The Japanese MMA scene has a small, but dedicated group of international reporters and viewers that follow it. Those who keep their eyes on JMMA know that it consistently has its own intriguing storylines and dialogues that take place throughout the year.
The amount of interesting discourse that can arise from JMMA is why the Knockdown News RIZIN Reflection Roundtable is back once again this year.
With just more than a day until RIZIN ends their year with their traditional New Year’s Eve card, Knockdown News gathered four writers from the scene to reflect on the year that was 2022. All writers filled out a survey of 10 questions to get a grasp of how they felt about this year. Here’s what they said in the fourth annual RIZIN Reflection Roundtable.
Meet The Roundtable
Before we get started, here’s a quick introduction of everyone you’ll be hearing from.
Drake Riggs is an experienced reporter in the MMA scene. His work can currently be seen at MMA Mania, MMA Fighting and Forbes. He is the host of “BROADENED HORIZIN,” a podcast that includes interviews with some of the most important names in JMMA.
Charlie Jewett is a writer for Sogo-Kaku.com, a website that provides year-round coverage of Japanese combat sports. He currently lives in Japan and has been able to provide on-site coverage of many events this year.
Christopher Aguiar is writer and head of AguiarMMA.com. He frequently writes opinion pieces and columns on MMA. He wrote long-form pieces on many big JMMA names this year, including Kleber Koike, Roberto Satoshi Souza, Tatsuro Taira, and Park Si-woo.
Jack Wannan: Jack Wannan is a reporter for Knockdown News. He covered the JMMA scene closely in 2022, offering live reports of RIZIN cards and publishing the “JMMA Monday” column.
Note: Some responses were edited to fit the style guide of Knockdown News or for brevity.
Overall, how do you feel about the quality of RIZIN cards this year? Unlike in 2021, RIZIN had much more freedom to bring in international fighters. How well do you feel this was utilized?
Drake Riggs: The quality of events is always high with RIZIN. That has yet to change. As for the return of international fighters, I haven’t felt it to be that impactful in 2022. It’s been noticeable, obviously, but it hasn’t really led to any shifts in divisional balance until the end of the year with names like Spike Carlyle coming into the mix along with some of the super atomweight grand prix competitors. Then the return of Johnny Case and Luiz Gustavo. At RIZIN 40, however, that’s where things will get truly wild in the best way possible.
Charlie Jewett: Having enjoyed “LANDMARK,” “TRIGGER,” and the numbered events in the past, I was sad to see them change. I always felt like “LANDMARK” was a cool place for the promotion to try out new ideas, but unfortunately, it looks like those days are over. As a result, I think the quality of the cards generally went down. While RIZIN 35, the first big event with foreign talent was a great event, some of the other cards felt inferior in quality. Overall, I would say 2022 had insignificant events littered between big events, mixed with international broadcasting woes. My general impression was that interest in the promotion dropped from an international standpoint.
Christopher Aguiar: I believe RIZIN has had a relatively quiet year. I’m typically super excited whenever a RIZIN card comes around but there have been multiple points during the year where I couldn’t muster much excitement. The increase of international fighters definitely contributed to some of the cooler moments in the year (which we’ll talk about later, I guess) but I still think RIZIN could have used their relationship with Bellator to utilize even more international fighters throughout the year. The “LANDMARK” and “TRIGGER” cards didn’t hold as much weight as last year, in my opinion.
Jack Wannan: 2022 felt like a year of high highs and low lows for RIZIN. Heading into the year, it was clear that the promotion greatly needed a stronger talent pool (which was limited in previous years because of the lack of talent that could enter the country due to the COVID-19 pandemic). The fact that international talent was booked this year made some cards quite stronger. However, it still felt like there were a few cards this year that had little importance in comparison to others,
What names stuck out to you the most in RIZIN this year?
CJ: Mikuru Asakura. He has become the biggest star in the promotion. Through his Youtube channel and his own Breaking Down series, he has truly become a celebrity in Japan that even non-fight fans know about. It is hard to explain how he got so popular, but he is. Kota Miura has also clearly become a star.
DR: I told you all last year that this was the year of Seika Izawa, damn it! I will brag from the mountain tops in the least humble way possible.
Aside from the greatest atomweight on the planet, it’s also been the long-anticipated crowning year for the Bonsai BJJ boys Kleber Koike and Roberto “Satoshi” de Souza. Like Izawa, those two can also stamp out 2022 in an emphatic fashion with monstrous wins on New Year’s Eve.
