The 2021 RIZIN Reflection Roundtable

Kyoji Horiguchi stopped Kai Asakura within a round to become the RIZIN Bantamweight Champion (© RIZIN FF)
Kyoji Horiguchi stopped Kai Asakura within a round to become the RIZIN Bantamweight Champion on New Year’s Eve last year (© RIZIN FF)

Japanese MMA promotion RIZIN will call an end to their 2021 on Friday night, going to the Saitama Super Arena to host their ninth event of the year. Before their New Year’s Eve tradition happens, the site has a tradition of its own to honor.

A panel of reporters and pundits recently gathered to discuss how this year went for the promotion and JMMA in general.

Here is the third annual RIZIN Reflection Roundtable.

Meet The Panel

Charlie Jewett is the owner and head writer for Japanese MMA website Sogo-Kaku. He can be found on Twitter here. His Twitter can be found here.

Drake Riggs is an MMA reporter that writes for various sites, including MyMMANews, South China Morning Post, BJPenn.com, and others. He is also the host of JMMA podcast series BROADENED HORIZIN. He can be found on Twitter here.

Lukeuidswords is a JMMA and combat sports pundit. His Twitter can be found here.

Jack Wannan is a writer and reporter for KnockdownNews.com. He can be found on Twitter here.

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

Charlie Jewett: RIZIN did better in 2021 than in 2020. They adapted to the pandemic and were able to roll with the punches when unexpected events arose. For example, despite not being able to bring in a lot of foreign fighters and having to reduce the size of their live audiences, the Tokyo Dome event still felt incredibly successful and was a big event. They also started experimenting with other options like “LANDMARK” and “TRIGGER,” which is important because RIZIN needs to create income streams outside of relying on Fuji TV. Their success can be seen in that going into this year’s New Year’s Eve card they have already sold all the tickets at full capacity.

Luke: Generally entertaining and well-booked, with the obvious strain of the travel bans starting to weigh more heavily as the year concluded.

Drake Riggs: I think RIZIN did a tremendous job in 2021 and had an overall great year – I’d go as far to even say an important one considering the additions of RIZIN “TRIGGER” and “LANDMARK.” Obviously, it would be very nice to have that international flavor in the mix. We’ve had some sprinkles here and there but ultimately, like 2020, RIZIN has done a great job of capitalizing on their domestic options to continue providing must-see fights and events.

Jack Wannan: Another year into the COVID-19 pandemic, RIZIN is still posed with the challenge of not importing talent from outside of Japan. They were able to get Vugar Karamov and Tofiq Musayev for one show early in the year, but besides that, nearly all of their talent was from within the country. I feel they have done a good job utilizing this talent pool, putting together neat matchups and main event-worthy shows.

My main critique of 2021 for RIZIN is how they seemingly exhausted their roster late in the year. Because they rolled out two offshoot shows (“TRIGGER” and “LANDMARK”), their final four months of the year saw them host six shows in total. This meant some of the cards lacked talent, as the roster was really stretched in that time period.

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

Roberto Satoshi Souza walking his walking towards the RIZIN ring.
Roberto Satoshi Souza has attained two wins in 2021 – and can score a third on New Year’s Eve (RIZIN FF)

DR: Always a difficult question as each year there are numerous fighters who leave good impressions. Despite not winning all of his fights, I think Kyohei Hagiwara is really growing into a superstar and we’ve seen it with his opportunities given and how he’s capitalized on them with good efforts – even if in defeat.

Yoshinori Horie has also continued to prove that the UFC should have never let him go. At this stage, he should never have to resort to you know what ever again.

Juntaro Ushiku should also get a mention with winning the featherweight title in his debut thus making him a dual-organization champion. I also strongly believe that the current Deep interim lightweight champion Juri Ohara should be challenging Roberto Satoshi on New Year’s Eve over the man he defeated, Yusuke Yachi. Ohara has been on a serious tear as of late and continued that in his last RIZIN performance.

