Pride on the Line as Rizin and Bellator Rivals Prepare for War

For New Years Eve Rizin 40 has undoubtedly pulled together their top tier talent, creating sensational match ups across the board. The climax of the night, the peak that will have fans around the world waiting with bated breath, will undeniably be the 5 vs 5 Rizin vs Bellator “all-star team” showdown.

History in the making.

The fight is on for the promotions as they look to cement their status in historic matches featuring, as Sakakibara framed it, “the absolute best” of both promotions, “like a world cup of mma.” The Rizin boss doubled down on his statement, “I think this will be the first time in the history of MMA where two promotions will fully go at it with their best guys.” 

Risk and reward.

2 organisations fully committed to putting their reputations on the line, bringing their “A-list” fighters is not without risk. With a worldwide reputation, Bellator’s brand would appear to be facing the greatest risk, something Scott Coker recognised, “You’re putting your brand in harm’s way. That’s OK because that should be the martial arts way. Right? Where the best fight the best. When Sakakibara owned PRIDE, that’s what happened.”

A proving ground for the best fighters.

The philosophy echoes that of the historic Pride FC during Japan’s “Golden Era” of MMA, where the world’s best regularly clashed, leaving it all in the ring. Competing for not just wealth, fighters sought the prestige that came with reaching the pinnacle of the sport. Coker elaborated, “Before the UFC came and bought PRIDE, the best fighters were fighting in PRIDE. The best fighters were fighting in K-1 at that time. I don’t mean to go off on a tangent, but at the end of the day, it comes down to the best fighters should fight the best fighters.”

A respectful rivalry.

The always insightful Rizin Confessions series caught up with 8 of the “All-star team” members from Rizin and Bellator for their perspective on the respectful rivalry.

Roberto de Souza, “I want to protect the Rizin name”

“My life has changed after making my Rizin debut,” a reflective Souza commented, briefly reminiscing about his time before becoming a renowned grappler. His late father Addison Souza was a Judo instructor who slowly added Brazilian JuJitsu, Karate and other Martial Arts to his children’s repertoire. After relocating to Japan times were tough but Roberto lived by his fathers Japanese mentality. Life, like a Bonsai tree, will not always go the direction you want, however, if you put in time and effort you can shape it to your liking. 

Fast forward and Roberto “Satoshi” de Souza is one of Japanese Martial Arts biggest, and brightest stars, propelled into the spotlight after winning the Rizin LW belt. “It’s really happening, it’s like I’m dreaming,” the grappling phenom mused, “I’ve always wanted to fight Bellator fighters. I want to fight the worlds best” He stated with authority before adding, “most of all I want to protect the Rizin name and belt.”

Defending the org that turned his life around will not be easy, standing across from him will be a huge challenge in AJ McKee. “He’s got that karate style, a southpaw who loads up on all his left attacks.” Souza noted before continuing, “he comes out strong in the first round.” As for tactics come New Years Eve, the submission ace was wary of his opponents power, “I need to be careful in the first three minutes” he acknowledged before confidently proclaiming,  “just give me one opportunity and I will get the submission.”


A.J. McKee, “Whatever you are weakest in I am probably that little bit stronger”

Like many fighters visiting the land of the rising sun, A.J McKee was enthralled, “it is kind of like a dream for me to come and fight in japan” the Bellator stand out told Rizin Confessions. Reminiscing about Pride and Japan’s rich MMA history, McKee brought up a particular match that held significant importance for him.

Antonio McKee, A.J’s father, compiled an extensive and impressive record, venturing to Japan to face superstar Shinya Aoki under the Dream banner. “My father When he fought here he suffered a loss, he broke his orbital” A.J stated with disappointment. While his father could not live up to expectations, A.J sees his Rizin match as an opportunity to right the wrong, “(this is) me trying to gain revenge for him”

Possessing a well versed style for MMA the top ranked Bellator LW has the strength and athleticism to match his skills. A dangerous and cerebral fighter, acutely aware of what an opponent brings to the table and how to capitalise, “whatever you are weakest in I am probably that bit stronger” the Bellator Featherweight GP winner assessed. Aware of his opponent’s deadly submission acumen, McKee remains unfazed. The top ranked Bellator FW declared “I’ve never been submitted and I am not going to tap!”


Kleber Koike, “What makes me happy the most in this fight is that I am representing Japan.” 

