 12 bursts a round is going to get tiring.

A good fight for Horiguchi is one where not much is happening, which is interesting because normally that is what we would say about Nasukawa—the power hitting counter puncher. For most fighters, pushing the pace against Nasukawa would probably be their best chance, but Horiguchi’s style has just never been about that. Furthermore, where Nasukawa looked slow and sloppy in the late rounds against Rodtang and Suakim, those were five-round fights and this one is just three rounds. Horiguchi has three minutes to work each round and he would do best to do as little as possible and punctuate rounds with bursts of offense.

In terms of avoiding the counter strikes, keeping his bursts unpredictable is the priority. The bursts are longer than a standard lead from kickboxing range, which means if you aren’t keeping the opponent confused you are giving them a long distance space in which to counter you.

In writing notes for this bout, my thoughts were that Horiguchi should use low calf kicks to skip up and knock the long-stanced (for a kickboxer) and often backward moving Nasukawa off balance momentarily and make advancing on him less dangerous. Furthermore long straight kicks would be the best method of getting in single strikes with the least chance of retaliation. And for Horiguchi’s bursts, you would want to see him do what he has always done in MMA—make himself hard to hit in the aftermath. Where Machida was always a sitting duck after his big reverse punch, Horiguchi will always weave into a left hook, push the opponent away, or grab a clinch—these are the things that make a fighter harder to hit after he has dashed forward with uncontrollable speed.

Watching the absurdly well put together Rizin Confessions web series revealed that Horiguchi and Nasukawa had in fact sparred in 2015. Sparring footage is not something to be taken too seriously—these McGregor-Mayweather parallels are getting spooky—but it did show each of those above mentioned ideas that might improve Horiguchi’s chances. In addition to the skip-up calf kick, the front kick to the body and the punch-and-shove, notice the beautiful contrast between Horiguchi’s bounce and Nasukawa’s more kickboxing/Muay Thai style of transitioning weight back and forth between the feet within the stance. That’s the great thing about fighting: there’s a hundred different ways to do it.

The skip-up calf tap (albeit with no follow up):

A nice front kick to the body (again out of the bounce) and a pull away from the counter.

The clip Rizin repeated over and over was a good right hand which was immediately pushed through to the wall. The right hand itself isn’t hugely interesting, the shove is. This is the thing Horiguchi should be doing in the fight above all else: denying the open side counter. Horiguchi’s game is bursting into his right hand and Nasukawa’s game is countering through the open side as that hand is drawn back. Often when facing that counter the better thing to do is to push through and fold behind the right elbow or shoulder, driving into the opponent and smothering him rather than trying to retreat into the stance.

One of the great things about kickboxing, compared to boxing, is that a good degree of physicality is permitted. A push or pull might not seem like much but Giorgio Petrosyan has built a career out of it as we examined in Giorgio Petrosyan and The Counter to All Strikes. Every strike or combination ends with a little shove—it is re-establishing range but rather than stepping back, one forces the opponent out of their stance and out of their opportunity to come back with a counter.

Petrosyan mixes this in with ducks into clinches after his strikes and this—the more familiar “punch and clutch” should also be a staple of Horiguchi’s game here. Hiding the burst and staying safe after the burst are paramount. Other tactics that allow Horiguchi to score points with the least chance of retaliation—long front kicks/low-line side kicks if they are permitted—or complicate counter punching—the skip-up calf kick—should be thrown in liberally throughout.

The excitement here is not so much whether Kyoji Horiguchi can beat Tenshin Nasukawa: you wouldn't expect him to, given his complete inexperience in kickboxing competition. The intrigue is in seeing whether Horiguchi can effectively apply the point fighting game to kickboxing, where it hasn’t really been proven at all. A few seconds of sparring recorded on a phone in 2015 doesn’t mean anything to the outcome of the fight, but the teaser of that point fighting style flummoxing Nasukawa for even a few moments has definitely got this writer intrigued.

If Horiguchi can perform even respectably here the world opens up for him. An Alistair Overeem style staggering of combat sports would be remarkable and an excellent way for Horiguchi to establish himself as Japan’s fighting superstar: something he was unable to do while being hidden away on UFC undercards.

Jack Slack wrote the biography Notorious: The Life and Fights of Conor McGregor, and hosts the Fights Gone By podcast.