Rizin’s Tough Road to Become the Next Pride FC

By Patrick Auger Jan 8, 2020
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In what was one of the last major mixed martial arts events of 2019, Rizin Fighting Federation hosted its annual New Year’s Eve show, Rizin 20, for a sold-out crowd at the Saitama Super Arena in Saitama, Japan. The card was a late contender for event of the year, delivering a flurry of wild finishes, exciting bouts and the crowning of two new champions during the promotion’s final 2019 outing. In the co-main event, kickboxing prodigy Tenshin Nasukawa delivered an emphatic first-round TKO, extending his perfect record to 36-0 in the sport. Rizin 20 also saw the culmination of the organization’s lightweight grand prix, with Azerbaijan’s Tofiq Musayev scoring an upset decision win over heavy favorite Patricky Freire in the tournament finals.

It’s been a busy year for the promotion that first burst onto the MMA scene back in December 2015. Founded by former Pride Fighting Championships President Nobuyuki Sakakibara, along with several other employees from the now-defunct Japanese MMA organization, Rizin FF’s original concept was to host a competition among the top fighters across various promotions to determine who was the best of the best. In addition to putting on bouts between MMA legends such as Kazushi Sakuraba and Shinya Aoki, the organization held grand prix tournaments between 2015-2017, which featured fighters from promotions like Bellator MMA, KSW and BAMMA. Starting in 2018, Rizin began introducing championships for its weight classes as well as hosting more events annually, transitioning from a yearly tournament format to that of a more modern MMA organization. This past year, Rizin focused on building its brand recognition through heavy cross-promotion with Bellator while simultaneously cultivating local talent in an attempt to create cross-over stars.

Although the evolution of the organization may appear promising from the outside, the promotion has faced some serious issues behind the scenes as of late. For Rizin’s 2018 New Year’s Eve show, Sakakibara managed to secure Floyd Mayweather for an exhibition boxing match against Nasukawa, by paying the richest athlete in combat sports a $9-million purse. The bout did not translate into higher ratings, however, as the event finished with a 6.9 percent overall rating and peaked at 7.5 percent during the Mayweather vs. Nasukawa fight, 2.1 percent lower than the peak rating of Rizin 11, which was held earlier that year. While Rizin 20 certainly delivered plenty of action and excitement, ratings for the promotion’s New Year’s Eve show reached all-time lows this past Dec. 31, averaging 4-5 percent across multiple broadcast blocks.



To make matters worse, Rizin may have mishandled one of its biggest stars. This past November, Ultimate Fighting Championship veteran and dual-promotion champion Kyoji Horiguchi was forced to relinquish the Rizin and Bellator bantamweight titles after undergoing surgery to fix a torn ACL. According to this source, Horiguchi’s injury occurred early in 2019 and he was pressured to compete throughout the year due to a lack of stars. Although the 29-year-old still managed to go 2-1 during that time period, he did drop a 135-pound non-title bout against Kai Asakura which could have hurt his image for sponsorship deals. There’s also no telling what kind of long-term effects fighting with the knee injury will have on Horiguchi’s body down the line.

As the spiritual successor to Pride FC, Rizin has done its best to live up to its legendary predecessor, but these developments could be a troubling sign for the company’s future. Sakakibara’s pull in the industry will no doubt gain the attention of private investors and firms looking to try their hand at MMA, but a television deal would be far more lucrative for the promotion -- something which seems unlikely given the organization’s current ratings. While the relationship between Horiguchi and Rizin appears unchanged in public, the notion that the company allegedly relied on an injured fighter due to lack of star power is extremely disconcerting for the region’s overall health. Should ratings continue to decline and/or should Rizin be unable to acquire the standout talent it needs to grow its brand, Sakakibara may find himself reliving his experience with his former Dream promotion.

Any way you look at it, Rizin certainly has a tough road ahead. To add to the company’s woes, One Championship CEO Chatri Sityadong’s Evolve MMA has started sponsoring Nasukawa, with Sityadong openly stating that he’d like to sign the kickboxing standout when he becomes a free agent. Whether or not the promotion will be able to keep its marquee talent under contract while concurrently boosting its audience remains to be seen, but putting on shows like Rizin 20 with knockouts like these certainly can’t hurt. Advertisement

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