RIZIN New Year’s Eve 2016

The second of the two year-end Rizin shows was even better than the previous year’s. A step up in live and domestic TV production, plus a variety of matchups punctuated with the semi finals and final of the men’s openweight tournament, entertaining the old Pride fans plus those relatively new to the sport both home and abroad.

Going out on major national network, Fuji TV (both days edited and packaged into one airing on the 31st), and streamable overseas with English commentary talking, it was pushed as part of the new joshi-kaku – female fighters – revolution. Japan is enjoying a resurgence of mainstream MMA, the talent of CEO, Nobuyuki Sakakibara, along with Nobuhiko Takada, bringing the martial arts, fighter stories, and show of heart that the Japanese fans come to see. MMA and kickboxing gyms are regularly opening in and around Tokyo.

Nobuhiko Takada opening RIZIN 2016 NYE event.

The mens’ openweight semi-finals kicked off with ex-sumo wrestler, Baruto, who was unusually booed for his nevertheless unimpressive win over Japanese heavyweight legend, Tsuyoshi Kosaka. Mirko, under the rules concerning weight difference, chose not to allow knees and kicks to a downed opponent. Smart move. Baruto, coached and cornered by Mr.Pride, opened with the predictable bully to corner, his size and strength too much even for the footwork of Cropcop. It all ended very quickly from there with a sharp knee to the ribs of the ex-sumo, sending him to the canvas in agony. Mirko advanced to the final with no damage and a full gas tank.

 

Hayato ‘Mach’ Sakurai, an old school home favourite, known for his judo, constant pressure,  and his violent win over Shinya Aoki, fought Wataru Sakata (43) at a catchweight of 180lbs. Sakata, who walks around at 210lbs, has fought the likes of Daniel Gracie and Mario Sperry. He was trained and cornered by Tsuyoshi Kosaka, his camp being primarily with TK’s Team Alliance, no easy opponent even for the somewhat inactive Mach (40). Mach dominated the fight and once gaining high mount position, dropped heavy hands on the DEEP and Pride veteran, taking a powerful TKO victory. In his ring speech after the fight, he expressed his respect for Sakata taking such punishment from the mount and not giving his back. He also said he’s very happy to fight until he’s 50. Mach is still strong and we’ll see him back in the RIZIN ring for sure.

In the 8th match of the day, the famous RENA from Shootboxing, faced Hanna ‘Tyson’ Gujwan. Both fighters young but well established in their kickboxing careers, made their MMA debuts within the last year, so this matchup took on interest exceeding the joshi-kaku boom. Would it just be a striking match, or would we see either or both out to prove their MMA skills? The answer turned out to be the latter. We were treated to fast, crisp striking, and RENA with a double leg takedown into half mount which was reversed by Hanna. RENA showed damaging body shots on the ground and eventually won by TKO from a liver kick. With her looks, personality and martial skills, she is fast becoming a big star here, so MMA Japan is following her closely.

The semi-co-main event, at 62kg (136lbs), the once known “Contract worker fighter” Hideo Tokoro fought Erson Yamamoto (of the famous wrestling Yamamoto family). Tokoro’s old nickname was given years ago because he took any short-term contract work, like cleaning, in order to support his MMA training and aspirations. Erson was just a wee kid taking wrestling classes when this writer arrived in Japan and started training at Purebred Shooto. Arguably, Erson, who’s mother fought on the same card, has not had any easy breaks to his MMA career, being fed to the lions already in his RIZIN debut against Kron Gracie. Erson gave his usual solid 100% effort, but Hideo Tokoro caught him with an armbar from the bottom, very similar to the way his mother lost two fights previous on the same card. Tokoro showed everything and the crowd loved it: condition, speed, skill and heart.

The co-main event was spectacular. Pride and UFC vet, Tasuya ‘The Crusher’ Kawajiri’s power and skill was pitted against Kron Gracie’s still relatively unknown and rapidly evolving approach. Of course, his Gracie jiu-jitsu was always going to be a factor, but how about the other areas of his MMA? The questions were answered in the first round. Gracie would take any opportunity for a takedown, but showed that he could stand with Kawajiri, both clinching up and dirty boxing. In the second round Gracie showed the efficacy of his ground game, beautifully and smoothly taking the back from Kawajiri’s stomp attempts. The RIZIN rule set allows an alternative dynamic, creating opportunities not there in the unified rule set. Gracie took advantage with a transition from being stomped to back take and RNC finish. Not many can say they’ve finished Kawajiri, but his achilles seems to be chokes. Kron Gracie is sure to take an even tougher opponent in his next RIZIN fight, cornered by Rickson.

Mirko Crocop came out to his trademark ‘Wild Boys’ track to face Amir Aliakbari for the 2016 RIZIN Openweight Championship belt. Amir, slightly taller and carrying more than 20lbs in bodyweight, had a tougher route to the final in terms of time in the ring, but he was looking dangerous. The fight started with Amir looking for big shots and takedown set ups. Mirko got wise to this very quickly, found his distance and landed a fast and heavy left cross down the pipe, ruining Amir’s hopes of a belt, money, custom brand watch and cruise prize.

RIZIN, the Pride show model in place, but still doing its own thing, has brought back the excitement of the year end battles and stories that accompany them. The rule set and large ring instead of a cage; the charisma and stylistic match ups punctuated with some pro wrestling theatrics; the opening; the domestic TV production, all a big hit to finish off 2016 and step into 2017.

Now the questions hang as RIZIN promises 5 shows in 2017: Will the Yamamoto family come back strong? Who will face RENA – to Japan as Angela Lee is to Singapore? Is Kron Gracie the highest level grappler in MMA at his weight? And, who will replace Joe Warren as color commentator for the English broadcast?

About the Author

Stewart Fulton

Pancrase MMA commentator on UFC Fight Pass.
Twitter @sfultonMMA