With the 2016 Summer Olympics scheduled for Aug. 5-21 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Sherdog.com staff and contributors sat down to put together hypothetical MMA Olympic teams for the following countries: United States, Canada, Japan, Brazil, Russia, Great Britain, Mexico, Poland, Australia and Sweden. This 10-part series will map out the yellow brick road to Rio de Janeiro for the men and women who call the cage home, Zika virus be damned.
Few countries throughout MMA history have been as important as Japan. From Masahiko Kimura’s confrontation with Helio Gracie to Antonio Inoki’s showdown with Muhammad Ali, from the genesis of Shooto in 1986 to the kakutogi boom in the mid-2000s, Japan has been one of the three national pillars that has supported MMA, along with Brazil and the United States.
Unfortunately for Japan, days have grown lean in the combat sports industry, especially MMA, as big money investment has moved out of the country. It has left time-tested Japanese MMA institutions like Shooto and Pancrase to try to hold on to talent as best they can in the face of the Ultimate Fighting Championship and One Championship perpetually at the ready to raid their champions as soon as they are minted. Worse for our hypothetical Olympic team, long gone are the days when Japan could boast of credible heavyweight and light heavyweight threats like Kazuyuki Fujita or Hidehiko Yoshida; and the primes of many of our Japanese Olympic MMA team members are well behind them, despite still being the standard bearers for their weight class in the country.
Nonetheless, MMA in the Olympics would assuredly drum up easy native political support for the sport in Japan. The country has thrived on the grappling arts at the Summer Olympics: Japan has 36 judo gold medals, the most of any single sport for the country, and 72 judo medals overall, second behind gymnastics with 95; and in both styles of international wrestling, Japan has taken 28 golds and 62 medals overall. No other Olympic sport other than swimming, with 20 gold medals and 73 medals overall, has been nearly as productive and generous for Japan.
Moreover, with Japan’s strength from 115 to 155 pounds and an Olympic-style draw with just one representative per country in each weight class, the island nation has a few quality chances to take some hypothetical positions on the podium and score some bronze and silver neckwear in Rio de Janeiro. Better still, it would give our Japanese Olympic MMA outfit a shot in the arm headed into the hypothetical 2020 Tokyo Games, where four years from now, a new generation of Japanese fighters might be ready to rock the podium on home soil.
The Japanese side will be in possession of a powerhouse coaching staff and one with considerable political clout, too. The no-brainer choice for head coach is Paraestra founder Yuki Nakai, the Shooto legend and current president of the Japan Shooto Association who popularized Brazilian jiu-jitsu in Japan after becoming the first-ever Japanese black belt in the discipline. His top lieutenant, Noriaki Kiguchi, is perhaps an even bigger power player -- he has long advocated for MMA in the Olympics -- and has a ton of lofty credentials to his name: the Japan Shooto Association vice president, former Greco-Roman wrestling world champion, National Junior High School Wrestling vice president, founder of Combat Wrestling and the head of the Kiguchi Dojo, where he helped develop the wrestling and grappling of many of Japan’s all-time greats, including Takanori Gomi, Hayato Sakurai, Rumina Sato, Norifumi Yamamoto and Genki Sudo.
The rest of the coaching staff makes it a fairly Shooto-centric power structure. As assistants, Nakai and Kiguchi will call upon two of the other most successful modern pro Shooto coaches: Kiguchi’s former student, Kazuhiro Kusayanagi, who founded the gym K’z Factory, and Nakai’s former teammate in the 1980s at the original Super Tiger Gym, Kenji Kawaguchi, who built Mamoru Yamaguchi and Takeshi Inoue into Shooto world champions.
Our specialist coaches maintain distinct Shooto ties. Former Shoot Boxing S-Cup champion and striking coach Hiromu Yoshitaka will join the staff, having helped Osaka-based former Shooto world champions Akitoshi Hokazono and Takashi Nakakura to their titles. The sixth man on staff is former Shooto world champion and Kusayanagi disciple Shuichiro Katsumura, who has helped coach Takeya Mizugaki and Michinori Tanaka to becoming the two top bantamweights in the country.