I should also mention Si Woo Park who has leveled up tremendously since her last loss to Izawa. Their RIZIN 40 grand prix finals rematch decides MMA’s female fighter of the year as far as I’m concerned. Also from South Korea like Park, Ji Yong Yang is looking like a serious threat at bantamweight.
And lastly, I think Anastasiya Svetkivska deserves a shout. Despite her two losses – albeit to the best in the division, Izawa, and RIZIN staple RENA – the rather inexperienced Ukrainian showed some serious promise and talent for where she’s currently at in her career.
CA: Park Si-woo definitely had one of the stronger years of any RIZIN fighter in 2022. We’ll see how she does in the Grand Prix final, but her performances throughout the tournament have been fantastic, knocking off former grand prix winner (Kanna Asakura) and former queen of the weight class in consecutive fights (Ayaka Hamasaki).
I’ll also spare some words for Kleber Koike who finally got his title shot after promotional shenanigans. Although he was a massive favorite going into all three fights in 2022, he still managed to finish everyone along the way. He was super active and consistently brilliant.
JW: The super atomweight grand prix this year division put a spotlight on many talented names in the division. The finals between Seika Izawa and Park Si-woo next month will determine who is the best coming out of that tournament — however, I feel no matter who comes out on top this was an incredibly strong year for both of them.
If I had a hipster sort of second pick, it would be Yang Ji-yong. The undefeated bantamweight prospect had strong performances over Shoji and Uoi Fullswing. I’m interested to see how far he can go.
What is your RIZIN Fight of the Year?
CA: I think many of us on this roundtable will be picking the same fight. RIZIN has had a fairly good year but there haven’t been many contenders for FOTY.
Soo Chul Kim and Hiromasa Ougikubo went to war for three rounds with momentum swinging in either fighter’s favor throughout. Although Kim definitely had the better moments, and a larger sustained period of dominance, Ougikubo gave as good as he got and his third round was superb.
Ougikubo is often dubbed a “grinder” and has had a few boring performances but he’s been part of some of the best fights in RIZIN history. This one is definitely up there with Ougikubo vs. Shintaro Ishiwatari in 2019.
Soo Chul Kim has been one of RIZIN’s best international imports in 2022 just based off this fight alone. What a talent.
JW: Like everyone else, I have to say Kim Soo-chul vs. Hiromasa Ougikubo is my winner. It was a rare situation where, despite losing, this was an impressive performance from both the winner and loser. Both fighters had to dig deep in this fight and they both deserve credit for it. I will say — if this fight didn’t happen, I’m not too sure what my RIZIN Fight of the Year would be.
CJ: Soo Chul Kim vs Hiromasa Ougikubo at RIZIN 38. Even in a jet-lagged state after a long flight, I could tell how awesome this fight was. It was kind of a strange booking since most would have preferred to see Ougikubo go against Kyoji Horiguchi after winning the tournament, but it is hard to argue with the results, especially now that Ougikubo is scheduled to face him this December. It speaks volumes about his performance that after competing in RIZIN for the first time in close to seven years, Kim was then asked to represent the promotion against Bellator.
DR: It’s actually really tough to pick this year. Nothing really jumps out too much. I think a lot of people will say Hiromasa Ougikubo vs. Kim Soo Chul, which is certainly fair. Saori Oshima vs. Miyuu Yamamoto and Seika Izawa vs. Ayaka Hamasaki 2 were fantastic in different ways. Perhaps a sleeper pick here, but I really like Kleber Koike vs. Ulka Sasaki as the answer here. That was the most human anyone in RIZIN had made Koike look and he still passed the test after some scares.
What show this year was RIZIN’s best?
DR: I mean, it’s going to be RIZIN 40. I have full confidence in that. It’s always the New Year’s Eve show though, right? It just isn’t fair.
Amongst the others leading up to it, however, I think it’s between RIZIN 37 and the Super RIZIN-RIZIN 38 doubleheader which I’m going to count as one. They were both tons of fun in so many different ways. Flip a coin there, I’m fine saying either.
CJ: If we are including last year’s NYE card, it has to be considered the best event. It saw the pro-debuts of Yushi and Kota Miura, who both became overnight stars for the promotion. Miura even went on to fight Buakaw in Thailand. It also saw Hiromasa Ougikubo defy the odds and beat Naoki Inoue and Kai Asakura on his way to winning the Bantamweight Tournament. In other fights, BeyNoah rocked Koji Takeda, Seika Izawa did the impossible and finished Ayaka Hamasaki, and Si Woo Park defeated RENA in her promotional debut.