Arriving in Japan with his parents Kleber Koike opted to stay when they returned to Brazil. The 18 year old struggled with labour work to survive as he incessantly studied under the tutelage of Roberto “Satoshi” de Souza and others at Bonzai gym. Turning his life around, Koike spoke of his current situation, “I have friends, I have a family, I have a great place I want to be.” Overwhelmed by the public support Koike is proud to compete for the country he now calls home, “What makes me happy the most in this fight is that I am representing Japan” 

No longer simply looking out for himself Koike is keenly aware of the pressure and responsibility upon his shoulders. “I fight to protect what I have,” the submission guru stated emphatically. With family, teaching and taking care of business on his mind Koike brought up that he “cannot focus on (his) fight at home,” relocating to Thailand to complete his training, “In japan I would feel too much pressure.” 

The current Rizin Featherweight champion, Koike has strung together 6 impressive back to back submission wins. Aware he faces one of MMA’s most destructive fighters Koike hones his stand up in preparation, “it won’t be easy taking him to the ground, I have to stand with him at a certain point so I need to expand my chances.” With a penchant to throw gameplans out the window and brawling Koike has paid for it in the past, getting dropped to the canvas or rocked on the feet. “I made mistakes against Sasaki… Hagiwara… Asakura but I was able to adjust” Koike reflected, then noted “my next fighter, one mistake will cost me the fight, 1 mistake and I am dead!” 


Patricio “Pitbull” Friere, I am here to beat the champions in the far east”

Stepping into the Rizin ring on the 31st will be one of the most intimidating and fearsome fighters the world has seen. Patricio “Pitbull” Friere has been at the top of the Bellator Featherweight division for a long time. “I have the most wins and title fights in Bellator history” the Champion proudly told Rizin confessions. 

Not only has Pitbulls dominance in Bellator been undisputed, it has been violent. With just the smallest window of opportunity he can deliver a crushing knockout. Controlled aggression is the game for Friere, “I am a very calm fighter but will become vicious when needed.” Stalking his prey on the feet the BJJ fighter also has faith in his grappling, “I have more sub wins than KOs and not afraid to take the fight to the ground” he pointed out. Acknowledging his opponent Koike has “polished jujitsu skills and is a very tough fighter” Pitbull still sees only 1 outcome, “I will defend all his submissions and knock him out”  

Returning to Japan is something Pibull has always desired, bringing up that it is his “dream to fight in japan like (his) brother.” Patricky Freire competed in Rizin’s LW tournament, falling short in the final round. For his brother, for Bellator, Pitbull threw down the gauntlet, “I am here to beat the champions in the far east!” he proclaimed. 


Kim Soo Chul, “everything I worked for led to this moment” 

Known for his ferocious and entertaining fight style, Korean veteran Kim Soo Chul is good natured and amiable outside of the ring/cage. Regarding his successful Rizin debut, an upset of tournament champion Hiromasa Ogikubo, Kim was light hearted and humorous. “My wife told me if I won in Rizin she would buy me a Nintendo switch, she promised me. But she didn’t buy me one,” he joked. Revealing the hidden motivation behind his Bellator match up, “I will make sure I beat Archuleta and secure that Nintendo switch!“

A veteran of the sport, Kim has claimed belts in One Championship and Road FC before a career turning victory in Rizin. Speaking to Rizin Confessions Kim seemed to feel his high profile showdown on NYE was almost destined, “It’s been 13 years since I started fighting. Being selected for this massive event makes me feel that everything I worked for was leading to this moment.”

When the bell rings and fight starts, Kim is cold, calculated and, to the delight of fans, does not back down from a firefight. “I have a stronger mind than anybody and will continue to press forward” he said, further stating “I will grab the victory with my iron will.” With his opponent possessing a similar style the Korean warrior sees a key to victory, “Archuleta is very agile, with excellent wrestling but he leaves himself open for headshots and I will attack from various angles,” Kim observed. “I will put on a show,” the entertaining fighter assured.


Juan Archuleta, “My value is in my fights. I let my fighting style speak for itself”

From childhood Archuleta envisioned himself fighting in Japan. “I have always wanted to fight here, ever since I was a kid” he stated. Like others of his generation, growing up watching Japanese MMA at its peak Archuleta referenced “the warriors that came before us, those are the type of people that make me want to fight here” 

Aware of the high regard in which fighters are held in Japan, for the former Bellator Bantamweight Champion fighting is not simply about winning. “It’s the honor, it’s the respect, it’s the glory” he stated, “it’s putting one man’s will against another when fights happen here in Japan inside Saitama arena.” With Regards to the Japanese philosophy on fighting Archuleta believes his style will fit right in, “I hear fighting spirit is appreciated in Japan which is something I always show,”  

