JMMA Monday: Juntaro Ushiku Doesn’t Hear The Noise

Juntaro Ushiku speaks at a RIZIN press conference.
Juntaro Ushiku has the chance to defend his belt and take down one of RIZIN’s most successful current names this weekend (RIZIN FF)

Juntaro Ushiku is entering RIZIN 39 this weekend as a champion, but it feels like the focus isn’t on him.

Is it fair to say that Ushiku might be getting overlooked currently? Maybe. This Sunday he’s facing Kleber Koike in the main event of a show from Fukuoka, and it feels like Koike is the star of the show.

Koike is a name that has a larger following online, with strong numbers on Instagram and Youtube. He has more fights in RIZIN and has headlined more cards than Ushiku for the promotion – including a show from the illustrious Tokyo Dome in 2021.

Koike is, by the account of many, getting a title fight against Ushiku much later than when he arguably first started to deserve the opportunity.

In a sense, it feels like the challenger is very much the focal point of this bout. To some in the position of Ushiku, this might bother them. However, he isn’t annoyed at all. Instead, he sees this upcoming fight as an opportunity to gain much more notoriety.

“I’m thinking if I win this upcoming fight things will definitely change,” Ushiku said in an interview with Knockdown News.

Ushiku is not one to offend with his words. It would be fair to say that he lets his work do the talking. And when it comes to what others think, he simply blocks out the noise. There’s a lot of toxicity in the fight game, but he doesn’t let it get to him.

“The only thing that can keep you going is that you have to believe in yourself,” the two-promotion champion said. “I try not to listen to what other people [say], especially the negative stuff.”

From the very start, Ushiku has always been about proving himself through hard work.

Ushiku first became interested in MMA as a kid. The 27-year-old recalls being introduced to Pride FC by his father, who would watch fights alongside him. Early on, his parents gave him the belief that if you are chasing a passion, then you must work to earn everything that you get. His next move was a testament to this belief: when he started to pursue MMA while in his junior year of high school, Ushiku picked up a part-time job to fund his gym fees.

Fast-forward a decade, and Ushiku is now in a good place in JMMA. After more than 30 fights as a pro, including an extensive run in Pancrase, he can now say he is one of the top featherweights in the scene. In 2020, he earned the DEEP Featherweight Championship, a belt that he has since defended twice successfully.

And he captured RIZIN’s 145-pound title in October 2021, dethroning Yutaka Saito. That first fight ended in a doctor stoppage due to a cut that Saito suffered from a knee. Because of this, the pair rematched two months later in a fight that Ushiku said he felt he “owed” to Saito. Ushiku prevailed in a unanimous decision at that time, effectively ending their rivalry.

“I think that the biggest reason why I’m doing so good right now is because I finally started to realize what I’m good at. I’m at a point where I understand myself a lot more,” Ushiku said. “I think that’s what led to these results. I know how to fight much better, I know where my strengths and weaknesses are much better now.”

Juntaro Ushiku throws his right hand into a heavy bag inside a small MMA gym with a short roof.
Juntaro Ushiku trains inside the K-Clann gym (RIZIN FF)

Ushiku currently trains out of the K-Clann gym in Tokyo. The gym, which first launched in 2017, is also represented by DEEP Impact vets CORO and Kazunori Yokota. It’s a small underground building that is made up of just two rooms – the training area and a tight locker room.

It’s the perfect setting for a champion, according to Ushiku.

“I think it has a great atmosphere,” said Ushiku, while he sat with a dark black mat behind him inside the K-Clann gym. “I think we’re very unique in a way that we all work as a great team. Everybody in the gym helps each other out. Right now we’re preparing for my fight, so everybody takes turns being my sparring partner.”

With his status as champion, Ushiku feels he is now a leader in the gym. It’s a role that brings you respect, but also comes with a large amount of responsibility.

“You know, I’m in a position where I now have to lead the younger generations and show them away,” Ushiku said.

Juntaro Ushiku and Kleber Koike pose while Nobuyuki Sakakibara holds the RIZIN Featherweight Championship at a press conference.
Juntaro Ushiku and Kleber are set to headline RIZIN 39 (RIZIN FF)

Ushiku undoubtedly believes in himself, but also isn’t counting out Koike’s skills. Despite Koike having a reputation as a grappler, Ushiku also credited him with striking skills.

