JMMA Monday: Ulka Sasaki’s Balance of Art and Sport

Ulka Sasaki walks to the RIZIN ring, stepping down a ramp while wearing a golden jacket.
Ulka Sasaki sporting one of his unique looks before a RIZIN fight (RIZIN FF)

Welcome to another issue of JMMA Monday. This is a weekly blog series that discusses the big and small stories around Japanese MMA.

MMA is in a different position compared to a lot of other sports. While many sports are solely focused on wins and losses, MMA can be more than that. The sport is often fixated on personalities and performers, and not just seeing who is the best in the world. At times, MMA can feel pro wrestling or performance art, but like other sports also remains focused on success after all.

Ulka Sasaki is certainly aware of these different outlooks on MMA. He’s a RIZIN fighter who is quite involved in art. Outside of competition, he produces designs for his “LAZY GOD” clothing line. Inside the ring, he puts on a new look for every fight, coming out with a different hairstyle, costume and fighting trunks for every bout. It’s a big part of what he does.

“I look at a fight [as] being able to perform an art. It’s a performance that varies depending on who the opponent is. So for me, every time I head into a fight, I look at it as performing and concluding a piece of art,” said Sasaki in an interview with Knockdown News. “I head into the fight with a different theme with a different vision every time because my opponent is different.”

As much as Sasaki enjoys the art-focused side of fighting, it isn’t lost on him that being successful in the cage is incredibly important as well. His last fight, a bout in September against fellow former UFC fighter Yoshinori Horie, was a loss. This defeat weighed heavily on him afterward despite the fact that he says he had injuries to his back and neck heading into the fight.

“I’m the type of person who normally won’t regret things. But [after] that fight there were some regrets,” Sasaki said.

Yoshinori Horie throws a leg kick to Ulka Sasaki, who is wearing athletic tape around his shoulders.
Covered in athletic tape, Ulka Sasaki (pictured left) competed in September against Yoshinori Horie (RIZIN FF)

Many will remember that Sasaki appeared in that bout with large amounts of athletic tape around his back and arms. This wasn’t part of one of his “different themes” that he usually showcases in his look, but instead was an attempt to help him fight with his injures. While he admits that the tape didn’t really do much to help him, he said he wore it to present more comfort surrounding the injuries.

“I was at a point where if anything would have made me feel a little more comfortable, I would have done it.”

The loss to Horie was Sasaki’s first featherweight appearance since 2014. This came after a long run at the lower flyweight and bantamweight classes, competing there earlier in his RIZIN career and throughout his UFC run.

Sasaki plans to make featherweight his home going forward. This decision was made due to the amount of damage that weight cutting did to him. He claims the damage he suffered from weight cuts were hurting his organs, and that a move up to featherweight was necessary for the longevity of his career.

A loss in his RIZIN featherweight debut might cause some to believe Sasaki should go back down a weight class. However, he is confident about standing his ground in the higher division: “If I felt like I completely did not belong here I would probably go back to bantamweight.”

Ulka Sasaki gets his arm raised in the RIZIN ring, across from Kenta Takizawa.
Ulka Sasaki’s last win came in late 2020 against Kenta Takizawa (RIZIN FF)

Sasaki has the chance to turn things around soon. In February, he will headline RIZIN’s second “TRIGGER” event against Kleber Koike at featherweight. The fight is a big challenge for Sasaki, as Koike has yet to lose since joining the promotion in late 2020.

RIZIN’s featherweight champ is currently Juntaro Ushiku. When asking Sasaki if he wants a possible title fight in the future, he didn’t seem too interested. For now he is simply focused on what a win against Koike could do for him.

“Kleber [Koike] is at the top of the featherweight division, title or not. So, beating Kleber is the easiest and most simple way for me to make a statement,” he said.

After an unsuccessful featherweight debut last year, Sasaki is given a second opportunity to prove himself at the weight class. However, the challenges aren’t getting any easier for him. While a loss at “TRIGGER” could put Sasaki into a two-fight skid, a win would propel him to being recognized as one of the top names in the promotion’s featherweight class.

Other Notes From This Week

  • DEEP Jewels announced they will hold an eight-woman tournament to crown their first flyweight champ.  The bracket includes veteran names Rin Nakai and Shizuka Sugiyama and kicks off on March 12th. It’s a pretty solid field of names and proves that the promotion is ready to bring a belt into that division.
  • Pancrase 326 is stacked. The card now has a third title bout and the beginning of a four-man tournament at featherweight. While the promotion won’t hold any events until nearly the end of the first quarter of 2022, they’re certainly making up for lost time with this show.
  • JMMA talents had a good showing at ONE Championship’s “Only The Brave” card on Friday night. Hiroyuki Tetsuka, Jarred Brooks and Tatsumitsu Wada all walked away with wins.
  • When I hit send on last week’s article I knew I was missing something. Better late than never on this quick news note: On January 23rd, Shintaro Ishiwatari had his MMA retirement ceremony. At that event, he fought in a two-round exhibition against Hiromasa Ougikubo.

JMMA Articles From This Week

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