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Thursday in Tokyo, phoenix-esque promoter and aging Ken doll Nobuyuki Sakakibara stood in the Midtown Tokyo Hotel and for the first time in years, got to do what seems to make him happiest: announce a bunch of wild and bizarre trappings for a large-scale Japanese mixed martial arts card.
We've known for weeks now that Sakakibara was planning a New Year's Eve card in Japan, but not just a simple series of fights on Dec. 31, an attempted return to form, a potential lightning strike to harken back to the kakutogi boom in Japan, years gone now, a time when, insanely, combat sports programs occupied three of Japan's five major broadcasters on New Year's Eve, the country's premiere TV watching night. We've known Fedor Emelianenko would headline and the ultimately, the string-pullers for the event were Sakakibara's old crew, the Dream Stage Entertainment squad from mid-to-late era Pride Fighting Championships, who ultimately honored Sakakibara by starting Dream, while their leader retired to sleepy Okinawa to dedicate himself to boosting the future of an obscure soccer team. Given Japan's MMA recession, nothing beyond that was particularly clear; from card construction to whether or not Sakakibara's project would get the ultimate prerequisite for large-scale Japanese entertainment success, a network television deal.
Now, in tried-and-true large-scale Japanese MMA fashion, we've got some answers and of course, a lot more questions. Questions like:
OK, what the hell is a 'Rizin'? What do I call this thing?
Most formally, the event “Rizin Fighting World Grand-Prix 2015,” with the unnecessary hyphen and the promotion is “Rizin Fighting Federation.” I'm assuming “Rizin” will win out as appropriate short-hand. It's not quite as punchy as Pride or Dream, but let's also consider when Sakakibara's rivals at K-1 called their MMA programs "Romanex," a portmanteau of "Romance Extra" and the strangely possessive “Hero's.”
What the hell is a "Rizin"? Sakakibara claims it came to him on Wednesday. Undoubtedly, it's sassy Engrish for "risen" or "rising," further illustrating Sakakibara's aforementioned rebirth and sentimental obsession with Pride mythology (and his own).
Yes, the name stinks and very much sounds like some kind of southern Californian MMA promotion a decade ago, but it might spice up your MMA Scrabble game with a new use for the letter Z.
What happened to Fedor? I thought he was fighting an Indian guy.
On Tuesday, it was reported that the heavyweight legend would face K-1 veteran Jaideep Singh. Emelianenko was in attendance in Tokyo on Thursday, but no opponent was announced.
There are two likely scenarios here: one, Emelianenko-Singh is a-go, and they've declined to announce it to either stagger the announcements or because of simple, contractual I-dotting and T-crossing or two; Sakakibara is not necessarily daft, realizes that the Singh is a simple can without a) Japanese TV interest or b) any kind of conscionable MMA respect, and that in light of a bit of "WTF?"-type reaction from the MMA community, he realizes they can find a better can-oriented option for Emelianenko to smash over the next 10 weeks.
Sakakibara's history tells us either is likely as the other. Regardless, Emelianenko will be headlining the third and final day of this whole shindig on Dec. 31.
Pardon me? Third and final day?
Rather than just offer the same, rote New Year's Eve event, Sakakibara is cooking up a three-day multi-martial arts fan expo at Saitama Super Arena. The quarterfinals of an eight-man heavyweight tournament, as well as Kazushi Sakuraba-Shinya Aoki will be on Dec. 29, and Emelianenko will headline NYE proper.
In some respects, this is beneficial, most notably if you're a western TV viewer. Rather than having to sit through hour after hour of intermission-laden NYE programming, whatever fashion Spike TV airs the Rizin card in will feature some pre-produced, tightly-paced elements to keep your bleary eyes open. You won't be suffering like it's “Yarrenoka.”
Uh, Kazushi Sakuraba is fighting Shinya Aoki? How?
Who doesn't wanna watch two of the most spectacular grapplers in the history of MMA? Please ignore that 32-year-old Aoki is seemingly never going to fight another elite fighter during his evaporating prime and that Sakuraba is a 46-year-old in the body of a 106-year-old held together with Kinesio tape.
If you're curious about the weight angle, it's a catch-weight that will be more in the neighborhood of middleweight. I'd expect 80 or 81 kilograms, or 176 to 179 pounds. Aoki's early Deep fights were actually at 181 pounds, and Sakuraba in his physical prime should've been a welterweight. It's a strange world.
And this is under Pride rules? Aoki can soccer kick Sakuraba?
You got it, papi. Naturally, it's not quite that simple, though.
The majority of the MMA fights will be under Pride rules, with Pride-style judging on the whole of the fight, with soccer kicks and stomps and the 10-5-5 minute structure for three rounds. However, there are women on the card -- Shoot Boxing star Rena Kubota and grappling powerhouse Gabi Garcia -- and they will be fighting three five-minute rounds, because Japan's double standards for women are bizarre.
Don't be surprised if they don't let the gals soccer kick or stomp, either. Consider that Smackgirl is the greatest all-women's promotion ever prior to the advent of Invicta Fighting Championships, and they only ever had a half dozen fights all time that allowed full ground-and-pound. But, elbows could be on the table, as Sakakibara mentioned that should fighters feel strongly about being able to throw their 'bows, he could be persuaded.
