Kleber Koike felt he had everything to prove in his 2020 RIZIN debut.
This wasn’t because he was a rookie. Matter fact, he was entering the promotion with over 25 wins and more than a decade of experience. And it wasn’t because it was his first fight on a big stage. Just a few years before, he fought on KSW 39 in front of over 50,000 in live attendance.
Koike wasn’t even a new face to the JMMA scene. He had already competed before in Pancrase and DEEP Impact.
But nonetheless, he felt he had something to prove.
“When I first fought in RIZIN, probably nobody knew who I was,” said Koike through a translator in an interview with Knockdown News. “I was introduced by [Roberto] Satoshi [Souza] and people slowly started to know my name, but they were still doubting me.”
Koike knew there was only one way that people would start to recognize his skills: win. In his first fight with the promotion, he had the chance to make a statement. At Saitama Super Arena on New Year’s Eve, Koike was matched with Pancrase standout Kyle Aguon. Koike was able to put Aguon to sleep in the first round with a darce choke. And in a chilling moment to end the fight, he shouted into a ringside camera while the hold was locked in.
After another win in March, Koike was given yet another big opportunity. In the main event of the promotion’s debut at the historic Tokyo Dome venue, he was put up against Mikuru Asakura – a longtime RIZIN fighter that has gained massive notoriety online in recent years as an entertainer. Asakura went to sleep as well, getting caught in the second round with a triangle choke.
Three fights, three submissions – and respect earned, Koike feels.
“I have so much more followers and people [now] who support me and believe [in] me. So I think the Japanese fans right now, the current fans I have right now, are very warm [and] they’re very supportive,” said Koike. “They’re very welcoming. And that gives me a lot of strength. I’m very happy about that.”
Koike’s growth as a fighter has come along with his team, Bonzai Jiu-Jitsu. The Shizuoka-based gym has succeeded on the JMMA scene in recent years. The biggest breakout star is aforementioned lightweight Roberto Satoshi Souza, who is RIZIN’s current lightweight champ.
Koike’s next test will come later this month in the main event of RIZIN’s second “TRIGGER” event. On that card, he will meet former UFC fighter Ulka Sasaki. Koike’s reputation in RIZIN has been that of a grappling specialist. However, he’s open to showing more of his other skills when he faces Sasaki.
“I want to prove in this fight that I can get I can get the win wherever the fight goes,” he said. “If he wants to strike, I can beat him in striking. If he wants to grapple, I will beat him in grappling.”
Koike has mentioned before that the idea of live crowds doesn’t usually give him pressure. After all, he was on that historically huge KSW card. However, this time is different. Fighting in the Shizuoka prefecture, he is expecting a large amount of local support at the event. In what he called a “double-edged sword,” Koike is expecting support but also an added amount of pressure due to the fanbase.
“I’m very excited but concerned at the same time, there’s going to be more support, more people are going to be coming. And you know that I would like to turn all that energy into power, but that also turns into pressure.”
Other Notes From This Week
- RIZIN 34 is expected to take place on March 20th at the Maruzen Intec Arena in Osaka, Japan. We’re expecting to hear more regarding that this week…
- RIZIN snuck two fights onto their “TRIGGER” card last week. The full card for “TRIGGER” is set now.
- The Tenshin Nasukawa farewell tour continues. In his final appearance for RISE Kickboxing, he’s scheduled to face Kazane on April 2nd.
- DEEP Jewels announced matchups for the opening round of their flyweight grand prix. More on that here.
- Makoto Shinyru has withdrawn from his February 26th DEEP Impact title fight against Yamato Fujita. That event has seven bouts in total still set for it. More.
- Pancrase announced three more fights for their April 29th card:
- Kana Watanabe will fight to bounce back from her first pro loss on May 13th, facing Denise Kielholtz on a Bellator card.
- Mei Yamaguchi lost at ONE Championship on Friday, dropping a decision to Jihin Radzuan. Some disagreed with this close result – this includes Yamaguchi herself, who said she was “confused” afterward.
- Kai Asakura got the Youtube golden play button award. It’s a trophy given to all creators that surpass over 1 million subscribers.
- Speaking of clout: Apparently, Kota Miura has become quite a big deal… He’s rapidly approaching a whopping 600,000 followers on Instagram.
- Semi-relevant topic for this series that I just had to sneak in: Venue USEN Studio Coast closed for good recently. It was the longtime home for Pancrase events. Pop culture writer Patrick St. Michel wrote about the music venue’s closure for The Japan Times recently. After the closure of the historic building, St. Michel asks the question: “What will happen to Tokyo’s club community?”