The past year has been a big one for RIZIN. Nearly a whole year ago, they put on RIZIN 14, which was headlined by kickboxing star Tenshin Nasukawa taking on Floyd Mayweather. That was just the tip of the iceberg for that card, which was stacked with talent. The promotion went on to leave it’s home venue of Saitama Super Arena and travel out to Yokohama, Kobe, Nagoya and Osaka.
RIZIN has their biggest New Year’s Eve week ahead of them, with two events, including one co-promoted alongside Bellator. With that on the horizon, we thought it would be a good time to reflect on the past year in JMMA and RIZIN specifically.
We put together a panel of JMMA and RIZIN pundits to weigh in on 2019’s highs and lows for RIZIN.
Meet The Cast
Mike Skytte is a writer for MMA news site The Body Lock. He has covered the JMMA beat for years now.
BasedDongeezus has been closely following and covering the JMMA scene for many years. He produces video content through Twitter, going through old and new, and often obscure corners of the scene. He is also the editor for Tapology.com’s JMMA section.
Jack Wannan is an MMA contributor for JackWannan.com and Fansided MMA. He has covered JMMA for roughly a year.
Question: Overall, how do you feel about the shows that RIZIN put on this year?
Mike Skytte: Very good. I think there’s a legitimate argument for it being the best 12-month stretch the promotion has had yet – especially taking into account RIZIN 14 and Yarennoka!. They’ve had a few large scale shows at Saitama, but have also put on some more high-end regional-level shows in smaller arenas at 16, 18, 19. They are starting to amass a deep enough roster to increase the number of events per year without having any of those events being watered down. It’s exciting times, and next year should continue to evolve on this front.
Jack Wannan: Personally I thought it was a great year for the promotion. While some shows had disappointing parts or odd matchmaking, the presentation of the product never lacked. With that being said, we were treated to some real great matchups this past year.
BasedDongeezus: Seemed like a bit of a step back for the promotion. Their events seemed heavier with name value and talent last year as well as being a better viewing experience. The increased intermission times this year really made it hard to enjoy the live events.
It wasn’t all bad though. They made some strides with their kickboxing matchmaking this year with progressively more competitive fights. They are closing the year out with one of the best kickboxing bouts they have put together in Tenshin vs Rui Ebata and bringing a high-level talent like Ren Hiramoto in.
Q: What show this year was RIZIN’s best?
MS: RIZIN 17, no question. It had everything. Big finishes, big debuts, memorable fights – including arguably the best in the promotion’s history. Yarennoka! Was special for me as well. It was just a JMMA regional card in a lot of ways, topped by two absolute legends. And it was a seriously cool watch to see a show like that on such a massive scale because RIZIN.
16 was somewhat similar. A few big-time names, but the first half of the card was very regional-esque, and it delivered. Some vicious KO’s on that one. RIZIN 19 was great as well. 13 fights, 11 finishes, you can’t go wrong with that. Not to mention that one of the fights that went the distance was the barnburner between Shiratori and TAIGA. But; not dodging any legit answer. RIZIN 17 was, in my opinion, the best event of 2019 thus far. Bold opinion or not, it was terrific.
BD: On paper, it’s the New Year’s Eve event, RIZIN 20, as one would expect. Since that event hasn’t played out yet, I will go with RIZIN 17.
Motoya vs Ogikubo was one of the best fights I watched this year and it happened between former DEEP and a Shooto World champions. TAIGA finally won, #ShemetovtoRIZIN was realized, Seo Hee Ham debuted and did her thing, and the Lightweight Grand Prix field began to take shape. Ishiwatari submitted Ulka following a 19-month layoff for a serious neck injury. Then to top it off Mikuru Asakura moved up to beat Yachi and solidify himself as one of RIZIN’s top talents.
JW: I would have to say RIZIN 17. For starters, the atmosphere was amazing. The crowd was red hot, which we didn’t really see elsewhere this year. With the absence of names like Kyoji Horiguchi, Tenshin Nasukawa, Ayaka Hamasaki or RENA on the card, it was a star-making night for Mikuru Asakura, being put under more of a spotlight than ever. The show had it’s fair balance of fun and absurd. The triple threat of fights to close the show were some serious matchups, but on the same card we saw Japan’s darling Vitaly Shemetov and the scariest man I’ve ever seen Ivan Shtyrkov compete in matches.
Q: What show was RIZIN’s worst?
BD: RIZIN 19 was the worst live viewing experience of the events this year. The numerous hour-long intermissions, which lasted as long as the event itself, killed all momentum and sucked the life out of the event. I ended up just going to sleep before the main event. It’s a shame because bout by bout the event was perfectly fine.
MS: RIZIN 15 for me. I don’t have a deep explanation unfortunately. For me, looking at the events, it stood out the least for me. For some reason, it just felt like a slog to watch compared to other RIZIN shows this year. Nothing particularly “bad” about it, just didn’t have as many standout moments as a few of the other shows.