Perhaps most intriguingly, Sakakibara announced that Rizin would take place in a ring, with some secret redesigns. How can you really redesign a ring? Pride already tried this once with its "The Best" series and an Octagon ring. Dare we tempt fate again?
So, Gabi Garcia is gonna submit this Rena Kubota girl?
Heavens no, even though this is Japanese MMA. Garcia is almost literally twice the size of Kubota, who is more of a 115-pounder. Don't worry, we'll still get some classical Japanese seasoning in their respective fights, even if Rizin isn't going to recreate Svetlana Goundarenko-Megumi Yabushita in the size difference department.
The best look for Garcia would be some earnest and willing pro-wrestler, but given her sheer size and physical profile, it's more likely that Rizin will end up finding some international wrestler or judoka hungry for paycheck and a tapout loss. The 24-year-old Kubota, the female face of Shoot Boxing and quite charismatic and kawaii, will get a soft touch in her official MMA debut against some faceless stiff who will walk straight into Kubota's body attack and crumple.
But hey, maybe I'm being cynical. Sakakibara was all about women's MMA at the Rizin presser, shouting out Ronda Rousey and detailing how he felt it was necessary to shine a more serious light on women's MMA given how Rousey and other women have shifted the focus and attention of the sport so drastically in the very recent past. With Japanese Wrestling Federation head honcho Tomiaki Fukuda in attendance, Sakakibara even teased that he would love to see legendary wrestlers Saori Yoshida and Kaori Icho test their meddle in the ring.
Fukuda promised that he would help put strong amateur wrestling talent in Rizin, but it's nigh-impossible to imagine women the caliber of Yoshida and Icho would ever jump into the ring at this point, ahead of the 2016 Olympic Games. Each coming off of their 13th straight World Championship gold medal in Las Vegas, Icho and Yoshida are both going for fourth consecutive gold medals in Rio de Janeiro next summer.
As orgasmic as it is to imagine welcoming two of the greatest wrestlers in history to MMA, it ain't happening between Dec. 29 and Dec. 31. This is tantamount to when Sakakibara and his pal Nobuhiko Takada talked about how Takanori Gomi should fight then-boxing world champion Masamori Tokuyama on NYE under the Pride banner.
Takada! Is he going to perform for us this blessed New Year's Eve?
It's hard to believe he won't. Technically, Sakakibara's industry is "event production," and all MMA fans, whether they lived through the Pride era or not, know the kind of standard in theatrics he helped establish. His personal pal Takada was a part of that, always willing to lead a choir or bang on a taiko drum, especially come Dec. 31.
Since Rickson Gracie crumbled his shoot-style tough guy facade years ago, Takada has basically been a populist figurehead and hype man, and when it comes to New Year's Eve, he puts it on 11. In years past, fans were able to vote online to determine Takada's New Year's Eve introduction routines, based on crude, abstract storyboards of what the hypothetical Takada performance would look like.
Takada is more or less a high school principal at a pep rally, on acid. Expect the man who dubiously heel hooked Mark Coleman to get hype on Dec. 31. Possibly Dec. 29 as well? I'm not even sure how many times Takada will perform in style.
Does anyone seem to care that Sakakibara was accused of being the front man for the alleged yakuza front that was Pride?
Do not worry, good citizen. Sakakibara announced that Rizin was working with two lawyers and three former Tokyo Metropolitan Police officers, to ensure compliance with the law. Definitely if anything shady was happening, these legal eagles would find it and report it to the appropriate authorities.
This little detail was the most culturally insane moment of the Rizin presser, but also the most profoundly entertaining.
Is this on TV in Japan or what? Does Rizin have any kind of future?
Yes and no. Rizin's event in its entirety will air via SkyPerfecTV on pay-per-view, for the diehard folks, and that's not what matters. This event does have some small patronage from Fuji TV, but it's not a live broadcast. As of right now, you're likely to see a two- or three-fight package air on tape delay on Fuji TV at some point on Dec. 31, featuring Emelianenko, Aoki-Sakuraba and perhaps another fight and some highlights, condensed into digest form. This is essentially how 2007's Yarrenoka card was broadcasted, as well.
It's suboptimal, but it's a start. Japan's MMA industry is in a dark pit, and any crack of light is welcome bit of hope. Sakakibara stated that he anticipates as many as four events for Rizin next year. That would likely not include a New Year's Eve effort, and would probably conform the traditionally Japanese March-May-July-October schedule that K-1 Hero's and Dream more or less followed.
With some measure from his shadowy, novelty-driven Middle East investors into 2016, Sakakibara has at least a few opportunities, even if not live on Japanese TV, to try to find some kind of spark, or some kind of star, to ignite the wilder cultural interest necessary for he and Rizin to succeed. But, just as the name would suggest, Rizin isn't just about restoring the salad days of Japanese MMA, it's about the completion of Sakakibara's middle-aged redemption fantasy, becoming the phoenix, the man who rizins (rizinins?) from the ashes to again take the dais at the Midtown Tokyo.