I also must mention Saori Oshima who is undeniably the breakthrough fighter of the year as far as I’m concerned. The mother of twins entered the year off a loss and left it as a double champion and the No. 2 best atomweight in the world only behind her legendary teammate, Ayaka Hamasaki. The future is now at atomweight.

CJ: Well if we are including last year’s NYE card, you have to include Shibatar. In addition to him, there is Kyoji Horiguchi, the Asakura brothers, Kanna Asakura, RENA, and Roberto Satoshi Souza.

JW: Roberto Satoshi Souza has really hit a stride in 2021. Putting together two quick wins this year, defeating Kazuki Tokudome and Tofiq Musayev, he has shown his ability as a top-tier fighter. Kai Asakura has also definitely bounced back from his late 2020 loss to Kyoji Horiguchi.

LU: Naoki Inoue, Kleber Koike, Satoshi Souza.

What is your RIZIN Fight of the Year?

Ayaka Hamasaki throws a leg kick at Kanna Asakura
Ayaka Hamasaki retained her RIZIN Super Atomweight Championship with a win over Kanna Asakura in March. (RIZIN FF)

LU: Ayaka Hamasaki vs Kanna Asakura II.

CJ: Takasuke Kume vs Koji Takeda was an amazing fight and has to be my pick. The two regional promotion champions really went to war and left everything in the ring and it feels wrong to say someone lost that fight. Outside of that fight, fights like Shibatar vs HIROYA and Saori Oshima vs Kanna Asakura stand out. Shibatar stands out for its freak show and entertainment aspects, while Saori Oshima shocked the RIZIN world and defeated Kanna in what is now the most watched women’s match in the promotion’s history on Youtube.

DR: As silly as Takanori Gomi fights can be these days, I thoroughly enjoyed his fight with Kouzi at RIZIN 26. I wouldn’t say it was my favorite though… that’s always tough to narrow down. Surely it won’t surprise anyone who knows me, but I may have to give it to either of Ayaka Hamasaki’s rematches against Kanna Asakura and Emi Fujino. From stories alone to the fights themselves, they were both sensational rides. And because I’m a sucker for underappreciated history in this sport (AKA a total f****** hipster), I think just me typing this out and reflecting has swayed it towards the Fujino rematch. Sue me.

Honorable mention to Koji Takeda vs. Takasuke Kume.

What show this year was RIZIN’s best?

CJ: RIZIN 26 was an epic event that is hard to top. Kyoji Horiguchi returned to form with a dominant win over Kai Asakura and made the Japanese public obsessed with calf-kicks in the process. There were a ton of fun finishes and the event helped set the stage for the bantamweight tournament. It was also the event where we got to see Shibatar vs Hiroya, clearly the promotion’s most successful freak show fight to date. Outside of the New Year’s Event, it is tough to pick a favorite but if I was forced, I would choose Rizin 31. While not as strong on paper as some of the other cards, the results were spectacular and shocking. Only two fights went to decision and highlights like Daisuke Nakamura getting the armbar, Juntaro Ushiku upsetting the champion, and Saori Oshima making a statement were in abundance.

DR: Literally the last four events are all good choices. RIZIN 31 is probably the correct answer due to the incredible variation of finishes along with one of the two decisions being Oshima’s emergent upset against Asakura – a phenomenal fight regardless. Personally though, I enjoyed the hell out of RIZIN 30 from top to bottom although it was a rare decision fest for RIZIN. Again, I’m a nerd for history as mentioned earlier. So add Rina Panchan and Momoka Mandokoro opening the show in a back and forth first-ever women’s RIZIN kickboxing match and I’m gonna be off on a good foot. Then Shoji starched Chihiro Suzuki in 20 seconds. It was a good time.

If we’re going to exclude NYE, I’d say the promotion’s Tokyo Dome debut at RIZIN 28 would take the cake. Albeit a short little presentation of 10 bouts, the show was full of stars and produced some noteworthy results.