“Koike is known for his grappling skills, but he can throw hands too. You know, this is an MMA fight. I’m going to face his skills with my overall well-roundedness,” he said.

The critics don’t matter to Ushiku. However, he can silence them nonetheless this weekend. But to do that and remain champion he will have to do something that nobody in RIZIN has done before, and that’s beat Koike.

Other Notes From The Week

  • This column only took a week off but it felt like a month passed! Thanks to those who are coming back, I just had to take some time off last Monday to work on other projects. Here’s what is new around the scene:
  • Flyweight Tatsuro Taira continues to move up in the world. The Shooto Japan vet scored his second UFC win on Saturday, submitting CJ Vergara in the second round with an armbar. He now has a record of 12 wins as a pro.
  • Vugar Karamov won’t be appearing at RIZIN 39 this weekend due to a herniated disc injury. His matchup against Yoshiki Nakahara, which was one of the stronger matches of the weekend, is off.
    • Nakahara will remain in the lineup: Akira Haraguchi has stepped in to face him on short notice.
  • JMMA will be well-represented in Abu Dhabi this weekend.
    • Shooto Japan vet Yamato Nishikawa will make his UFC debut at UFC 280 this Saturday, stepping in to face Magomed Mustafaev at lightweight. Nishikawa enters the fight with 21 wins as a pro and is coming off a victory from a Shooto Japan card that occurred just last month.
    • The “Road To UFC” tournament is also continuing on Sunday. As a refresher: this tournament started in June in Singapore with four brackets of eight men each. The winner of each tournament will get a UFC contract. We’re in the semi-finals now:
      • Flyweight: RIZIN alum Topnoi Kiwram will fight undefeated Park Hyun-sung in a semi-final bout.
      • Bantamweight is the most JMMA-heavy: Toshiomi Kazama will face Kim Min-woo, and then Rinya Nakamura and Shohei Nose will face off.
      • At featherweight: Koyomi Matsushima will face Yi Zha in a semi-final bout. SASUKE will also return in a showcase fight.
      • There’s a lightweight bracket as well, but sole JMMA representative Jinnosuke Kashimura didn’t make it past the quarter-finals earlier this year.
  • Pro wrestler, greco-roman wrestler and one-time RIZIN fighter Katsuya Kitamura passed away this week, per a report from Tokyo Sports. Little is known about his death currently, but the publication is reporting that Kitamura expressed discomfort and called an ambulance on the day of his passing.
    • Incredibly tragic news. Kitamura was only 36. He was at one point projected to be a star in the making for the pro wrestling promotion NJPW. In 2017, Kitamura was the Wrestling Observer Newsletter Rookie of the Year.
    • Kitamura suddenly departed NJPW in early 2019 after suffering a leg injury that stopped the promotion from medically clearing him. He appeared at RIZIN 32 in November 2021, where he was submitted in the second round by Bobby Ologun.
    • Post Wrestling’s John Pollock has a full obituary here.
  • Pancrase held an event on Monday last week in Shinagawa.
  • ONE Championship is holding a press conference in Japan today. The presser is focused on ONE 163, which is currently scheduled to take place in Singapore next month. Shinya Aoki, Yoshihiro Akiyama, Yuya Wakamatsu and Itsuki Hirata are expected to appear, per GONG.
    • I’m curious to see if there will be any word on ONE’s next Japan show. They’re starting to travel again, with shows booked in Malaysia and the Philippines for the upcoming months.
  • Since there was no “JMMA Monday” last week, here are a few older headlines that you might have missed:
    • Undefeated Rei Tsuyura is getting the title push in Pancrase. With a flawless record of five wins, he will face flyweight titleholder Satoru Enomoto at Pancrase’s December 25th show.
      • Enomoto will be defending his belt for the first time since taking it off Toru Ogawa in March.
    • Also on that late-2022 Pancrase card: interim bantamweight titleholder Taichi Nakajima will return to the promotion in a fight against TSUNE.
      • TSUNE is getting the title fight after earning four consecutive wins in Pancrase since 2021. It’s a good matchup.

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