The 2020 RIZIN Reflection Roundtable

Before RIZIN concludes their 2020 calendar year with a New Year’s Eve event on Thursday, we thought it would be valuable to reflect on the year for the leading Japanese MMA promotion.

In an attempt to summarize a hectic and busy year, a roundtable discussion has been compiled including numerous names who cover the scene extensively.

This year’s RIZIN Reflection Roundtable talked about the promotion, the JMMA scene in general, and how they have done amid COVID-19 shaking the entire world. Before we get into the questions, here’s the cast:

Drake Riggs is an MMA writer whose work has been seen in BJPenn.com, TheBodyLockMMA, MyMMANews and more. He’s the host of JMMA podcast “BROADENED HORIZIN,” which has included two-dozen guests over its first six episodes.

John Hyon Ko is a contributor to South China Morning Post’s MMA section as well as Asian MMA. While covering the sport as a whole, he has also put an effort into focusing on JMMA through the years. He has interviewed 14 fighters who are scheduled to compete at Thursday’s RIZIN 26 card.

Mike Skytte is a JMMA contributor to TheBodyLockMMA. He has covered the scene extensively for years, covering events from the biggest New Year’s Eve cards to small regional cards from DEEP and Shooto Japan.

Due to the fact that RIZIN’s last event is held on the very last day of the year, the roundtable was allowed to include RIZIN 20 in their answers despite it being a 2019 event.

NOTE: Some answers were excluded or shortened to shorten the size of the article.

Overall how do you feel about the shows that RIZIN put on this year, especially with COVID-19 affecting the year?

John Hyon Ko: COVID-19 has hampered many organizations around the world and to conduct shows with an audience in this climate has been a phenomenal feat for the company. RIZIN has adapted well and put together fight cards with the best fighters Japan has to offer. The cultivation of local talent will pay dividends when the world opens back up and international fighters are allowed to enter the country once again.

Drake Riggs: I believe RIZIN did a tremendous job this year with all things considered. 2020 really made you realize how much of the roster was comprised of international fighters yet they still managed to put on great shows as usual with exclusively Japanese talent.

Mike Skytte: RIZIN has done the best they could do under such circumstances, and I personally think they’ve done a great job. The “star-power” has been somewhat lacking in recent shows, but they still consistently deliver. They have put together a great roster, even when excluding the international fighters. They’ve made some good signings and they’ve continued to put on great, competitive fights that the fans are interested in. It hasn’t been their best year, but given the circumstances, I don’t think we could’ve asked for a better run of shows.

What names stuck out to you the most in RIZIN this year?

DR: For obvious reasons, I think that this was/is Kai Asakura’s year. If he defeats [Kyoji] Horiguchi (again) at RIZIN 26, I believe he has a strong case for fighter of the year in MMA overall. If he finishes Horiguchi again, then hand it over to him on the night.

MS: Kyohei Hagiwara is one that has been a real shocker. Incredibly underwhelming record, overall 2-1 this year, but he deserves some props for the run he’s had. Hagiwara is part of a pretty loaded division, and it’s pretty difficult to go from a relative unknown to a legit standout and must-watch talent. He’s done that in the span of less than twelve months thanks to some brutal KO’s and a lethal straight right. The other name would be another featherweight, the new champion Yutaka Saito.

JHK: Kai Asakura.

Jack Wannan: It’s clear that the Asakura brothers were the main spotlight of 2020. Apart from them, I’m interested to see how Naoki Inoue does in RIZIN. He has put on two strong wins, defeating Trent Girdham and Shooto Watanabe. His fight against Yuki Motoya on NYE should be a good test to see where he stands in the division.

What is your RIZIN Fight of the Year?

MS: Pretty competitive year compared to some of the previous. No real standouts, but plenty of fights worth talking about. For me, it has to be [Hiromasa] Ogikubo vs. [Kenta] Takizawa. Just an excellent MMA fight between a vet and a prospect. [Juri] Ohara/[Yusuke] Yachi gets #2 for me.

DR: I think that Yachi vs. Ohara was probably the best fight this year. They both had their moments and battled until the very end. And somewhat surprisingly, Yachi’s fall from grace continued. Though, if we are indeed counting RIZIN 20, then my answer changes to [Ayaka] Hamasaki vs. [Seo Hee] Ham 3. That was probably my favourite RIZIN fight and one of the best fights of all time.

JHK: Rikuto Shirakawa vs Kotetsu Boku.

What show this year was RIZIN’s best?