2016 Japan National MMA Team• Heavyweight: Tsuyoshi Kosaka
• Light Heavyweight: Satoshi Ishii
• Middleweight: Hisaki Kato
• Welterweight: Yushin Okami
• Lightweight: Shinya Aoki
• Featherweight: Tatsuya Kawajiri
• Bantamweight: Takeya Mizugaki
• Flyweight: Kyoji Horiguchi
• Women’s Bantamweight: Rin Nakai
• Women’s Strawweight: Mizuki Inoue
HEAVYWEIGHT: I can hear you already. “TK still fights?” Well, sort of. The 46-year-old has one fight in the last decade, but on New Year’s Eve, he managed to knock out British brawler James Thompson in under seven minutes, and frankly, I am not sure any contemporary Japanese heavyweight could do the same; there is no prime Fujita to give Japan a fighting chance in the category. However, Kosaka has political clout. He’s a Japanese MMA pioneer and has become a well-regarded elder statesman, color commentator and, most importantly, outstanding MMA coach, leading his Alliance-Square gym. The inclusion of “TK” is not only surprisingly righteous but an excuse to get another valuable coach on the team. Alternates: Yusuke Kawaguchi, Takaaki Oban
LIGHT HEAVYWEIGHT: The only man who will be competing in Olympic MMA already possessing a gold medal, Ishii does not have much of a shot at hitting the podium here. The 2008 judo gold medalist’s 14-6-1 career mark in MMA is nothing outstanding, with his notable wins coming over faded incarnations of Fujita, Jerome Le Banner, Jeff Monson and two-time UFC heavyweight champion Tim Sylvia. Moreover, 205 pounds is a weight class with significant international representation, with the United States, Brazil, Canada, Russia, Sweden, Great Britain and Poland able to offer world-class talent in the division. Nonetheless, Ishii -- who could have taken the berth at heavyweight -- is needed to bolster a moribund 205-pound Japanese crop, easily the country’s weakest weight category, with many fighters dropping to 185 and 170 pounds. Furthermore, Ishii gets the honor of competing in two different sports in the Olympics. Alternates: Shunsuke Inoue, Tatsuya Mizuno
MIDDLEWEIGHT: Hisaki Kato is an undersized middleweight, and 185 pounds is a division that has a diverse and deep representation across the globe, so the Daidojuku champion’s chances to hit the podium are low. With just a 6-2 pro record, he remains largely a standup fighter adapting to MMA without much to offer on the ground, except survival. While he might not be as well-rounded as rugged veteran Riki Fukuda, the top alternate for the squad, Kato’s unorthodox striking arsenal and explosive, one-shot knockout power gives him a proverbial “puncher’s chance” that no one else in the division can offer. He could perhaps benefit from an array of experienced MMA coaches, including the savvy Hiromu Yoshitaka. Once upon a time, a prime Okami could have taken medals home for Japan at 185, but in Rio, the country will have to pray for Kato to land a Superman punch or spinning backfist. Alternates: Riki Fukuda, Yoshiyuki Nakanishi
WELTERWEIGHT: As previously mentioned, if we were talking about hypothetical MMA at the 2008 or 2012 Olympic Games, Okami could have maybe grabbed a medal or two. While he’s just 1-1 since dropping to 170 pounds and was uninspired in losing a unanimous decision to a faded Jon Fitch in October, the 34-year-old Okami is still a more well-rounded, physically powerful choice, beating out Wajutsu Keishukai training partner Keita Nakamura for the bid on a team where seniority will matter. Even if he’s in the twilight of his career and his berth is not at 185 pounds, where he became Japan’s greatest middleweight ever, Okami is an uncontroversial nod at 170 in what will realistically be his last chance to represent Japan in hypothetical Olympic MMA. Alternates: Akihiro MurayamaAkihiro Murayama, Keita Nakamura
LIGHTWEIGHT: While Aoki may make his bones training at Evolve MMA in Singapore and fighting less-than-noteworthy competition for One Championship across Asia, he’s a no-brainer for this spot. Aoki is at worst the second greatest Japanese lightweight ever behind Gomi and arguably the most unique, dynamic submission threat in MMA history. Also, knowing how Olympic MMA rules could take a turn for the conservative, Aoki could perhaps become an even larger threat on the ground if there was, say, restricted ground-and-pound. On top of everything, he’s the top pupil of the team’s head coach, Nakai, having cut his teeth and won his Shooto world championship while training at Nakai’s flagship gym, Paraestra Tokyo. Alternates: Satoru Kitaoka, Kazuki Tokudome
