RIZIN 26: A dozen reasons to watch

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RIZIN 26 will act as MMA’s grand finale to the year 2020. That alone is enough of a reason to tune in to one of the world’s premier fight organizations.

But what fun is it to just leave you with that and send you on your way? Let’s get as hyped as much as we possibly can and say goodbye to this roller coaster ride of a year.

With a 16-fight lineup in total, the card truly has a little bit of everything that one could ask for as a New Year’s Eve gift in the form of beautiful violence.

12. Bantamweight contenders look to stake their claims

The 135-pound bantamweight division around the globe is arguably the best in all of MMA. Between RIZIN and Bellator alone there is a multitude of incredibly talented competitors. Some of which are undeniably elite-level caliber.

With the gold on the line to close out the night, ahead of that contest we’ll see the seasoned veteran Yuki Motoya (26-8) take on the young rising contender Naoki Inoue (14-2).

Both competitors are currently riding high on impressive three-fight winning streaks that follow rough patches. For Motoya, he lost three straight in 2019 before righting the ship in 2020. Inoue, on the other hand, got booted from the UFC after losing a split decision at flyweight in just his second promotional bout against Matt Schnell. He then dropped a unanimous decision to Sean Santella before now looking better than ever at still just 23 years old.

Each is incredibly savvy with their submission abilities and they each provide attributes that have caused each other trouble in the past. Someone’s streak will have to end and the one who makes it four straight could very well be one fight away at most from a title opportunity.

11. Who’s that Pokemon?!

Anything can happen on New Year’s Eve. And in classic Japanese MMA fashion, we’re getting a fight where one of the fighters is a mystery. That’s right, we will not know who is stepping into the ring until the day of the event.

Though, that just goes for one half of the contest. What we do know is that the mystery fighter will be taking on Atsushi “Shibatar” Saito (4-9-1), who is most commonly known as a comedic YouTube personality that boasts a 1.11 million subscriber count. Shibatar isn’t a complete stranger to MMA having had over 10 pro fights but he certainly isn’t someone looking to make a title run… or maybe he’ll show us that he is.

When asked if Shibatar’s opponent would be another celebrity or an actual fighter, RIZIN President Nobuyuki Sakakibara confirmed the latter. What more info could we possibly need?

10. Arrival of the Olympic silver medalist

Shibatar won’t be the only one making his first appearance inside the RIZIN ring on New Year’s Eve. That will be the same for Greco-Roman wrestling 2016 Olympic silver medalist Shinobu Ota.

Most recently, Ota claimed the gold medals in his area of expertise at the 2018 Bishkek Asian Wrestling Championships, 2018 Jakarta Asian Games, and 2019 Nur-Sultan World Championships. At age 26, he enters into MMA with all the potential in the world as he adds to the bantamweight division’s already vast depth.

Standing in Ota’s way will be a man who is no stranger to this exact situation that sees him welcoming in the highly touted wrestler. That’s none other than the always exciting 66-fight veteran, Hideo Tokoro (34-30-2).

Tokoro will make his return to action for the first time since 2017 when he suffered a first-round knockout loss to Kyoji Horiguchi. Prior to that, he’d spoiled the arrivals of fighters similar to Ota in Erson Yamamoto and Kizaemon Saiga.

Despite his inactivity in MMA, Tokoro has turned his focus to the grappling scene and had plenty of matches during his in-ring absence. But at 43 years old, we’ll see if he can repeat history.

9. Minowaman comes full circle

They don’t make them like Ikuhisa “Minowaman” Minowa (64-43-8) anymore… if they ever did in the first place.

The larger-than-life rockstar-like figure is one of a kind in MMA and if you didn’t know of Minowaman, you could notice that just by looking at him. The trademark mullet and full red trunks-knee pad combo just isn’t something anyone else can pull off.

As one of the sport’s few fighters to have over 100 professional bouts, Minowaman became a fan favorite during his PRIDE FC days where he was coined “The Giant-Killer.” Notorious for his willingness to battle it out in openweight contests with fighters who greatly outsized him, it wasn’t often if ever that he lost these special attractions.

Typically competing around 185-pounds, Minowaman is now officially set to come back after healing his body and only fighting once since 2017. As a veteran of PRIDE, he’ll be coming full circle with a debut in RIZIN. Especially considering it will be for one of the classic fights that will see him take on the former Sumo wrestler, Tsuyoshi Sudario (1-0 in MMA).

8. Mikuru attempts to rebound

After seven consecutive wins in the RIZIN ring, Mikuru Asakura (13-2) got his chance to join his brother as a champion.

