The Young King of Pancrase: Rei Tsuruya

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2022 proved to be a breakout year for many prospects in mixed martial arts. 

Within the UFC, featherweight Ilia Topuria earned ‘Performance of the Night’ honors in a pair of outings, punching his way into the top 10 and changing his status to a contender. Two weight classes north, Shavkat Rakhmonov went on a similar path of destruction, capping off the year at #10 in the rankings. Further East, however, another prospect has been snatching the attention of spectators. And at just 20, time is most definitely on his side. 

Rei Tsuruya (6-0) is a mere two years into his professional MMA career, but finds himself turning heads with his dynamic and athletic performances. A DEEP veteran and recently crowned Flyweight champion of Pancrase, Tsuruya finds himself in an extremely unique situation. With a plethora of opportunities on the table, 2023 may well be the year he showcases his skills to a more mainstream audience; Japanese promotion RIZIN are always keen on signing raw, homegrown talent.

We’ll discuss Tsuruya’s career thus far, his ever-growing skillset and his potential ceiling within the sport.

Decisions Aren’t For Everyone

There’s nothing wrong with going to a decision when competing in MMA. In fact, despite the negative connotations that come along with the term, being labelled a ‘point fighter’ is an admissible style in its own right. After all, you are trying to avoid having the brain cells beaten out of you…

For some though, finishes just come naturally. Whether it be through heavy-handed fists or intellectual game-planning, the reasons behind gaining a knockout or submission are endless, yet its something Rei Tsuruya embraces with open arms. Boasting a 100% finish rate, the young champion has scored half of wins by knockout, and the other by submission. Obviously this tells us he’s a threat from just about anywhere, but it also displays his comfort and ability to adapt when taken down or met with adversity.

Carrying his hands quite low, Tsuruya can be found adopting a karate stance a lot of the time. Using this to shift in and out of range easier, it allows him to cover distance quickly and even trick his opponent into pressuring before switching levels for a takedown. Along with this, he has also shown his basic ability to box from his southpaw stance. Keeping his rear hand closer to his chin and opting to pressure, he often unloads on his opponent with hooks while they’re backed against the fence. Being the aggressor and controlling the pace are two things he claims at the opening bell.

Although not an effective combination puncher and guilty of overloading, Tsuruya’s main objective on the feet seems – at least in his fight at DEEP 104 against Kenta Kubo – to strike until the opportunity to grapple presents itself. Against Kubo, he simply forced him to cover up before taking the outside angle and landing a takedown. The fact he’s thinking about setting up his takedowns so early in his career is a positive sign.

Showing shades of Japanese combatants that have come before him, he’s a classic ground-and-pound fighter who prioritizes damage over the retention of position (only once he has first established it, of course). His accuracy with this ground-and-pound often forces opposition to absorb the damage – resulting in the finish – or give up a crucial position, such as their back or mount.

Fast-paced, aggressive and athletic, its clear that Rei enjoys being the initiator and and frequently relies on his natural strength and talent. Though this will be become harder to do so as the level of opposition increases, expect him to continue sharpening his tools and rounding off technique.

I’d also like to see Tsuruya make an effort to string combinations together and even become more comfortable counterpunching. The latter will become important as he continues his journey towards a top-tier promotion where fighters with an inability to counter often get flustered or shutout with relative ease.

What’s Next?

For this writer, its clear what Rei Tsuruya’s next move should be — RIZIN. The organization, founded in 2015, has a penchant for producing highly entertaining cards, particularly their annual New Years Eve event. Not only would Tsuruya have the necessary time to grow under the RIZIN banner, but he’d become increasingly popular within Japan.

If his dream is to reach the UFC, getting his hands on RIZIN’s bantamweight title is likely the best way of doing so. Current UFC flyweight Manel Kape found success going down this route, winning the belt before jumping ship to the sports premier promotion.

In addition to this, imagine the multiple matchups that await Tsuruya inside of RIZIN: Kai Asakura, Hiromasa Ougikubo and, a personal favorite of mine, Naoki Inoue. Having said this, it’s important that he’s given the time and space to grow as a fighter before being thrown against these competitors, who, as of right now, would likely beat him.

A Pancrase champion at 20 years old, the young man from Kashiwa is taking big strides at a rapid pace. Perhaps more hype would be in the air if he were an American prospect? In spite of this, the trajectory of his career seems to only be going in one direction, and after a big year which finished with a glossy belt around his waist, who knows what 2023 will have in store for the surging prospect…

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