LU: RIZIN 28.

JW: The obvious answer to me would be RIZIN 26. Despite a limited roster to work with, RIZIN put together a stacked 16-fight card that truly felt New Year’s Eve quality. Sure, it won’t stack up to some of the greater December 31st cards, but it was still certainly a solid show.

What show was RIZIN’s worst?

JW: The worst event of 2021 might have to be RIZIN 29. Along with RIZIN 28, it shared the opening round of the bantamweight tournament. However, it was clear that the four lower-quality tournament fights were placed on this card. Every single MMA bout on this card went the distance, causing it to feel like a dragged-out event by the end.

It also featured a four-man kickboxing tournament that had an early disaster, as Kouzi’s fight against Genji Umeno finished due to a no contest. For what it’s worth, the main event between Kouzi and Taiju Shiratori ended up being quite close and certainly main event worthy.

CJ: RIZIN 29 was clearly the worst event of the year. The Tokyo Dome card obviously got more attention and was more important to the promotion so this event was kind of left with the scraps. Aside from being weak on paper, there was also the issue of Kouzi headbutting his opponent in the opening round of the kickboxing tournament, the Nakamura fight falling through, and the lack of finishes on the main card. Fans were probably most frustrated with the Imanari fight.

That being said, the Yamaniha/Kuramoto fight was a fun brawl.

LU: RIZIN 29.

DR: Calling a RIZIN event “the worst” always feels wrong as I don’t know if I’ve ever really seen a bad one. I’m also very easy to please, especially when it comes to international MMA, so take that into consideration. Surely I said it last year, but just because we’re talking the worst, doesn’t mean a bad show.

Disclaimers out of the way… I think it would easily be RIZIN 29. Simply because it was majorly a kickboxing event and that’s not my primary combat sports investment. Still an enjoyable show and Shiratori is a badass, but just not as much MMA as I’m always preferring.

How do you feel about RIZIN’s new spin-off shows “TRIGGER” and “LANDMARK,”?

Tepparith Joegym stands in the RIZIN cage with an arm up while Hiroto Uchimura lays on the canvas.
Veteran Tepparith Joegym stopped Hiroto Uchimura at the debut RIZIN “TRIGGER” card (RIZIN FF)

CJ: When it comes to “TRIGGER” and “LANDMARK,” I thought “LANDMARK” was the better overall product. They created a cool, almost Bloodsport-like vibe with the secret location and limited number of spectators. They also were able to try out some new camera angles, like using a drone. In addition, the fights delivered, which is important on a card with only four.

“TRIGGER” on the other hand took place in a cage and seemed like a low-budget RIZIN show. There was a lack of VTRs and a number of people on the card seemed to only be there because they were from the area. It didn’t help that Kintaro was injured, so the card was also lacking some star power. Overall, it still ended up being a fun event, but it will be interesting to see if promotions like Deep, Pancrase, and Shooto see “TRIGGER” shows as direct competition and if so, what consequences that will have for RIZIN.

With regards to the potential uptick of events in 2022, they would need to have access to foreign fights for that to work, because they were stretched pretty thin in 2021, notably on the “TRIGGER” undercard.

DR: A++ ideas. The only potential downside I see to this boost is if the pandemic further overstays its welcome. Then it may be tougher to have as much variety as the promotion kind of hopes for in the grand scheme. This degree of variety in the major leagues of MMA is always a good thing though. I know ONE has utilized rings and cages for different events, as does Deep and a few others. But it’s obviously not normal in the west. Allowing fans, and fighters, so many different types of variation is only beneficial longterm.

LU: Will have long-term positive benefits as a way to develop talent, uptick of events will be easy to cope with so long as event quality is consistent.

JW: I think these shows could be an interesting way for the promotion to build up talent. However, I worry that this could cause issues with a shortage of talent. The first “TRIGGER” show featured quite a lot of names we already saw on flagship RIZIN cards. This makes you wonder, will it hurt the bigger shows for these smaller programs to run as well?

