JMMA Monday: A Conversation With RIZIN’s Shingo Kashiwagi

A wide shot of the Saitama Super Arena in Saitama, Japan, which has a lit stage and lights around.
We spoke with Shingo Kashiwagi for this week’s “JMMA Monday” (RIZIN FF)

If you are ever wondering who is behind a certain decision at RIZIN, there’s a good chance the answer is Shingo Kashiwagi.

Kashiwagi wears many hats in the top JMMA promotion and is constantly making big decisions for them. He’s their matchmaker, talent scout, and English translator, just to name a few of his titles.

Of course, there are many other names in RIZIN, like CEO Nobuyuki Sakakibara, that keep the promotion running. But, Kashiwagi certainly does a lot of work behind the scenes for RIZIN.

To get some insight and opinion before the promotion heads into a big show this weekend, we sat down with Kashiwagi for an interview. Here are the highlights of our conversation.

Note: Parts of the interview have been cut for brevity.

Jack Wannan: The promotion has had some big moments this year, but it has also grappled with lots of new challenges. How would you describe 2022 so far for RIZIN?

Shingo Kashiwagi: It’s definitely been challenging, but we’ve been going with the flow and tried to make the best out of the given situation. Starting this April, I think, that was the first event that we brought back international fighters. We’re slowly starting to revitalize our divisions, because during the pandemic we could only create storylines with Japanese fighters. So that’s been a good thing.

One good thing that came out [of recent years was] we got Japanese fans to pay for content. People were used to watching fight content for free and on terrestrial television. Because of the pandemic, people had to stay home, and they got used to paying for subscriptions. Japanese people definitely got used to paying for content, which resulted in “THE MATCH” being a huge success. The pay-per-view numbers were off the charts. It showed that Japan still has potential for pay-per-views domestically.

JW: I’m really interested to know how this Mikuru Asakura vs. Floyd Mayweather exhibition sort of came together. It’s the second time we have seen Mayweather in the RIZIN ring, with his prior appearance being against Tenshin Nasukawa in 2018.

SK: The Tenshin and Floyd Mayweather fight was his first exhibition fight ever. That was also his first fight outside of the United States. So that was the challenge for everybody. There were a lot of hurdles there. But at the end of the day, everybody turned out happy. So, obviously, after a big success, we want to do it again. It’s just normal to discuss it: ‘Okay, what do we do next?’

Floyd was supposed to fight [for RIZIN] in 2020, I believe. We had him scheduled for another exhibition in 2020. But obviously, you know, because of the pandemic [it] got postponed and pushed back. And we just kept on postponing it. But because the pandemic he got pushed back, and now it got scheduled for 2022.

Floyd Mayweather and Mikuru Asakura pose at RIZIN's Hawaii press conference.
Floyd Mayweather and Mikuru Asakura will compete at “SUPER RIZIN” this weekend (RIZIN FF)

JW: What was the reasoning behind doing this fight in September as opposed to holding off for a New Year’s Eve event?

SK: There are some other reasons, but I mean, New Year’s Eve itself is a big show for us. We can create a story and everything else, but it just kind of made sense to do this fight sometime during the summertime.

A lot of people in the industry were like “Okay, Tenshin vs. Takeru is the ultimate match to make, and people are going to be burnt out after that.” So we were kind of thinking that the momentum that we had was going to fall after that big fight. […] We wanted to announce this fight before “THE MATCH” to make sure everybody had something to look forward to, and [so] they wouldn’t stop right there on June 19th. We just wanted to keep people talking about the combat sports industry after “THE MATCH.”

JW: How do you value Mikuru Asakura in his current form? It’s interesting to me how his value as an entertainment figure is massively different from when you first started working with him. He’s a superstar now.

SK: He’s definitely a key figure not just for RIZIN but for the Japanese combat sports scene. He’s got a huge influence over the younger generation. He’s now producing his own [show] and there’s a lot of young kids who watch it, who are entertained at what he does.