DR: Again, like the last answer, if we’re counting RIZIN 20… Then it’s RIZIN 20 and it’s not even close. In my books, it was far and away the best event of 2019 and I argue that it was the greatest MMA event ever. It’s right up there with UFC 199.

Aside from that, RIZIN 25 was very good and surprisingly had far more decisions than we’re accustomed to seeing at a RIZIN event. It sure didn’t feel like it. 22 and 23 were both fantastic as well. I’ll leave it between those three but I fully expect the NYE show to steal the shine as it typically does.

JHK: RIZIN 22.

MS: RIZIN 23 for me, definitely. Fun card, great fights, no shortage of highlight finishes. Also was the perfect set-up to this highly anticipated Asakura/Horiguchi rematch. Nobody has dispatched of Ogikubo that easily – other than Horiguchi, and now Asakura. It was the perfect set-up for the fight between the two.

JW: RIZIN 20 was probably one of the best shows  I’ve ever seen. The presentation, lineup, and bouts on the card themself were all spectacular. But if we’re talking about 2020 shows only, I’d say the back-to-back return shows of RIZIN 22 and 23. While both not being incredibly strong lineups, they delivered by both being very explosive shows.

What show was RIZIN’s worst?

DR: RIZIN 24. And it’s not that it was bad by any stretch of the imagination. I just think RIZIN rightfully has such high standards due to being so consistently strong with their results. That event just felt like it under-delivered after the opening fight and when considering all the great matchups that were lined up.

MS: Initially I would have easily said RIZIN 21. But in retrospect, I’d actually say RIZIN 24. It wasn’t a bad show. Tenshin [Nasukawa]/Koji was fun, it was cool to see [Satoru] Kitaoka/[Takasuke] Kume, and [Takahiro] Ashida/[Kyohei] Hagiwara was cool. But overall, a forgettable show. They also went ahead and fed poor old Shoji [Maruyama] to Kai Asakura. As if Asakura/Ogikubo wasn’t the perfect way to cap-off Asakura’s road to Horiguchi.

JHK: Hard to say, maybe RIZIN 25.

What do you want RIZIN to change in 2021?

JHK: Consistent title defences by the champions.

MS: English subtitles during the pre-fight promos and VTR’s. For the love of God, please.

DR: That’s kind of a tough question. I’d say any changes I’d like to see would be little nitpicks. Like more international expansion when it comes to presentation, etc. I can get past things like not having English commentary or what have you. But just putting more focus on attracting in viewers from all parts of the world. Which was understandably harder and less of a priority in 2020.

To give a concrete thing to change, it’s all champions having the same title belt design and championship fights being five rounds. Unfortunately, I can guarantee that the latter won’t happen.

JW: I said this last year and I’ll say it again. I wished that when champions fight, they’re always defending their belts. No non-championship bouts despite one of the fighters being a champ, please!

What’s your bold prediction for 2021?

DR:  RENA challenges one of her mentors in [Ayaka] Hamasaki for the title in what will be RENA’s retirement fight.

JHK: RIZIN will introduce a men’s flyweight division and Tenshin [Nasukawa] will become the inaugural champion.

JW: I wouldn’t be surprised if we see another Grand Prix tournament in 2021. Maybe featherweight since that division has grown and is now being given a championship?

Which regional (or promotion besides RIZIN) was your favourite to watch this year?

JHK: DEEP.

DR: I don’t know if I had one. The easy answer would be the UFC just because they continued to be the most active. But throughout the year, I really lost a lot of interest or excitement for the events which I’m sure was the case for a wide variety of reasons. It was just a bizarre year in so many areas, eh?

MS: ACA and DEEP.

Which fighter in the JMMA scene outside of RIZIN impressed you the most?

JHK: Interim lightweight King of Pancrase Tatsuya Saika.

JW: Mina Kurobe’s run in Shooto Japan has impressed me. Bouncing back from losses in 2018 to Ayaka Hamasaki and Tomo Maesawa, Kurobe has strung together four wins in the last two years and recently captured the promotion’s atomweight belt.

DR: To answer with someone in reverse of the question’s phrasing, Kanako Murata. It’s always Kanako Murata.

Is there a specific thing you would like to see changed in a regional JMMA promotion?

DR: DEEP Jewels should figure out a way to make their events easier to view. It feels like a real search even if you know Japanese. At least from what I’ve seen. If they could get onto UFC Fight Pass or something like that I think it would be awesome.

JW: Similar to what Riggs said, I think accessibility generally is something I’d like to see more. With not many promotions putting their content on platforms like UFC Fight Pass or even Youtube currently, there is a lot of hoops to jump through to watch shows.

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