The event was marred by some controversy, but even with it, it was still an excellent event that delivered great stories, fights, spectacle, and entrances. I, for one, loved Shibatar and Yuta Kubo’s entrance. Outside of this event, RIZIN 35 was also a great event that would probably be my pick if we aren’t including last year’s NYE show. Not only was it one of the first shows with a significant amount of foreign talent since 2020, but it also had some great fights, including Tsuyoshi Kosaka’s retirement win over Mikio Ueda that drove the crowd nuts. In other fights, Spike Carlyle and Koji Takeda put on a great fight, Seika Izawa proved the first fight with Ayaka Hamasaki wasn’t a fluke, and Roberto Satoshi Souza got his revenge against Johnny Case. Overall, an excellent event that had everyone leaving the venue with a smile.
CA: RIZIN 35, without a doubt. It was the first proper show this year where you saw RIZIN bounce back from the shackles of COVID-19 restrictions. Johnny Case and Vugar Karamov returned, Spike Carlyle made his promotional debut in dramatic fashion and they even managed to find a random heavyweight from Latvia for Shoma Shibisai to beat on.
Roberto Satoshi Souza avenged his sole loss in MMA with one of the submissions of the year, Seika Izawa proved that her win over Ayaka Hamasaki in 2021 was no fluke, Juntaro Ushiku shocked Yutaka Saito to defend his RIZIN strap. Also, Spike Carlyle put Koji Takeda to sleep.
Perhaps the coolest moment of the card, however, was 52-year-old Tsuyoshi Kosaka’s devastating knockout over acclaimed karateka Mikio Ueda in his retirement fight. For all the old MMA heads, that one stands out the most.
What show was RIZIN’s worst?
CA: I don’t think RIZIN had a bad card this year so I’ll treat the definition of ‘worst’ as ‘least memorable’ instead.
RIZIN 36 had the tough task of following RIZIN 35 but I genuinely cannot remember a single fight on that card aside from Shoji stepping in on very short notice for an injured Kai Asakura who was set to headline the card.
Tapology tells me that there were 13 fights on this card. I think Tapology is lying to us all. RIZIN 36 was just a figment of our collective imaginations.
CJ: RIZIN 34. As is typical with Rizin, their Osaka cards tend to be pretty weak. This card was no exception. It lacked star power, it lacked exciting fights, and it lacked any sense of importance. It was also filled with kickboxing bouts, which is always a bad sign for an MMA card.
DR: By default, it’s probably RIZIN Landmark 3 since it was only a four-fight card.
RIZIN is going to end the year with 13 events in total. That’s more than they have done in previous years (2021 was nine shows) How do you feel about this number of cards? Do you want to see more or less next year?
CA: I’m always in favor of more RIZIN cards but, as I said earlier, I felt less excited about RIZIN in 2022 vs 2021. Could that be due to the increase in events? Maybe. I think RIZIN has a deep enough talent pool that they should put on more consistent shows than they did this year.
I’m down to see another 13 next year but I just hope that they’re good and not just scatterbrained fights hurriedly put together to appease the event sponsors.
DR: Love it. Keep gradually increasing or stay around that number as the minimum.
CJ: While the number of events has increased, it feels like the quality has gone down a little bit. Some of the cards did not feel special and it seemed like interest in the big events started to wane, even among the fans. When “TRIGGER” and “LANDMARK” were originally created, they were branded as different products with different purposes. Now “TRIGGER” no longer exists, “LANDMARK” has become “TRIGGER” under a new name, and the numbered events are indistinguishable from the new “LANDMARK” events.
JW: I’d like them to stick around the 13-event range next year with the focus being to increase the quality of these cards. I feel like the topic of whether we should have more or less cards can be revisited once we notice the quality of these events move in one direction or the other.
What do you want RIZIN to change in 2023?
DR: Let’s make title fights five rounds already. Better late than never.
JW: It would be nice if bantamweight had a functional belt again. Bantamweight is undoubtedly still RIZIN’s best division. Its champion is Kyoji Horiguchi, who is currently signed to Bellator and hasn’t defended his belt since he regained it in late 2020. Have one of his appearances in the promotion with the title on the line or strip him of the belt (sounds harsh, but it’s no slight on Horiguchi that this situation is the way it is)
CJ: I would like to see RIZIN go a year without a major scandal, but that is probably impossible at this point. Outside of that, RIZIN needs to develop new stars for the promotion, as Mikuru Asakura’s future seems uncertain and Tenshin Nasukawa is now focusing on boxing. For the promotion to grow it needs popular fighters that can also win fights.