JW: For a while, I think to some it was a little unknown what the “SUPER RIZIN” event was going to be theme-wise. Can you describe what the show is aiming to do?

SK: We were thinking this is going to be like a festival. It’s trying to [give] a taste of what the Japanese combat sports scene is like to the international audience […]  The original idea was like, what if every single fight had different rulesets?

JW: I couldn’t help but notice that the “SUPER RIZIN” event isn’t numbered. Is this a one-off?

SK: It’s definitely not a numbered series. It’s definitely an irregular event.

JW: Someone like Anastasiya Svetkivska wasn’t on the radar of many before she came to RIZIN. But, in her fight against RENA, she proved to be a very tough opponent. Can you describe the process of scouting talents like this, where you’re uncovering someone who nobody has noticed?

SK: Scouting is my thing. My profession from back when I got into this industry was scouting fighters. When I was a matchmaker for King of the Cage, I would put on like 22 fights in one show. That’s 44 fighters. And at that stage, it really matters how you identify each fighter’s abilities and talent, and anticipate how the fight is going to go. So watching fighters from an early stage, following their career, has been something that I’ve been doing for the past 16 years. So, that’s one of the reasons that I have all these radars all over the world. Just connections, friends, promoters, and working relationships.

As Anastasiya goes, I’m a big fan of IMMAF. I follow their world championships. It’s so fun to watch. A lot of the time you find these unpolished stones or you just find these polished stones already at an amateur level. I think Brave CF has a great way of scouting from IMMAF.

IMMAF is definitely one of the places I check out every year. Anastasiya was one of the champions there. She was a champion over in [2019].

Luiz Gustavo holds a microphone inside the RIZIN cage.
Luiz Gustavo made his return in April, defeating Yusuke Yachi. He competes this weekend against Juri Ohara (RIZIN FF)

JW: Keeping on the topic of scouting talent. Luiz Gustavo was scouted off the regional scene years back and has made a name for himself in RIZIN. He didn’t fight in the early years of the COVID-19 pandemic, as he couldn’t enter Japan yet. He returned this year for the first time since 2019 and scored a big win. What do you think about his return and where he stands as a fighter right now?

SK: [During the pandemic] Gustavo would send me texts and videos saying “Hey, I’m always training. I’ll be ready. Get me back in Japan whenever you can, I’ll be ready.” I definitely wanted to bring him back. He was so focused. He was declining opportunities from other promotions just because he wanted to come back to RIZIN. I felt obligated to respond to his dedication.

He has a strong mentality. He’s very hungry for success. And obviously, Wanderlei Silva is the one that got him into RIZIN. So he really wanted to become the next Wanderlei Silva. He wants to make his career in Japan, like his idol.

I wasn’t concerned about his ring rust in April. It didn’t show at all. He was kind of sloppy as usual, but his aggression and pressure were still there. That’s definitely what stands out for Gustavo. He does not back down.

JW: I’m interested in hearing about how it was dealing with international talent during that time in the pandemic. I can imagine lots of talent were asking if they could fight despite travel restrictions stopping them.

SK: We pretty much had to say that any existing contract [for an international fighter at that time], if you want out, you can. Because we can’t promise you a fight and we don’t know when we can book you next. We couldn’t really do anything with international fighters. We could do stuff domestically, but there was no chance for international fighters.

I reached out and said “Hey, this is the situation: there’s nothing we can do. If you want to still be on contract that’s fine, and we will let you take fights elsewhere. If there’s any opportunities that require you to get out of your existing contract, that’s fine.” So some fighters did [and] some stayed.

JW: Could you provide an update on if there is a plan to do something between Bellator and RIZIN this New Year’s Eve?

SK: There has always been plans. We wanted to do something last year. We wanted to do something two years ago. We always talk all the time. There are always ways where we want to try to do something. But the thing with co-promoting is that we both have a business to run. Sakakibara-san has a business to run, Scott Coker has a business to run. It’s all a matter of timing. And if it doesn’t make sense from a business point of view, there’s no point in doing this.

