Despite setbacks over the past two years, things have come together quite well for Mitsuhisa Sunabe recently. After more than a year on the sidelines, it seems that the former Pancrase Strawweight Champion has a good return plan. When looking at the circumstances, things almost seem too good.
For a while, Sunabe had basically put his career on hold. After two consecutive fights fell through in 2020, he decided it would be best to just focus on training for the time being. The uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic has caused many fights to be scrapped, and the veteran fighter said he took a “mental hit” from losing two fights last year. For the time being, Sunabe wasn’t going to fight.
But then he received a call that he couldn’t refuse. Sunabe was recently offered to fight at RIZIN’s debut event in his home prefecture of Okinawa. The fight gave him a chance to represent himself, his main promotion Pancrase, and his home prefecture all at once – three things he had wanted to do.
The prefecture of Okinawa doesn’t get much combat sports. Apart from local promotion Tenkaichi Fight, they only periodically see Shooto Japan or boxing. This has been something that Sunabe has wanted to change. He mentioned attempting to bring Pancrase over last year, although the plans did not happen. The event would have been the promotion’s first appearance since 2013.
He now hopes that the success of Saturday’s show could influence more MMA events in the area. He specifically sees his fight as a litmus test.
“How the fans feel about the show is going to heavily depend on my performance. So I feel obligated and responsible to win this fight. And not only win, but win in an exciting way,” said Sunabe, through a translator.
The future for RIZIN in Okinawa in the future is something that Sunabe feels has to be earned in his fight. But when it comes to the success of Saturday’s show alone, he thinks things have gone quite well.
Sunabe notes a buzz in Okinawa about the show. Along with the usual support that comes with his upcoming fights, a surprising amount of others have showed interest as well.
“People who usually don’t ask me for posters [are] like, ‘Hey, can I get a poster for RIZIN?’ … The reaction is huge,” he said.
Sunabe mentioned that many tickets have sold through him and that he expects the Okinawa Arena to be sold out.
Sunabe’s fight in Okinawa almost suffered the same outcome of his two 2020 bookings – not coming to fruition. His first opponent for the card, Yutaro Muramoto, had to withdraw due to an injury. But not only did Sunabe get a new opponent, he got one that he specifically asked for in Yoshiro Maeda.
The matchup against Maeda has an incredibly long history to it. Similar to the RIZIN 32 main event between RENA and Miyuu Yamamoto, Sunabe and Maeda met at the start of their MMA careers. They first fought in 2003 in Pancrase. Sunabe, who was undefeated at the time, claims that he had lobbied the promotion to host featherweight bouts.
His first fight at featherweight was against Maeda. It also turned out to be his first loss. While Sunabe was hoping to make the 145-pound weight class his stomping ground, it was actually Maeda who went on to become the inaugural Featherweight King of Pancrase. Sunabe considered him to become “the face of that division” for years.
He remembers underestimating Maeda when they first battled, resulting in a loss that made him “mortified.”
“I didn’t expect Maeda to do so well, but he was the one who ended up becoming the biggest success off of the division.”
Sunabe’s big break in MMA didn’t come for another eight years. He later had an impressive run from 2011 to 2018, resulting in 16 consecutive wins.
Nearly two decades after they first competed, Sunabe looks forward to compete against Maeda and show how they have “both evolved as fighters.”
Being 43 years old, Sunabe isn’t going to ignore that he doesn’t have much time left in MMA. The veteran has always had the goal of becoming the face of Pancrase. Despite championship runs and an extensive winning streak at one point, he doesn’t see himself as the “Pancrase King.” In the future, he hopes that entertaining fights can be what solidifies that title for him.
“I think the only way it can become that pursue it is to put on great performance is in an organization that gathers the most attention and gets the most exposure,” said Sunabe.
There’s a lot that Sunabe is representing on Saturday night. While fighting for the future of Okinawa in combat sports, he looks to avenge the earliest loss of his pro career.