JW: RIZIN 19 was easily the promotion’s worst show. There was maybe two close competitions on that show, with everything else being one-sided competitions for one fighter. And because of RIZIN’s pacing, the numerous quick finishes meant numerous hours of intermission.
Q: What names stuck out to you the most in RIZIN this year?
MS: Kai Asakura, obviously. Knocked out Kyoji Horiguchi ridiculously quick, made Ulka Sasaki look like an amateur and shattered his jaw. Manel Kape is one as well. He is just consistently looking better and better. His evolution is incredibly noticeable. The performance against Seiichiro Ito is one of the most all-around kickass performances of the year, regardless of promotion. And his knockout over Mizugaki speaks for itself.
Jake Heun is up there as well. The best entrances in the game perhaps. He belongs in RIZIN. He belongs in Japan. He will never get the respect and appreciation he deserves in North America, unfortunately. That’s a sad reality, but the Japanese fans will more than make up for it. He just belongs on the stage RIZIN provides. Personality, entrances, etc aside, the man is a great action fighter. Always exciting, beat DEEP champ and very legit heavyweight Roque Martinez, and then spoiled arguably the most anticipated RIZIN debut by slicing up Vitaly Shemetov. Great stuff.
JW: I thought this past year showcased many great names in women’s MMA. While I knew and follow Seo Hee Ham career before, her two performances in RIZIN this year were dominant. Ayaka Hamasaki also had a great year. AI is a clear prospect heading into 2020. Kana Watanabe had great fights this year too. I hope to see her in RIZIN more in 2020.
The Asakura brothers are also names that stuck out to me. They took every opportunity and ran with it. While Jiri Prochazka is clearly talented, he didn’t have any real challenging matchups this year.
BD: Kai Asakura of course is the big name this year following his quick finish of Horiguchi and shattering Ulka’s jaw. If he wins the title fight on New Year’s Eve then he’s a shoe in for JMMA fighter of the year.
Other than him, the Super Atomweight division stuck out, Ayaka Hamasaki and Seo Hee Ham in particular. They are undeniably the #1 and #2 in the world, their rematch on New Year’s Eve is one of the biggest fights in RIZIN this year.
Q: What is your RIZIN Fight of the Year?
MS: Hiromasa Ogikubo vs. Yuki Motoya. On paper, this fight was one of the best RIZIN has ever booked and it absolutely delivered. Ridiculous fight. Can;t recommend it enough.
BD: Hiromasa Ogikubo vs Yuki Motoya. Highly competitive fight between two elite fighters with exciting shifts in momentum.
JW: Personally, I have AI vs. Tabatha Watkins as my fight of the year. Still a prospect, AI was pushed to the absolute limit against Watkins. Nearly getting her arm ripped off by an armbar, AI rallied in the third round with damaging strikes to get the fight back. I had enjoyed AI’s DEEP JEWELS fights before and her New Year’s Eve slaughter against Nanaka Kawamura, but this was the next level from her. TAIGA’s last-minute rally against Taiju Shiratori was quite fun as well.
Q: Which fight didn’t live up to its hype?
BD: Mikuru Asakura vs Yusuke Yachi, just expected a bit more and it was at the end of a long event.
MS: Haruo Ochi vs. Jarred Brooks, obviously. The early accidental clash of heads and No Contest was incredibly disappointing. This fight is genuinely one of the best, most compelling lower-weight fights that can be booked worldwide, and I don’t think people realize that. Was very much looking forward to it, and hopefully when they meet at Bellator Japan the fight actually happens the way it was meant to.
JW: When Topnoi Tiger Muay Thai and Yusaku Nakamura battled at RIZIN 16, many expected an explosive striking battle. Nakamura was a fun kickboxer, and Topnoi was the much more flamboyant and unpredictable fighter. What did we get though? Fouls! Fouls of every kind! Rope grab, eye poke, groin shot, you name it. It did not live up to it’s hype at all.
Q: What do you want RIZIN to change in 2020?
JW: I want more consistency with the championships. If you’re a champion, you should never be doing non-championship fights. Makes zero sense to me. Sure I dislike the intermissions, but realistically I don’t see that changing. I’d also like to have a little more transparency with English fans. It feels like we are often left in the dark about some details. It’s clear that RIZIN values it’s English fanbase (subtitles Youtube videos, has on-site English commentary, etc), but it feels like it could be improved.
MS: Intermissions. Not to be a complainer, but any intermission over like 40 minutes is absolutely absurd. When they make you wait two hours to see the final three fights while watching the same 4 highlights over, and over, and over again, though? No thank you. And that’s not even taking into account the fact that I am a greedy Canadian and don’t want a long intermission at 6am when all I want to do is finish the fights and go to bed. Even if I was a Japan local and in the arena wide awake, I imagine I wouldn’t like such ridiculously lengthy intermissions. I get it, TV timing obligations and whatnot, but you as the organization should organize things better so the intermission lasts as short as possible. If that means more filler in between fights, more promos, longer entrances, more post-fight interviews, I’ll take it.