In order for these things to happen, a lot of things have to match. It has to be perfect so that everybody benefits from this. Both promoters benefit, fighters benefit, and fans benefit. At the scale of what Bellator is operating at and what RIZIN is operating at, it’s hard to combine these two for a specific event. There are a lot of hurdles, but both parties want to do it.

It’s a matter of how we can get this done to a point where it makes sense. We enjoyed the success of [co-promoting with Bellator] in 2019 and want to do it again. But, with the pandemic and that both companies have obligations through sponsorships and television stations or their partners, you know, it’s something that cannot be done overnight.

I think the business relationship is there. It’s just about the right timing and everything has to make sense for this to happen.

Other News And Notes From The Week

  • Not a lot of notes this week. Here’s what I could come up with:
  • The biggest thing set to happen this week is RIZIN’s pair of shows from the Saitama Super Arena.
    • “SUPER RIZIN” will take place on Saturday night for viewers in North America. It’s a four-fight card that includes a wild variety of rulesets. As you probably know, Floyd Mayweather will face Mikuru Asakura in the main event. Here’s the lineup.
    • RIZIN 38 will follow, going from late Saturday night into early Sunday morning. The card includes the return of Kyoji Horiguchi, the continuation of RIZIN’s Super Atomweight Grand Prix, and the next fight for Hiromasa Ougikubo (speaking of him, he was profiled in last week’s column!)
    • Here’s how RIZIN 38 looks. Shorter than the usual numbered card (the biggest criticism I’d give it, honestly), but has quite a few high-quality matchups in it.
    • Also, here’s one of those things that are an unexpected crossover of my interests: rappers JP The WAVY and LEX will perform as part of a halftime show at the event… And Tenshin Nasukawa will host it? (There’s also this group “BAD HOP,” which I admittedly don’t know as much about, who will also be performing). Hoping the FITE feed will air this.
  • There’s not much going on this week apart from that show. GLADIATOR is running a card in Osaka. DEEP Impact is in Hamamatsu.
  • Last week, RIZIN announced an event for October 23rd. It’s set to take place at the Marine Messe Fukuoka Hall in Fukuoka, Japan.
    • Kleber Koike will get his incredibly overdue title shot against Juntaro Ushiku in the main event. Also, coming off his big win over Johnny Case, Koji Takeda will face Zach Zane.
      • This is an incredibly lopsided one for Zane – he has lost four times this year already, all via finish.
    • I feel like who isn’t on this card or on this weekend’s show helps give you a sense of how New Year’s Eve will look this year. In other words, I feel like December is when we’ll be seeing Roberto Satoshi Souza next.
    • More details on the card can be read in my quick report here.
  • The “Road To UFC” tournament is seemingly scheduled to continue next month. GONG is reporting that the tournament semi-finals will take place on October 23rd in Abu Dhabi.
    • JMMA talents Koyomi Matsushima, Toshiomi Kazama, Tomoya Nakamura, and Shohei Nose are still in their respective brackets. Also, RIZIN alum Topnoi Kiwram is in the flyweight tourney still.
    • SASUKE lost to Yi Zha in his quarter-final in June. Despite this, they’re bringing him back to face Balajin on this card… Interesting!
  • Minowaman… Z?
  • Shooto Japan held an event today. At the time of me writing this note, the event hasn’t actually started. But the show will likely have concluded by the time you read this. I’ll make sure to include the results in next week’s column!
  • Just some programming notes: Knockdown News has a big week coming up regarding JMMA coverage. We’ll be providing live coverage for both RIZIN cards this weekend. ALSO! In the coming days, an interview with Ayaka Hamasaki will come out. Our conversation just took place a few hours ago, and now I just have to turn that call into a story! I hope the coverage will be resourceful to you!

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