CA: With Tenshin Nasukawa gone, how about no more kickboxing fights? K-1 Japan and RISE rule the roost in Japan and I have little interest in the four random kickboxing fights that RIZIN opens up their cards with. I’m a massive kickboxing fan but I just don’t feel that RIZIN has a direction for the sport under their banner, especially without Nasukawa.
I say make the cards a little smaller, cut out the meaningless kickboxing bouts, and let’s see some higher-quality MMA fights!
What’s your bold prediction for 2023?
DR: I’m not sure how bold this is, but I’m going to throw it out there because RIZIN just doesn’t seem to care at the moment. You’ve got to take that belt off Kyoji Horiguchi. He came back for a RIZIN fight and it was a non-title bout against a guy who lost in the bantamweight tournament rather than the winner… Winning the tournament should have earned Hiromasa Ougikubo a title shot. What’s the point? What’re we doing? This just makes the division look like a joke and now Horiguchi vs. Ougikubo 3 is happening but at flyweight. Make it make sense. Just strip Horiguchi at this point even if he does still come back every now and then.
CJ: If RIZIN does end up doing a show in Hawaii, it will be some sort of co-promotion with Bellator.
CA: New belts! I have a feeling that RIZIN are going to create some new belts to attract more talent to the organization. If they go ahead with the 125lbs grand prix that was supposed to happen this year, I can see them having the final be for legitimate flyweight gold.
I’m also now a firm believer in the Tsuyoshi Sudario hype. It would not surprise me one bit if they created a heavyweight belt just to give him more of a push before he flies away from the nest.
JW: Tsuyoshi Sudario continues to grow as a heavyweight and become a real threat. Listen, I have been skeptical of him for a long time. However, he has continued to prove me wrong and show that he is still improving. I’m sick of looking dumb, so I’m going to stop counting him out.
Which regional promotion (or promotion besides RIZIN) was your favorite to watch this year?
CA: I had a blast watching Pancrase this year. They put on some consistently great shows at a good price for international fans and even mixed up some of the commentary with our good friend CJ involved! Rei Tsuruya was one of my favorite fighters in Japan this year and he had two excellent submission victories in Pancrase. Keep an eye out for him at future RIZIN shows because I can definitely see him getting poached!
CJ: Overall, DEEP Impact/DEEP Jewels had a great 2022. Not only have they consistently been developing new talent, they’ve highlighted their veterans, produced good behind-the-scenes content, and made their fights available for free on Youtube. I also like New Pier Hall, where they held a number of events this year. Fighter-wise, it’s hard to pick a particular fighter that stands out as the best, but Saori Oshima and Moeri Suda both had great years. They also had Daisuke Nakamura compete a couple of times and anytime he competes, it’s worth a watch.
DR: DEEP Impact/DEEP Jewels as per usual.
Which fighter in the JMMA scene outside of RIZIN impressed you the most?
DR: I’m not sure I’d call it a resurgence, but Miki Motono has bounced back very nicely after her pair of Izawa losses. She’s undeniably RIZIN-bound in 2023.
Aside from her, Namiko “Hime” Kawabata practically entirely for her upset over Saori Oshima.
CJ: I was impressed by a lot of fighters this year. Machi and Arisa Matsuda impressed me in their pro-debuts, Rin Nakai impressed me with her dominant tournament performance, and Karen impressed me in her title win over Emi Fujino. Chihiro Sawada was also impressive in Shooto, easily winning the Infinity League title. Overall, I think Moeri Suda stuck out the most to me. While she went 3-2 this year, outside of the loss to Oshima she has looked great, especially when you consider she doesn’t have a combat sports background. Her game off her back is truly spectacular and is a pleasure to watch, I can’t remember the last time I’ve seen someone go for so many armbar attempts. What impressed me the most about her was the improvement that she shows between her fights. At just 18, I expect big things from her in the future.
CA: When I read this question, I immediately thought “Makoto Shinryu!” but then I remember that lodged in between his highlight reel ninja choke submission and title win on CFFC he fought Hideo Tokoro on RIZIN 37.
I’ll re-use my pick above of Rei Tsuruya. At just 20 years old, he’s making waves in the flyweight division over in PANCRASE. He has an excellent ground game and striking that is developing at a rapid rate. He reminds me a little of Tatsuro Taira when Taira was fighting in Shooto. There’s a confidence in his grappling style that makes him a legitimate threat in every fight he has.
He took on two veterans of the JMMA scene in Taiki Akiba and Masatatsu Ueda, handily dispatching both in the first round. He’s not yet seen a decision in his five professional MMA fights.
He’s one to keep an eye on in 2023.