What do you want RIZIN to change in 2022?

LU: Have a year-long calendar planned out in advance that they stick to.

DR: Well, if you aren’t in Japan you currently have to jump through a hoop to watch RIZIN “LANDMARK.” That hoop being U-NEXT – the sole platform that the events will be shown on. Therefore, if you aren’t a Japanese resident, you’ll need to subscribe to a VPN as well as U-NEXT. Which in total, if I remember correctly, should equal out to about the same as normal RIZIN numbered event. So price-wise, it’s not that bad and worth if you really must have all your RIZIN events. But like Matthew McConnaughey once said, “It would be a lot cooler if you did.” That can be applied RIZIN “LANDMARK” and having another option or no hoops to jump through to watch.

CJ: I know that certain members of the international audience were frustrated that they couldn’t watch the first “LANDMARK” show, so I guess a more international-friendly approach would be a welcome change. I understand that the wrestling promotion Stardom has a successful model, so it would be nice to see Rizin try to duplicate that.

JW: I’ve asked for this in 2019 and 2020 – let’s go one more time. I want the champions to stop appearing in non-title fights. I imagine it’s done for a reason, but I personally don’t know what that reason may be.

What’s your bold prediction for 2022?

DR: Seika Izawa will be the RIZIN Super Atomweight Champion. Whether it’s from doing the unthinkable and beating Ayaka Hamasaki… not once but TWICE… or defeating someone else after Hamasaki retires, I can’t say.

CJ: There will be a changing of the guard in RIZIN’s super atomweight division. With the work that DEEP Jewels has been putting in, fighters like Saori Oshima, Seika Izawa, Si Woo Park, and Moeri Suda can be expected to take over the aging division. Ayaka Hamasaki has already expressed her desire for the younger division to rise up and it may happen next year.

LU: RIZIN does a full kickboxing card at some point in the year.

JW: Kouzi is going to join the growing list of kickboxers to cross over into MMA. That, or we see RIZIN work out a champion versus champion bout with Invicta FC – of course barring any roadblocks that the pandemic may put in place.

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

LU: DEEP

DR: DEEP Jewels. The answer is always DEEP Jewels.

CJ: DEEP Impact/DEEP Jewels put on a ton of shows this year and it was a lot of fun to see them develop talent. A lot of their fighters have already been called up to Rizin and seen success there, like champions Saori Oshima, Juri Hara, and Ushiku. RIZIN needed the regional promotions to step up and produce talent and no one has done a better job than DEEP Impact/DEEP Jewels.

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

DR: Would have to be Seika Izawa. Her progression and skill set for her age has been just incredible to watch and I believe she’s the very best prospect in all of MMA – right alongside Erin Blanchfield who won’t be a “prospect” for much longer.

Outside of Seika, Aya Murakami has just been ripping arms off left and right since she fell ill and couldn’t compete in the DEEP Jewels atomweight tournament. I’m very excited to see what the future holds and wish we could have seen her compete against the likes of Si Woo Park and Oshima in that tournament – the latter still being possible, however.

Then despite losses, and having fought each other, I’m very impressed by how good Eru Takebayashi and Aira Koga are for their very young ages. Might as well throw Moeri Suda in the mix as well, it wouldn’t be fair to leave her out.

CJ: With Seika Izawa set to make her debut this December, I won’t include her in my consideration. With that being said, I would have to say Tatsuro Taira impressed me the most. He went 3-0 and won all of his fights via first round submission. At just 21 years old and a 10-0, he looks to have a bright future. On the women’s side, I would mention Aya Murakami who also won three fights via first round submission.

LU: Tatsuro Taira.

JW: I would be a fool to not give props to Tatsuro Taira. I imagine others will do so as well (I’m writing this before seeing the responses from others). Undefeated with 10 wins? Only 21 years old? Facing actual competition? This is not a prospect, this is a super-prospect. If not RIZIN, another large organization needs to get their hands on him immediately.

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