In contrast to other countries, where fighters market themselves by talking up their value, Archuleta has let results speak for themselves. A King of the Cage 3 division champion, Former Bellator Champion and perennial top ranker, the American is not much of a talker but a beast in the cage. “My fight style is ruthless, I go out there and try to take the person’s soul” he coldly observed, aware his opponent has the same intention, ”he is going to try to break my will just like I am going to try to break his will.” The thought of 2 “Terminators,” throwing caution to the wind, going toe to toe, neither taking a backward step has created a highly anticipated match-up, something Archuleta is understandably happy about. “My value is in my fights. I let my fighting style speak for itself, I don’t need to run my mouth or do the things modern day MMA fighters do.”


Kyoji Horiguchi, “If I was to go to after the top of the world it would be at FlyWeight”

Once on top of the Bantamweight world, holding both Rizin and Bellator title belts, Horiguchi fell to Kai Asakura, vacated his Bellator title and went under the knife. Since his return it has not been smooth sailing for the Karate stylist. In the rematch with Asakura, Horiguchi found his revenge, returning the favor with an emphatic 1st round stoppage. A shocking defeat to Sergio Pettis in a comeback of the year contender was followed by a decision loss to grappling technician Patrick Mix. Bouncing back with a submission win over Yuto “Kintaro” Hokamura, Horiguchi has elected to move back to contend the lighter Featherweight class. 

It is not because I was struggling at Bantamweight” the MMA star was quick to point out, “I always thought my true division was flyweight. I was pushing myself to fight at Bantamweight.” Participating in Rizin’s first Flyweight bout, there is undoubtedly no better fighter to herald a new era for the promotion. Undersized compared to most at 135 lbs Horiguchi used lightning fast speed and pinpoint accuracy combined with textbook grappling to ensure victory. Clearly a top fighter at a higher weight class, Horiguchi believes that 125 lbs is truly where he will make a global impact, “if I was to go to after the top of the world it would be at Flyweight”

Standing opposite Horiguchi New Years Eve will be a familiar foe. Hiromasa Ogikubo has squared off against Horiguchi twice, and lost twice. Their 2nd encounter took place in Rizin where Horiguchi took over the fight late, “I went for the finish but he kept defending” he remarked. Despite the previous results the former Bantamweight king is careful to not be overconfident, “Ogikubo has always been a good fighter and has got mentally tougher, he doesn’t back down anymore” he noted. 

Fighting out of American Top Team Horiguchi believes his biggest asset to be the team’s meticulous attention to details. “Mike Brown watches fights and comes up with new techniques,” Horiguchi explained, further stating “I have developed more weapons in my arsenal.” ATT is well known for studying opponents and forming a blueprint to success, Horiguchi, however has been caught in the moment and strayed from plans in the past to appease fans. Regardless of the result, expect Horiguchi to put on a thrilling performance fit for the arrival of the Flyweight division, “I think our sport has more appeal than baseball or soccer, it is just how to show it”  


Hiromasa Ougikubo, “I want Rizin to have the best flyweight division in the world”

Shifting back down in weight to 125 lbs, Hiromasa Ogikubo looks to climb his way to the top, taking out his nemesis in the process. “Horiguchi started fighting after me but before I knew it, I was the one chasing him,” Ogikubo mentioned, alluding to his previous defeats. Dwelling on his mental attitude and inability to mount offence he noted, “sometimes I feel like I am not fit to be a fighter, when weaknesses like that show.” Frustrated at being “stuck on defence” during their second encounter the Rizin Bantamweight tournament champion mulled over retirement post match.

After starting a family Ogikubo’s perspective and motivation have shifted. With a wife and child the family man views his fights through a different lens, “I won’t let them say I am mentally weak after gaining many things to protect,” he retorted. Wiping the slate clean and removing the pressure placed upon himself Ogikubo simply wants to “fight as the current me.” Brimming with confidence Ogikubo declared, “I can beat him if I fight him again”

Regarding the 3rd encounter between 2 of Japan’s elite Ogikubo maintained that he had “no reason not to accept” as “(Horiguchi) has been my goal all of these years.” More than simply avenging his losses, Ogikubo plans to make a statement, setting the standard for the Flyweight division. “I want Rizin to have the best flyweight division in the world and Horiguchi and me will kick it off by making the division’s first fight a great fight,” he promised.

About the Author

Peter Leghorn
Writer and photographer sharing my passion for Martial Arts. instagram: peter_mmajapan

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