by Keith Vargo
The RIZIN 2017 in Yokohama: Sakura event wasn’t just an exercise in nostalgia. Though there were big names from the kakutougi boom era on the card, like Heath Herring and Tatsuya Kawajiri, the show was more about the future than the past. Sure, the promoters followed the old formula at times, featuring pro-wrestlers and super-heavyweight fighters on the undercard. But the matches that really kept people on the edge of their seat were all younger fighters, eager to make their mark and become MMA stars for a new generation of Japanese fans.
Probably the biggest of these rising MMA stars is Rena Kubota. Billed simply as “RENA” in the Japanese media, Kubota has been a high-level kickboxer and shootboxing (i.e. kickboxing with throws and standing submissions) champion for nearly a decade. Her four shootboxing titles garnered her a lot of media attention and TV appearances, helping to build name recognition ahead of her switch to MMA. That’s why RENA’s face dominated all the advertising for this event and her match with Hungary’s Dora Perjes, which was actually fought mid-card at Yokohama Arena, was taped and broadcast as the main event on TV.
Placing RENA at the top of the card almost backfired. Perjes came out, launched a stinging right, and then dragged Kubota to the canvas. What followed was a harrowing two minutes of the Japanese star fighting of armbar attempts, one of them fully extending the arm as Kubota desperately struggled to shove Perjes’s leg off her face and escape. But once she got out and back to her feet, RENA dominated the action with strikes. First, it was a knockdown with a kick to the body. Next, Perjes dropped and attempted a leg lock and Kubota stomped her way out of it. Then she ended the fight standing with a left hook to the body, putting Perjes down and out of commission.
While the fight definitely preserved her appeal as both a winning fighter and media figure, RENA is still vulnerable on the ground. That means it’s going to be a risk putting her at the top of the card until she improves her wrestling and submission skills. But considering how far she’s come and how popular RENA has become, it’s a risk RIZIN will continue to take.
Another female fighter, “King” Reina Miura, is becoming a rising star in RIZIN for an entirely different reason. The 21 year old is a throwback to the MMA fighters of the kakutougi boom who gained fame from beating pro-wrestlers. Her first big win came in February of this year against UFC vet and pro-wrestler Shayna Baszler. At this show, the 5’3″, 164 lb. Miura outclassed 6′ 0″, 200 lb. German pro-wrestler Jazzy Gabert. The fight started with both women standing and slugging it out with no hint of defense. Then “King Reina” got clinched and tossed Gabert with an uchi-mata throw. Once on the ground, the German pro-wrestler had no answers. Miura easily kept her on the mat, first in side position and then in mount, and punched as Gabert squirmed and flailed on the bottom for the rest of the round. The second round was similar, except that more of Gabert’s punches were finding their mark in the opening minute. That forced the Japanese fighter to punch her way into a greco-roman clinch and drag Gabert to the ground. After a long time dominating from the top position and punching strategically, “King Reina” caught the German fighter in an armlock and ended the match. On July 30th, Reina will take on another pro-wrestler, RIZIN veteran Seini “Lei’d Tapa” Draughn.
Among the male fighters, there’s one that stood head and shoulders above the rest. That’s kickboxing phenom Tenshin Nasukawa. The 18 year old Japanese kickboxer has reportedly had over 100 amateur fights and is currently 17-0 as a pro. His well-honed stand up skills include an excellent ability to read his opponents and fluid changes between sharp kicking and punching combinations. Both were on display against his game but outmatched opponent, Fransesco Ghigliotti.
It took Nasukawa about a 30 seconds to feel out his opponent and find his distance. Then it was only a matter of time as the Japanese southpaw pressed Ghigliotti, staying just out of range while scoring with sharp punches and kicks. A little past the one minute mark, Nasukawa stunned the Italian fighter with a straight left and a lightning fast left round kick, a kick he admitted later in the press area “didn’t even see…come off the ground”. As Ghigliotti stumbled to the side, the Japanese kickboxer hit him with another straight left and put him on the canvas. After Nasukawa followed Ghigliotti to the ground and started raining down blows, the ref stopped it.
On July 30th, Nasukawa will take on another kickboxer crossing over to MMA, fellow flyweight and K-1 veteran Kizaemon Saiga.
Probably the biggest star-making performance at RIZIN 2017 in Yokohama was Yusuke Yachi’s stunning knockout of UFC veteran Darin Cruickshank. In a brief but intense fight. Cruickshank and Yachi were like hair-trigger weapons. Each pressed the other, launched a few blistering strikes, and then returned to just outside of striking distance. While Cruickshank methodically backed the Krazy Bee fight up against the ropes with good jab/straight/round kick combos, Yachi was doing a good job of spinning of the ropes and staying out of the way. But when he changed up and met Cruickshank lunging forward, mid-combo with a big right hook, that was the end. Yachi’s hook landed perfectly and with full power, crumpling the American and announcing himself as a force in RIZIN. And that win earned him a fight with former DREAM champion Satoru Kitaoka on the next RIZIN card.
In short, the future looks bright for the next generation of Japanese MMA stars making their mark in RIZIN. While the old fighter from the kakutougi boom era are fighting their last few matches and finishing out there careers, younger fighters like RENA, “King Reina,” Tenshin Nasukawa, and Yusuke Yachi are forging a new future for Japanese MMA. It’s one with nods towards PRIDE’s pro-wrestling roots, but shaping it’s own identity with talented strikers and a newly emergent group of female fighters. Where that future leads, no one quite knows yet. But if it delivers more of what we saw at RIZIN 2017 in Yokohama, it’s a future worth watching.