Also; no more non-title fights. It is ridiculous and completely unnecessary. The fact Kai Asakura is fighting for a vacant bantamweight title next week is so, so dumb. He knocked out the champion in under a minute. In vicious fashion. He should be champion. These non-title rulings are ridiculous. Even Horiguchi thinks so, which is why he straight-up tried to give his title to Asakura the very next month. Stop. Thank you.
BD: Figure out their event pacing. You can have an all time great event on paper where every fight delivers but if you have 2+ hours of intermission it won’t feel like it.
Continuing to develop their kickboxing roster. They are finally putting on some meaningful fights, including getting Tenshin a legitimate opponent in Ebata, now keep that up and do it more often.
Q: What’s your bold prediction for 2020?
BD: RIZIN will fall heavily on new regional talent. They didn’t sign as many upcoming Japanese fighters this year it seemed but next year should see that be upped. The Olympics are going on in Tokyo so RIZIN will likely have to run smaller shows until the back end of the year.
MS: Shintaro Ishiwatari will become RIZIN Bantamweight Champion in 2020. He has long been one of the most underrated fighters in the world. But Horiguchi has always stood in his way. With him out, Ishiwatari will take the title from Asakura or Kape next year.
JW: We’ll see a new belt introduced. Maybe finally rolling out one for lightweight after this GP finishes. Also, I predict (but realistically, am just hoping) that Nanaka Kawamura will have a monster run in DEEP Jewels that gets her another RIZIN fight.
Q: Do you think the Bellator collaboration is emphasized enough?
MS: No. Yes. The way they’re doing it with Bellator Japan and RIZIN 20 is great. A straight-up mini RIZIN card as the Bellator postlims, multiple RIZIN vs. Bellator fights across both shows. It’s awesome. Patricky Pitbull fighting in the RIZIN Grand-Prix is great. But more next year. More Bellator guys fighting for RIZIN titles, more RIZIN guys fighting for Bellator titles, more Bellator champions fighting RIZIN champions, let’s get crazy. Let’s have some superfights.
BD: I like sharing fighters here and there but I don’t care so much for things going beyond that. The upcoming Bellator event can hardly be considered a Bellator show when RIZIN provided about half of the fighters. When that happens then what’s even the point? I’d rather just watch a 2nd RIZIN event under their rulesets and in a ring.
JW: I think their collaboration has went well. It’s been giving RIZIN fighters challenging bouts like the two fights between Darrion Caldwell and Kyoji Horiguchi. I’d like to possibly see more fights where RIZIN fighters come to America for a fight like what happened at Bellator 222. With Shooto and Pancrase possibly out of the picture because of their ONE Championship relationship, this should be the partnership that is most emphasized.
Q: Which regional (or promotion besides RIZIN) was your favourite to watch this year?
JW: My favourite regional promotion has to be Pancrase. I love their style of broadcast which presents so many fights within a small pocket of time. DEEP Jewels shows have been a fun viewing because their re-occurring cast makes it easy to follow (plus they’re on Youtube!).
BD: DEEP had a fun year but I think Shooto was my favourite. This year was their 30th anniversary and they showed up for it with fun events full lovable vets and interesting prospects.
MS: Kickboxing, K-1 always. MMA wise, though, it’s Shooto. I love their shows, the pacing, the action. It’s tremendous. DEEP is up there as well. Nothing but love for Pancrase as well.
Q: What fighter outside of RIZIN impressed you the most?
MS: Shoko Sato. Shooto champion, two ONE wins including a stoppage of King of Pancrase champ Rafael Silva.
BD: Kazuma Kuramoto. He’s a legitimate world class Greco-Roman wrestler who has been ragdolling everyone in Shooto. Go watch his suplex fest against Yuta Nezu.
Q: What do you hope to see from a specific JMMA promotion in 2020?
BD: HEAT doing something to make their events viewable outside of the few fancams that pop up. They produce some solid talents and lately have been putting together some bizarrely interesting events but nobody gets to see them unless they were there live or a phone recording from a cornerman gets uploaded. Their next event in January has Jerome Le Banner vs the guy dubbed as Korean Goblin Pumpkin, Peter Aerts, Parky fighting for a title, and TK vs a Cro Cop protege.
Additionally, I want to see ZST realize the vision of new producer Shuichiro Katsumura (former Shooto champ, current pro wrestler, and representative of Reversal Gym Yokohama Groundslam). He wants to once again make ZST a one of kind place that develops high-level talents through a variety of match styles and rule sets. He has also expressed his desire to revive HERO’S (aka the best JMMA promotion of all time).
JW: I’d like to see more accessibility from smaller promotions. Currently, some promotions like Pancrase, DEEP, K-1 and a few more are easy to watch. Others are viewable, but not without going very out of your way. Even a major promotion like Shooto is hard to track down.
MS: More championships in RIZIN.