At RIZIN 25 in November, Asakura aimed to make history as the promotion’s inaugural featherweight titleholder. Unfortunately for him, he fell short in a closely contested war with Yutaka Saito who earned the split decision.

Now, the always outspoken superstar appears to have a rekindled spirit as a fighter as he enters unknown territory that he isn’t accustomed to. Getting back on track means he’ll have to defeat a fellow recent title challenger in Deep’s Satoshi “Dominator” Yamasu (11-5).

If Yamasu can pull off the big upset over one of Japan’s biggest stars, he catapults himself right into the thick of things at 145-pounds.

7. The Fireball Kid seeks one more highlight-reel finish… under rather unique circumstances

Just when you thought we had about as much variety as we possibly could get at RIZIN 26, the return of Takanori Gomi (36-15) gets announced. But not just any return, a return in a “special standing rules” match against Koji “Kouzi” Tanaka (28-14-2 in kickboxing) who generally fights around 132-pounds.

The details of the bout will be as follows. Both fighters will only be allowed to punch with the exception of back fist blows. Both fighters will be barefooted and the bout will consist of three, three-minute rounds with no decisions. If Kouzi weighs in more than 154-pounds at weigh-ins, both fighters will wear 10-ounce gloves for the contest. If Kouzi weighs less than 154-pounds at weigh-ins, Gomi will wear 12-ounce gloves as a handicap.

A PRIDE and lightweight legend, “The Fireball Kid” is 1-1 since his release from the UFC and joining of RIZIN in 2017. His last time out saw him snap a grueling six-fight losing streak when he knocked out Melvin Guillard in the first round at RIZIN 11.

As for Gomi’s opponent in Kouzi, he made his RIZIN debut at RIZIN 24 in September when he shared the main event with Tenshin Nasukawa. Unsurprisingly, Tenshin got the better of his foe as he usually does, but Kouzi’s incredible durability and heart shined through in his defeat.

This is one of those fights that has just so many super unique circumstances that you can’t help but be intrigued by it.

6. Bad blood between superstar strikers in the making

If there is one fight in the entire 16-fight lineup that practically guarantees fireworks for as long as it lasts, it should be the battle between Kyohei Hagiwara (2-3) and Ren Hiramoto (11-4 in kickboxing).

Both men aren’t afraid to express their feelings about their opponents or division and it’s created some volatility to their clash. If the heat that their striking skills bring to the table wasn’t enough, the mental warfare should only add to the excitement once the bell sounds.

At a combined age of 46, each fighter has a bright future awaiting them and they’ve already shown flashes of brilliance with their knockouts to this point. The biggest question mark in the fight will be if Hagiwara gets hurt at any point, will he go for the takedown?

Admittedly weaker in his grappling, as evidenced by his losses, Hagiwara has begun rounding out that part of his game. Ultimately, it would be wise to utilize his possible new skills against the MMA debuting Hiramoto who on paper is the more refined and polished striker.

Either way, it would be shocking for this one not to deliver a memorable finish.

5. The highly anticipated debutant hopes to ruin the newlyweds’ fighting family affair

It’s felt like everyone has been waiting a lifetime now to finally see former KSW featherweight champion Kleber Koike (25-5-1) make his RIZIN debut. But what better time for it to come than on the biggest event of the year?

Often seen alongside his fellow BJJ blackbelt and RIZIN lightweight contender, Roberto “Satoshi” de Souza, Koike is one of his division’s very best submission artists worldwide. In the past five years, his lone loss came against the formidable Mateusz Gamrot. Instantly upon arrival, Koike is a player in the title hunt.

With hopes to snap a two-fight skid and celebrate the conclusion of the year in style as well as his recent marriage, Kyle Aguon (13-9) welcomes the BJJ ace.

Having had most of his recent bouts take place in Pancrase, Aguon debuted for RIZIN prior to the COVID-19 pandemic at RIZIN 21. Since then, he and Miyuu Yamamoto, who competes later in the night, got married. Thus adding to the big moment for each of them.

The storylines and connections throughout the night are just half of what makes this fight so interesting. A win for either Koike or Aguon puts them in a great spot going forward in a rapidly progressing featherweight class.

????: Instagram – @ai_mma_dga

4. Two princesses of pain collide for a shot at gold

On paper, Kanna Asakura (17-4) vs. Ai Shimizu (5-0) seems pretty clear cut. And Shimizu will even admit that.

Asakura, 23, skyrocketed to fame very quickly in her still-young career due to her frequent activity and eventual upsetting of Rena Kubota at 2017’s New Year’s show. She’s firmly established herself as one of the atomweight division’s very best since. Coming up short in the first title fight, she’s climbed her way back to the cusp of an opportunity to challenge again all while vastly improving the lethality of her game.

