Fresh off another event on Thursday, Rizin Fight Federation returned to the famous Saitama Super Arena in Saitama, Japan, on New Year’s Eve to determine the first champion of the promotion’s 2016 Openweight Grand Prix.
The bumper card had 11 fights in total—featuring big names such as Kron Gracie, Gabi Garcia, Erson Yamamoto, Tatsuya Kawajiri and Rena in addition to the fighters included in the Openweight Grand Prix.
If you didn’t manage to stay awake for the show, don’t worry—we’ve got you covered. You can also catch the fights for yourself here.
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OPENWEIGHT GRAND PRIX SEMI-FINALS
Mirko Cro Cop advances to Openweight Grand Prix final
In what was billed as a grudge match of sorts, MMA and kickboxing legend Mirko “Cro Cop” Filipovic took on Estonian sumo wrestler, the behemoth Baruto in the Openweight Grand Prix semi-finals.
Baruto had found success throughout this tournament by leveraging his size and weight—often with the unconventional use of charging at his opponents as if he were still on the sumo mats. It was no different in the semi-final against Cro Cop, with Baruto circling to Cro Cop’s right leg to avoid the hard left leg kicks of his opponent, before charging him into the corner and catching him with some punches on the way.
Looking to tire Cro Cop with his weight on top of him, Baruto remained a stationary target in the corner and the Croatian kickboxer duly replied with a number of knees to the padded body of Baruto’s. The Estonian appeared comfortable, until a knee of Cro Cop’s lands to Baruto’s solar plexus to send the latter reeling. Some quick ground and pound ensued and Cro Cop was awarded the win—advancing to the final of Rizin’s first ever Openweight Grand Prix.
Amir Aliakbari edges split decision to overcome Valentin Moldavsky
Tournament favourite and former world champion wrestler Amir Aliakbari had his work cut out as the tough Russian Valentin Moldavsky, who usually competes at light heavyweight, gave it his all in an attempt to advance to the Rizin Openweight Grand Prix final.
Iranian Aliakbari, who had a tough time of it against the returning Heath Herring in Thursday’s quarterfinals, was the early aggressor—initiating the clinch to utilise his impressive wrestling skills. Moldavsky did well to initially resist the takedown attempts of his opponent, but was eventually dragged to the floor. The Russian’s sambo background means he’s no slouch down on the canvas either and made it difficult for Aliakbari to keep him on the ground.
In between clinchwork, the pair often traded knees to the body and a few punches while on the feet. But, Aliakbari, who was very persistent in trying to get takedowns which weren’t necessarily open to him, appeared fatigued by the round’s close.
The second round was similar to the first in that Aliakbari was trying for takedowns which were repelled by Moldavsky until the Iranian’s pressure told. Moldavsky would be down on the mat for a matter of seconds before springing back up to his feet to show off his vastly superior striking skills to land both punches and kicks to the head and body to Aliakbari.
It looked like the fight would go to a third round. But, the judges must have favoured the clinchwork and takedowns of Aliakbari over Moldavsky’s wrestling defence and striking work on the feet. The knackered Aliakbari appeared relieved to win the split decision and it’s no wonder—if the fight went to a third round, he could have been in trouble.
OPENWEIGHT GRAND PRIX FINAL
Amir Aliakbari vs. Mirko “Cro Cop” Aliakbari
With both men fighting two days earlier and again just hours before the final, Iranian tournament favourite Amir Aliakbari and Croatian living legend Mirko “Cro Cop” both sported visible injuries on their faces and bodies as they made the long walk to the ring and attempt becoming the inaugural Rizin Openweight Grand Prix champion.
To get to this point, Aliakbari knocked out Joao Isidoro Almeida in the Grand Prix’s opening round, before winning controversial decisions over Heath Herring and Valentin Moldavsky at the quarterfinal and semi-final stages. Meanwhile, Cro Cop overcame all three of his opponents by finishing them—a slick submission win over Korean Hyun Man Myung was followed by TKO victories over both Muhammed “King Mo” Lawal and Estonian sumo wrestler Baruto.
