“A sport of unarmed combat derived from jiu-jitsu and intended to train the body and mind. It involves using holds and leverage to unbalance the opponent.”
As its name describes, Mixed Martial Arts is the melting pot of all other combat sports. More often than not, everyone starts with a specific base and background before they start integrating the rest of the arts into their game. Over the years, history has pointed in the directions of various grappling traditions as more successful than others.
Whether it be the wide spectrum of wrestling styles to the iconic Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, another form of grappling has started to make its presence felt to a greater effect as of late.
Female competitors in MMA really got their spotlight during the decade of the 2010s as the charge was led by Olympic bronze medalist judoka Ronda Rousey.
With each passing fight, Rousey utilized her talents to collect arms and build an unforgettable winning streak that resulted in multiple world titles. As a judo practitioner in her weight class of bantamweight, there were really no others like her and it showed in the Octagon.
Since Rousey has come and gone, we’ve seen more judokas make their way into the rings and cages around the world. Most notably would be the PFL lightweight and two-time Olympic gold medalist Kayla Harrison. But then there’s also Japan’s Kana Watanabe, who just like her predecessors has found herself hip tossing her opponents left and right to amass a flawless MMA record.
“I started judo as a family sport through a family friend,” Watanabe shared with The Scrap, “My dad, brother, and myself started for self-defense. I was competing in a corporate judo team but I was cut from the team due to my age which gave me a good reason to try MMA, which I was interested in for quite a while.”
Coincidentally enough, just like Rousey and Harrison, when Watanabe made her professional MMA debut in December 2017, she too would get a submission win via armbar. Since then, seven more victories and a draw have followed. Four of which were also finishes (two submissions and two KO/TKO’s)
“Technique wise I have learned a lot of striking and various submission moves,” Watanabe said, “Mentally I have learned a lot about being a ‘professional.'”
At 31 years old now, the Tokyo native continues to gain plenty of experience in the realm of her new sporting journey each day. Perhaps that may come easier for Watanabe as she admittedly doesn’t really have any other hobbies aside from working out and training.
For Watanabe, she found herself in a unique position that is becoming all the more common for Asian fighters in today’s world of MMA. Slowly, it’s becoming common more in the Western part of the world.
That position being that of a rookie on the biggest possible stage. By comparison to American football, in the National Football League, no first-year starting quarterback has ever taken their team to the final championship game which is the Super Bowl. In MMA, and in Japan, it’s a lot more common and arguably speeds up the learning process.
Watanabe’s pro debut came against Hikari Sato at DEEP JEWELS 18. While it may not be regarded as one of the biggest promotions in the world, DEEP JEWELS is the premier organization for female fighters in Japan.
It wasn’t until her sophomore appearance that the flyweight judo specialist would get thrown under the lights with the pressure really on. Just 27 days later, Watanabe would take on 20-fight veteran Shizuka Sugiyama at what many consider the Super Bowl of MMA; a RIZIN Fighting Federation year-end spectacular.
Despite the large gap in MMA experience, Watanabe overcame the odds and picked up a unanimous decision against Sugiyama. Now with a solid nine fights under her belt and multiple appearances on the big stage that RIZIN has to offer, she’s set to do battle on another.
On Dec. 29 at Bellator: Japan, Watanabe makes her promotional debut for Bellator while representing RIZIN in a cross-promotional affair. Bragging rights will be on the line all while she tries to further advance her career progression.
“I think it has helped me quite a bit,” Watanabe said of her experience in RIZIN, “Fighting in front of a massive crowd, against world-class fighters and beating them has given me the mental strength that I need for this upcoming fight. I am very excited for this. I want to put on a great performance and ‘WOW’ the people who don’t know me.”
One of the biggest stories of 2019 has been the cross-promotional work that RIZIN and Bellator have been doing and now more fighters than ever will get to participate as the year comes to a close. In an important flyweight contender bout, Watanabe will look to leapfrog Brazil’s Ilara Joanne on the divisional ladder.
The 9-4 Joanne, 25, burst onto the scene in her last fight which happened to be her Bellator debut. In the bout, she secured a kneebar to force the submission on former Bare Knuckle Fighting Championship champion, Bec Rawlings. Joanne became the first person to submit the 16-fight Aussie vet in Rawlings.
“Yes, I did [see Joanne’s last fight],” Watanabe said, “She is very aggressive both on her feet and on the ground. She has the ability to finish the fight anywhere. We do a little strategy for every opponent, but mostly I work on getting my base better.”
When it comes to experiencing new things, one aspect that won’t be new for the former judo gold medalist in Watanabe is fighting inside a cage. For many bright Japanese prospects, it can be a big change as they often fight in rings.
Historically, judo players have done well inside cages and that’s been the case for Watanabe as five of her fights in DEEP JEWELS as well as her one in DEEP have been in that form of enclosure. Therefore her belief is strong that the Bellator cage will see no different result.
Along with fighting for herself and her future, Watanabe also realizes she is representing her country and wants to make her people proud. As much pressure as that might be by itself, undefeated fighters are also often faced with the pressure of never adding a number to that opposite side of their record.
“Not really,” Watanabe answered in regards to pressure being undefeated, “The hard work and effort I put in for each fight just happened to result in an undefeated record. I just want to get better and beat tough opponents.”
Obviously, the goal for any athlete is to be the very best that they can be. And having medaled in judo, Watanabe ultimately intends to add some MMA hardware to her collection as well.
As a 125-pound flyweight competitor, the Fighter’s Flow product can end up being the biggest beneficiary of the RIZIN-Bellator collaboration.
In Watanabe’s general fighting homes of DEEP JEWELS and RIZIN, neither have championships for their flyweight divisions. Thus leaving the fighters battling for supremacy only to be determined amongst themselves and the spectators.
Now getting to work with Bellator, that can all change and Watanabe aims to achieve a new dream.
“I do hope [I get to work my way towards the Bellator title],” the judoka expressed, “I want to show the Bellator brass that I am ready for high-level competition and deserve to go after that belt. I think [Bellator champion Ilima-Lei Macfarlane] is an extremely tough fighter and a true champion. Just imagining fighting her gets my blood pumping.”
On Dec. 29 in the Saitama Super Arena in Saitama, Japan, Kana Watanabe fights for judo, her country, RIZIN, and most importantly, herself.
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The Scrap’s Drake Riggs is an MMA writer and YouTuber based out of Brush Prairie, Washington who specializes in feature pieces, the women’s fight scene, lists, news coverage, and rankings. Riggs has been a passionate MMA fan since 2009 and has written for various news sources. You can follow him on Twitter (@Dre_Kriggs).