Like Asakura, Shimizu is also an extremely talented lifelong wrestler who possesses vicious ground and pound. The duo is perhaps not only the best ground strikers in their weight class but among all female fighters in MMA. That combination should without a doubt create some very interesting exchanges on the mat providing one can get the other in an advantageous position. If not, we could always see an awesome yet somewhat unexpected striking war like Mackenzie Dern vs. Virna Jandiroba.

Asakura’s MMA experience and progression that we’ve seen over the years makes her the rightful favorite to come out on top. But Shimizu’s complete and total awareness of her position and the situation makes her a threateningly fearless task to tackle as an underdog.

No matter who comes out with their hand raised, they very likely will be getting the next crack at the title.

3. The Prodigy

Some decisions in life are just too simple. Tenshin Nasukawa (39-0 in kickboxing) fights, we watch.

Just 22-years old and arguably the greatest kickboxer of all-time, Tenshin has proven time and time again to be absolute must-watch TV. Unstoppable outside of any silly boxing exhibitions, he’s reached that point where you just can’t pick against him until you see him lose. Yet he remains so exciting and impressive with the ways that he wins that we’re always going to watch to see what he can do.

For this next outing to potentially hit the big No. 40, Tenshin draws Thailand’s Kumandoi Petcharoenvit (31-19-2). As per usual against the striking prodigy, not many are going to give Petcharoenvit a chance. But he has plenty of experience in his own right and is 11-3 in his last 14.

You never know who could be the one to finally stop Tenshin, but that’s why we watch to find out.

????: RIZIN FF

2. The GOAT and the ageless wonder

On a contextless surface level, hearing that a 46-year old grandmother was getting a world championship title shot would be absolutely insane. However, if you really look at what’s going on, this isn’t just any grandmother.

Miyuu Yamamoto (6-4) started out her MMA career on the rougher side after life as a wrestling standout. Going 1-3 to kick things off, she has since adapted to MMA much more comfortably and despite her age has solidified herself as one of the best fighters on the planet.

When it comes to stories, Yamamoto has already been an incredible one for a wide variety of reasons. Having competed and won on the same night as her son, Erson, as well as now getting to do so with her husband, bringing a title to her famed fighting family would be about as movie-worthy as anything we’ve seen in the sport.

And that goes without even mentioning who she would have to overcome to make that a reality.

Having won the title of every promotion she’s ever fought for, Ayaka Hamasaki (20-3) has well earned her claim to being the atomweight division’s greatest fighter of all-time. And even in her later years now at 38, she continues to show why as she’s looking better than ever with continuously new skills on display and an even meaner killer instinct.

Hamasaki was the first RIZIN super atomweight champion and very well could still be had her trilogy bout with Seo Hee Ham at last New Year’s Eve’s show been seen differently in the eyes of a single judge. The GOAT will have her work cut out for her in the wrestling department, but she holds advantages just about everywhere else the fight can go.

If Yamamoto can continue turning back the clock as she does best, bust out the script right now, directors. This woman is a walking fountain of youth and perhaps the best unsung story in MMA history.

1. Determining if an all-time great upset was a fluke as the tables have turned

Rematches really don’t get much better than this.

On top of the world as the bantamweight king in both RIZIN and Bellator, Kyoji Horiguchi (28-3) would take a non-title affair with the promising prospect, Kai Asakura (16-2), for August 2019’s RIZIN 18. Going into the bout, everyone expected Horiguchi to do what he does best, and that’s dispatch of his opposition in excellent fashion typically before round two.

Instead, we saw one of the greatest upsets in MMA history.

The star of Asakura was born on that fateful night after he only needed 67 seconds to starch the dominant former UFC title challenger. Following surgery to repair a torn ACL, Horiguchi was forced to vacate both of his titles, therefore, opening the door for Asakura to further prove his worth.

Three bone-breakingly violent finishes later with a humbling defeat mixed in and Asakura has proven to be as legit as they come. Yet until we get to see it play out again, many still speculate whether or not the historic Horiguchi win was a fluke.

The title on the line and the roles reversed. Asakura is the champion with Horiguchi the challenger. Will it be a case of out with the old and in with the new?

No matter the outcome, Asakura and Horiguchi are two of the best and most exciting bantamweights on Earth. All storylines aside, there are just too many reasons to watch RIZIN 26.

RIZIN 26 starts at 9:00 PM PST on December 30 and will be broadcast live in English here at the: link.

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