The fight begun tentatively with both men pawing out jabs and circling clockwise. Aliakbari missed with a wild overhand right and the pair restarted in the centre, leading Aliakbari to force the fight into the corner to utilise his Greco Roman wrestling skills which helped him become a world champion of that discipline in 2010. But, the threat of a knee from Cro Cop forced Aliakbari to retreat—wise, given Cro Cop’s knee ended Baruto’s night from a similar position.
Mirko Cro Cop. 2016 RIZIN Openweight Grand Prix Champion. #RIZINFF pic.twitter.com/2kLGkOuRuT
— Thomas. (@tommyie) December 31, 2016
Aliakbari misses another big right hand as the pair exchange strikes on the feet. As Aliakbari tries to pressure Cro Cop, the Croatian kickboxer throws a crisp left hook which sends Aliakbari crashing down to the canvas. Aliakbari gets back up to his feet, but Cro Cop smells blood and lands another left hook, followed up by some ground and pound, to finish the fight with an exclamation mark.
Merry Christmas ya filthy animals. #RIZINFF pic.twitter.com/mP7hNzTMAp
— Thomas. (@tommyie) December 31, 2016
An emotional Cro Cop becomes Rizin’s inaugural Openweight Grand Prix champion—10 years after winning the Pride Openweight Grand Prix. Incredible feat.
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AND THE REST
Kron Gracie taps out Tatsuya Kawajiri in second round
Unhappy with his position as a gatekeeper in the UFC’s featherweight division, Tatsuya “Crusher” Kawajiri requested his release from his contract with the promotion to fight in his Japanese homeland. Just three fights into his career, Brazilian jiu-jitsu ace Kron Gracie was now facing his toughest opponent yet in Kawajiri—a former Shooto welterweight champion and veteran with close to 50 contests under his belt.
Kawajiri started the contest solidly, landing a number of strikes at distance and in the clinch, with Gracie’s striking looking sluggish compared to his counterpart. Both Gracie and Kawajiri made a point of targeting each other’s bodies with the Japanese veteran looking to have landed the more powerful shots. Gracie soon pulled guard and landed a number of heel strikes to Kawajiri’s body from the full guard to set up either a triangle or an armbar.
The wily Kawajiri sensed danger, escaped Gracie’s guard only to attempt a flying face stomp. A scramble ensued and Gracie pulled guard again in amongst the wild striking exchanges on the feet. Gracie begun sneaking round to take Kawajiri’s back, distracting his opponent with small hammerfists before launching his hip to take a tight-looking armbar while the upper-half of his body hung outside the ring. Kawajiri escaped and attempted a kneebar, to which Gracie easily put a stop to, regaining the back of Kawajiri in search of a choke. Kawajiri barely survives and is saved by the end of the first round of 10 minutes.
Kron Gracie is really good if you’re wondering. He took his back from a stomp. #RIZINFF pic.twitter.com/yHMIIihGtr
— Thomas. (@tommyie) December 31, 2016
The second round started as the first had ended, with Gracie pulling guard once again to deliver a number of distracting strikes from the bottom in search of a submission. Kawajiri explodes out of the guard and threw a number of kicks at the grounded Gracie before flying into another jumping stomp. Again, this backfired as Gracie takes the back of Kawajiri. With both leg hooks secured, Gracie secured the rear-naked choke he had been avidly searching for—forcing the tap of a dejected-looking Kawajiri.
Fantastic fight and a tremendous display of jiu-jitsu excellence from Gracie. Kron’s unkempt hair and scraggly beard may be at odds with his slick technical skill, but have no doubt that he is a real threat as a featherweight in MMA.
Hideo Tokoro derails the Erson Yamamoto hype train further
Erson, otherwise referred to as Asen, Yamamoto hasn’t exactly had the warmest embrace to life in mixed martial arts.
The Japanese wrestling prodigy, who has had to witness his mother Miyu lose her two MMA fights in his last two appearances at Rizin, was welcomed to MMA by Brazilian jiu-jitsu master Kron Gracie and lost by triangle choke. His second showing saw him win a tough decision over Kizaemon Saiga and now he was taking on the experienced 65-fight veteran Hideo Tokoro—a man with an extensive history of fighting young Erson’s relatives.
