Kyohei Hagiwara got into fighting for one reason at the start: To him, it’s simply fun.
Hagiwara wasn’t initially getting money and fame from his fighting, which he does now in Japanese promotion RIZIN.
The 26-year-old featherweight first fought as a teenager. To start, he joined a local MMA gym that allowed youth to train for free. The reason for the free admission was because the owner wanted to give troubled teenagers something to do. Reflecting on that time, Hagiwara is willing to admit he definitely fit that “troubled” demographic that the owner was looking to help.
Since he was often sparring with friends, it didn’t take long for him to fall in love with fighting.
Hagiwara later competed in “underground” fights that didn’t count toward any type of pro record. He said his first bout came when he was just 17. These fights, while not adding to any type of MMA record, opened doors for a career.
Hagiwara remembers a fight early in his MMA run that stuck out to him as a turning point: in 2018, he was given the chance to head out to Seoul, South Korea for a matchup.
The fight was for Angel’s Fighting Championship. While not considered the top MMA promotion in the country, AFC had a large broadcasting platform with KBS Sports, which is owned by one of the top TV networks in the country.
Not expecting the event to be such a big deal, Hagiwara thought of the fight as a “free vacation.” Soon he saw that it was to be treated much more seriously.
“When I got there, this organization had a much bigger production than anticipated,” said Hagiwara. “They had these pre-fight events, press conferences [and] they had open weigh-ins. And it was a big, big thing.”
It was too late by then for Hagiwara to properly prepare for the fight. That could, in part, be why the fight happened the way it did. The matchup played out as a brief squash for Lee Min-gu, who scored his sixth pro win with a second-minute armbar against Hagiwara. It was a quick loss.
In Korea, Hagiwara saw that he can showcase his skills on a big stage for many to see. However, in this case, he saw those losses would also come on a bigger stage than ever.
It was a wake-up call.
“After I lost, I felt like I let everybody down and I didn’t want to do that,” said Hagiwara, who mentioned that many of his friends were at the event in support of him.
This defeat caused Hagiwara to commit to fighting as a pro. He started to train harder and focus on sanctioned bouts that could count toward his record. “If I’m going to do this, I want to be serious and I’m going to commit to it,” he told himself. Two years later, he got the call to fight for RIZIN.
Hagiwara’s RIZIN career has been quick, having already competed seven times since 2020. It has been explosive, with four of his five wins coming via stoppage. It has also been rocky. While clearly making gains and moving up the division, Hagiwara hasn’t reached the top.
Hagiwara thinks he still has a lot to prove. The Osaka-born fighter believes that his “character” and “intensity” are what has made him known thus far, but he has yet to prove his fighting style to people.
“That’s very frustrating for me because I want to be known for my fighting abilities, not everything else that comes with it.”
How specifically can he prove his skills to people? Well, in his own words, victories over champions in Japan or earning a belt of his own.
Hagiwara isn’t facing a champion this weekend, but he does have an intriguing opponent. In the main event of RIZIN 34, he’ll be facing a former titleholder in Satoshi Yamasu. He thinks a win this weekend can “open up doors” for bigger opportunities.
Hagiwara has made himself a big name in RIZIN, but has yet to become one of the very top featherweights. Now with a big platform in another main event opportunity, Hagiwara has the chance to prove if he has reached that point.
10:00AM EDT Correction: Phrasing changed in paragraph 2 for clarity.