A Look Back at RIZIN 2017 in Yokohama: Sakura (part 1)

Satoshi Ishii being introduced before his fight with Heath Herring.

By Keith Vargo

A few days after the 4/16 RIZIN 2017 in Yokohama: Sakura event, I met former PRIDE translator Alan Ballard for dinner. When I asked what he thought of the RIZIN show, he took a moment to think, clearly trying to be as diplomatic as possible, and said “I think if you took a coin and scratched at the RIZIN logo like it was a lottery ticket, you’d find the PRIDE logo underneath it.” It’s hard for anyone familiar with the legendary PRIDE promotion to see it any other way. The last president of PRIDE, Nobuyuki Sakakibara, is running RIZIN. The face of the promotion, 90’s pro-wrestling star Nobuhiko Takada, was also the face of PRIDE. The voice of PRIDE, Lenne Hardt, is introducing the RIZIN fighters and many of the refs and ringside officials are carryovers as well. Amazingly, even some of the fighters are the same. But as much as RIZIN seems to be a PRIDE revival, 2017 is a different time. The things that made PRIDE what it was during the kakutougi boom of the early aughts are receding into the past and, as fights showed, RIZIN is becoming something different.

Satoshi Ishii vs. Heath Herring

Probably the most anticipated fight for old PRIDE fans was Heath Herring vs. Satoshi Ishii. It was also the clearest reminder that the PRIDE those fans remember is gone.

Herring famously fought Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira for the first PRIDE heavyweight title back in 2001. Though he lost that match, Herring’s high-output fights and punk-rock cowboy ring entrances made him a fan favorite, leading to 17 appearances in the promotion. Ishii, on the other hand, missed the PRIDE era. But he was a household name in Japan for winning heavyweight gold in judo at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Unfortunately, being the best big man on the planet in judo hasn’t translated into MMA greatness. Ishii came into this fight with a record of 14-7-1, with most of those wins against older, shopworn fighters. A win against Herring would add to the list of kakutougi boom legends Ishii has beaten.

After a dramatic entrance by Herring (coming in dressed like WWE star The Undertaker) and a big build up for the hometown Ishii, the fight was anticlimactic. Herring was clearly out of shape and showing none of the hustle that made him a fan favorite in the PRIDE era. In spite of this, the younger, in-shape Ishii struggled to succeed with anything against the Texas native. The judo gold medalist even struggled with what should have been his biggest advantage over Herring, his Olympic-level throwing skills.

The fight opened with Herring launching a big front kick and straight punch at Ishii, and then quickly falling into a clinch. Ishii twisted and muscled his way through two attempts at throwing the Texan before finally putting him on the canvas with a harai-goshi. What followed was nine minutes of sloppy wrestling, with the judo Olympian getting on top, landing strikes without much power, and Herring squirming out of one bad position and immediately being put in another. Only once was there a halfway serious submission attempt by Ishii, an ude garami. But Herring quickly squirmed out of that too. The second round was virtually identical to the first and, in the end, the judges awarded Ishii a decision.

Afterward, Herring was apologetic, saying he was disappointed in his performance. “I want the fans to be on their feet, excited about the fight,” he said, but admitted that there wasn’t much to be excited about in the match. An upbeat Herring finished by saying, “Hopefully, they’ll have me back and I can put on a better show next time.” But if they have him back, it will likely be as an opponent for up-and-coming fighters. There are plenty of young heavyweights like Ishii who’d like a win against a PRIDE legend to boost their credibility among casual fans.

Tatsuya Kawajiri vs. Anthony Birchak

The main event featured another PRIDE veteran, Tatsuya “Crusher” Kawajiri against UFC veteran Anthony Birchak. This fight was another one old fans were looking forward to, but it delivered in every way that the Ishii/Herring fight didn’t.

As the fighters waited for the ring announcer to finish introducing them, Birchak looked cool and collected. Kawajiri, who was just weeks shy of his 39th birthday, looked nervous. But whatever nerves he may have felt seemed to vanish at the opening bell. Kawajiri stepped right up to his opponent, lunging with a jab and cross. Birchak fired back with a quick counter cross that missed and we had the template for the rest of the fight. Whatever one man did, the other fought back with all they had.

The fighters took the fight to each in different ways. Birchak showed versatility. He attacked well with both kicks and punches. He scrambled well on the ground, fought his way out of bad positions and scored the occasional throw or takedown. Kawajiri showed the tenacity and power that have made him one of Japan’s top featherweights for nearly two decades. When Birchak would round kick, Kawajiri took the hit, scoop the American’s leg high into the air, end dump him on the canvas. When he got Birchak’s back, he clung tightly to him and worked for a rear naked choke. When Birchak would escape and fire back at him, Kawajiri would shoot, slam him into the mat, and then pound on him from the top position until Birchak escaped.

Both men gave everything they had. But the judges awarded the win to Kawajiri, presumably for the amount of time he spent pounding Birchak in the top position. In the press area after the fight, Birchak was clearly upset. The UFC vet felt that he was attacking from every position, even the bad ones, and that his kicks should have scored higher. But he confessed that he was mainly upset because he viewed Kawajiri as a beatable opponent. “I will be the first RIZIN 135 lb. champion,” he said tersely. “No one (in the division) can match my power and speed.”

Although it was a great effort from “Crusher,” it’s hard to imagine the middle-aged fighter putting on many more maximum effort performances like this one. None of the old guard from the PRIDE era could. Their time in the spotlight is passing. It’s the new generation of fighters that made up the undercard at this RIZIN show that will define the new era of bigtime MMA in Japan.