In a veteran versus rookie contest, the fight started slowly as both men tried to ascertain distance and timing. Yamamoto burst into a right hand and floored Tokoro, before following him down into his opponent’s guard. That move proved critical as Tokoro quickly locked up an armbar which promptly forced Yamamoto to tap.
Erson was caught in the same submission his mum Miyu Yamamoto was forced to tap to—and the former was left clutching his arm which may have been broken by Tokoro. Yamamoto’s inexperience was clear to see here as he walked away from the ring in tears. Tokoro, meanwhile called out Erson’s uncle Kid Yamamoto for a potential big-money fight for Rizin.
Gabi Garcia crushes 49-year-old pro wrestler Yumiko Hotta
Let’s do this #RIZIN2016 pic.twitter.com/jFqOVpTGQr
— caposa (@Grabaka_Hitman) December 31, 2016
What a mess this fight was. 31-year-old 6’2” Brazilian grappling phenom Gabi Garcia took on 49-year-old Japanese professional wrestler Yumiko Hotta—enjoying a weight advantage of close to 40lbs and a height advantage of six inches.
2016 FOTY. Gabi Garcia vs. Yumiko Hotta pic.twitter.com/jKjOpZPeIL
— Streetfight Bancho (@streetfitebanch) December 31, 2016
Dressed in what looked like bondage gear, Hotta started the contest by bouncing off the ropes in pro wrestling style before Garcia clubbed her with her lunchbox-sized left fist. It didn’t get any prettier, as Hotta tried to retreat in desperation as the giant Garcia charged towards her. Multiple crushing knees to the body of Hotta left her crumpled to the canvas and Garcia forced the fight’s end with some brutal ground and pound with just 41 seconds of the fight elapsed.
Rizin is great for its craziness. But, this fight was all kinds of wrong and was difficult to watch.
Oh and there was another weird Rizin call out segment post-fight, featuring Garcia and a delightful lady named Jazzy the Alpha Female. It looks like Jazzy will be the next opponent for Garcia after the pair were pulled apart from fighting in the ring.
Japanese shootboxing star Rena Kubota earns bodykick TKO win over Hanna Tyson
Rena Kubota, a Japanese shootboxing star now referred to as the fresh face of Japanese MMA, took on 1-0 Polish fighter Hanna Gujwan, otherwise known as Hanna Tyson, in an atomweight bout. Rena may be known for her striking prowess, but she walked to the Rizin ring with a 2-0 record with both victories coming through submission.
In an entertaining, competitive contest, both fighters exchanged crisp, technical strikes with Tyson more than holding her own in that department. Towards the end of the first round, Rena scores a takedown from the Thai clinch and finishing the round in side control.
The second round started in a similar vein, with Tyson trading a left hook and a leg kick for Rena’s high kick and one to the body—the pair matched each other in striking output. Rena dove for a takedown which was stuffed by Tyson, but Rena still managed to get a head-and-arm throw, to which Tyson promptly scrambled away from. From there, Rena shot in for a double leg to which Tyson responded to with a guillotine choke attempt, before sweeping Rena to work her way back up to the feet. The pair exchanged further strikes in the clinch and Rena managed to secure another head-and-arm throw—but Tyson reversed again to get back to her feet. Rena punctuated the round with a nice combination before time had elapsed. Great action.
Rena really upped the tempo in the third round, landing a series of beautiful left hooks and brutalising knees to the body—which had Tyson on the retreat for the first time in the fight. Rena had turned from a fighter only seeing single strikes and takedowns to the shootboxing star she is renowned as.
Multiple knees to the body floored Tyson, but, tough as nails, the Polish scrapper arose back to her feet to be welcomed by a headkick which was thankfully blocked. On the feet, Rena continued to chop away at the body and a left kick to the liver finally sent the tough Tyson crumpled to the ground. Fantastic fight and both competitors’ stock will have risen exponentially as a result.