FEATHERWEIGHT: Akin to Okami, Kawajiri’s berth may have much to do with his career accomplishments, but he’s still the best option in his field. Former Deep champion Kazunori Yokota’s slick striking and well-rounded ability makes him a legitimate, viable candidate at 145 pounds, if not a medal contender. However, even at 38 years old, Kawajiri has posted a 4-2 record in the UFC, and in an Olympic draw, there’s only one American wrestler, Frankie Edgar, to shut down his takedowns and physical top game. Plus, much of the power structure of our Japanese Olympic squad has ties to Shooto, and the “Crusher” is one of the most outstanding, beloved Shooto champs in history. Alternates: Isao Kobayashi, Kazunori Yokota
BANTAMWEIGHT: Our hypothetical Olympic MMA set up smiles favorably on Mizugaki. With a 21-9-2 career mark and a rugged, well-rounded style for all seasons, Mizugaki is the best tenured Japanese UFC veteran at the moment, a perennial top 10 bantamweight, and has settled into being the division’s proverbial “gatekeeper to the stars.” That may not seem like a profile with a good chance at medaling in Rio, but consider this: Since coming under Zuffa employ via World Extreme Cagefighting over seven years ago, all seven men to defeat Mizugaki are American. Practically the entirety of the top 20 at 135 pounds is comprised of American and Brazilian fighters. In a draw where countries are afforded one rep per weight class, Mizugaki could have surprising success. Also, in a seniority situation similar to Okami and Nakamura at 170 pounds, the Shooting Gym Hakkei rep beats out the team’s first 135-pound alternate Michinori Tanaka -- a man with whom he routinely trains at Reversal Gym Yokohama Ground Slam, under one of our squad’s assistant coaches, Katsumura. Alternates: Michinori Tanaka, Masakatsu Ueda
FLYWEIGHT: Horiguchi is not just Japan’s best hope for a medal. With his unorthodox karate style, defensive savvy and major punching power, the 17-2 Horiguchi is currently Japan’s best fighter, period. He’s not going to avenge his UFC title challenge loss to divisional owner Demetrious Johnson in this bracket, but should he be able to navigate through challenges from unnamed Brazilian or Russian representatives, Horiguchi has a great shot at hypothetical silver. Also, his affiliation with “Kid” Yamamoto’s Krazy Bee gym only strengthens his ironclad case; coach Noriaki Kiguchi has strong ties to the Yamamoto family, having coached both Yamamoto’s sisters, Miyu and Seiko, to multiple gold medals at the FILA World Wrestling Championships. Alternates: Hiromasa Ogikubo, Yuta Sasaki
WOMEN’S BANTAMWEIGHT: Yes, given Nakai’s 5-foot stature, heavy musculature, gravure-style cosplaying and laughable two fights in the UFC, this pick seems curious. However, there aren’t many quality Japanese bantamweights on the women’s side right now. Historically, former Strikeforce title challenger Takayo Hashi would have been a formidable choice, but she’s going on 39, has been plagued by injury and has become less effective as a fighter over the last three years despite solid competition. Despite her notorious profile and being wildly undersized for 135 pounds, Nakai has still beaten quality fighters like Tara LaRosa, Sarah D’Alelio and Brenda Gonzales; and when she’s not being forced into using her dreadful standup, she’s a surprisingly effective wrestler and submission grappler. More than that, politics still factor into this roster, and with Japanese MMA institution Pancrase otherwise having no representation on the team, the Shooto-heavy coaching structure extends its rival-turned-uneasy-ally a kindness by selecting Pancrase’s poster girl. Alternates: Takayo Hashi, Shizuka Sugiyama
WOMEN’S STRAWWEIGHT: Inoue, who will turn 22 over her hypothetical trip to Rio for the Olympics, is a shoo-in for the 115-pound berth. Her 11-4 mark already features wins over sturdy opposition, including UFC veterans Bec Rawlings and Alex Chambers, as well Emi Fujino and Lacey Schuckmann; however, in the best women’s MMA weight class, that record still belies Inoue’s ability and potential. The Hakushinkai product continues to integrate her karate abilities into her MMA game, becoming a highly skilled counterpuncher in addition to wielding a surprisingly slick, aggressive submission game. Joanna Jedrzejczyk and Claudia Gadelha figure to find their way to the hypothetical Olympic podium, but any early upsets or preferable opponents for Inoue could propel her to a medal in Rio; it would be a nifty birthday gift. Alternates: Emi Fujino, Mei Yamaguchi
More Hypothetical MMA National Olympic Teams:United States