The drawing process for RIZIN’s upcoming Bantamweight Grand Prix allowed some fighters to have autonomy over who they wanted to face in the opening round. Back in March, all 16 fighters involved drew numbers that would decide when they would pick a fight to join in the bracket.
32-year-old Shooto Watanabe drew one of the worst numbers for the picking order: first. Going first meant that he was placed in the bracket, but was essentially given no option over who he wants to face.
Dressed in a black blazer with a white MARRION shirt under it (one of his sponsors), Watanabe took seat “G” at the press conference where the matchups were decided. Moments later, one of RIZIN’s most popular names currently, Kai Asakura, took a seat right beside him. They were confirmed to be the first fight of the bracket.
“I thought he was joking,” said Watanabe through a translator in an interview with Knockdown News. “I would’ve imagined that he would want to pick a better opponent for his first fight.”
Watanabe is still quite shocked that he’s facing Asakura in the opening round. To him, it feels weird that on June 13th he’s facing as big of a name as Asakura.
“Until my last fight, Kai Asakura was somebody I would be watching in front of a screen … I didn’t even look at him as an opponent,” said Watanabe.
Similarly, Watanabe finds it wild to be competing in a tournament style. Despite the humble approach on his opponent and the bracket altogether, Watanabe realizes he can’t let that play into his fight.
“It still feels kind of surreal to me … I don’t feel like it’s actually happening. But, the reality is, it is happening and I will be fighting, so I’m not gonna let my emotions affect my performance.”
Watanabe’s fight in the opening round of the bracket will happen on a big night for RIZIN in general. The fight is part of RIZIN 28, which will be the promotion’s debut at the Tokyo Dome in Tokyo, Japan. The event will be the first time the prolific venue has been used for MMA in over a decade.
Admittedly, Watanabe doesn’t have much of a connection to the Tokyo Dome. His fandom and subsequent participation in combat sports only first developed in 2009 when he saw kickboxer Masato Kobayashi have his retirement fight against Andy Souwer.
The fight for Masato, a win, headlined “K-1: Dynamite 2009,” a card at the Saitama Super Arena in Saitama which had a mixture of MMA and kickboxing.
“I was very inspired by Masato. He made me want to be like him,” said Watanabe. “He made me want to fight and participate in such big events.”
Masato’s retirement fight came years after the Tokyo Dome stopped being a fixture in combat sports. The then-defunct Pride FC had last visited the venue in 2003, with K-1 holding their last show there in 2006.
While JMMA’s prior involvement with the Tokyo Dome predates Watanabe’s professional career altogether, he trusts the words of others who say it is “a very prestigious venue.”
Watanabe is being thrown into the big stage just months after he picked up his first RIZIN win. The 32-year-old last appeared at RIZIN 27, where he submitted Takumi Tamaru late in the second round with a rear naked choke.
Watanabe’s previous RIZIN appearance, which was his promotional debut, saw him get submitted quickly by Naoki Inoue – a fighter who is also in the opening round of the tournament. Should he get past Asakura in the opening round, the chance of a rematch with Inoue is possible. So is over a dozen other matchups, including fights against big names like Hiromasa Ougikubo, Shintaro Ishiwatari, Naoki Inoue and others.
Watanabe wants the opening round fight to become a “cornerstone” performance in his career. The outcome of the fight is still pending, but the bout has all the elements to be a big fight for Watanabe if it goes his way. He’s competing on the largest stage of his career and is facing an opponent in Asakura that carries a following of millions through social networks.
What would easily be the biggest win for Watanabe won’t come through any major change in the way he fights, he says. Instead, he claims it would be done the way he has put away over a dozen opponents before: taking them down and tapping them out.
“I pride myself in my style, and I have no plans on changing my style … I’m going to want to take it to the ground, and I’m going to want to take it to the position where I’m most comfortable in,” said Watanabe