Tenshin Nasukawa wins second MMA fight in two days
Japanese kickboxing phenomenon Tenshin Nasukawa showed no signs of slowing on Sunday, winning his second fight in two days in a well-rounded performance.
Taking on American flyweight Kawika Oligo, Nasukawa never came close to the danger he encountered against Ukrainian opponent Nikita Sapun, who almost earned a shock armbar win over the hometown hero on his MMA debut.
Nasukawa displayed his crisp, crushing kickboxing technique and did well to mix in some technically-sound takedowns in between during the first round. The second round got off to a flying start as Nasukawa landed a big punch to force Oligo to shoot for a takedown. From there, Nasukawa synched in a beautiful modified guillotine choke to display he has some impressive skills beyond the confines of kickboxing rules.
18 years old, fantastic kickboxing pedigree and two MMA wins within 48 hours—including a debut in the sport—you’d be wise to keep your eye on Tenshin Kasukawa.
Hayato Sakurai wins after three-year hiatus
In a fight between two Japanese favourites, it was obvious the crowd in attendance at the Saitama Super Arena were torn as to who they wanted to win as two stalwarts of the JMMA scene returned to the ring for the first time in years.
Hayato Sakurai, or “Mach,” who hadn’t fought in over three years following a TKO loss to Jae Suk Lim in September 2013, took on Wataru Sakata—a Japanese favourite on both the professional wrestling and MMA circuits who had not competed in MMA for 13 years; a submission loss to Daniel Gracie at Pride FC – Shockwave 2003.
The first round of 10 minutes didn’t exactly live up to the comeback fight’s initial billing. The contest, fought at a catchweight of 82kg, saw Sakurai score a footsweep takedown quickly following the opening bell. But, Sakata clung on for dear life to stall the action and force the referee to restart the fight standing following three minutes of little action. While standing, Sakurai landed a nice knee clean to the face of Sakata, who crumpled to the mat near the corner of the ring. Again, Sakurai struggled to mount any serious offence on the ground thanks to the defensive work of Sakata—that was until Sakurai moved into mount and landed some nice ground and pound towards the round’s close.
It was somewhat a relief to know the second round was only five minutes-long after an inactive first round. But, the round started off with a big moment. In Sakata’s final MMA fight, he looked to press the action and make the most of his MMA bow. But, he was hit with a knee to the body then another knee to the head for Sakurai to swarm Sakata on the ground. Sakurai was freely moving between full mount, side control and full mount again and could have finished the fight on his own volition much sooner.
After toying with the idea of setting up an armbar, Sakurai decides to put Sakata out of his misery and finished the fight off with some ground and pound, forcing the referee to intervene. Sakata was left a bloodied and teary-eyed mess on his final appearance in the MMA ring.
Andy Nguyen submits Miyu Yamamoto
Former world champion wrestler, mother to Erson and sister to Kid, Miyu Yamamoto was looking to avenge her debut MMA loss to Rena Kubota back in September by taking on little-known American strawweight Andy Nguyen.
The pair traded punches before Yamamoto delivers a big double leg takedown to send Nguyen crashing down to the canvas. But, Nguyen did well to nullify Yamamoto’s ground assault and forced the referee to restart the contest standing.
Mommamotta gets caught in a nasty armbar by Andy. Nice sub. #RIZIN pic.twitter.com/OVbd5yLmCM
— Thomas. (@tommyie) December 31, 2016
More strikes were exchanged by both fighters, only for Yamamoto to get another slick double leg takedown. But, this time around, Nguyen continually troubled Yamamoto from her guard on the bottom. Yamamoto soon became unstuck as Nguyen slaps her left leg over Yamamoto’s right arm and under her chin to secure a straight armbar. Yamamoto was forced to verbally tap which left the Saitama Super Arena more quiet than usual—which is saying something.
Kizaemon Saiga knocks out Dillin West
In another contest at 125lbs, 2-2 Japanese flyweight made light work of his South African opponent Dillin West.
Stalking his opponent, Saiga did a good job keeping West off balance with some nice jabs and utilising leg kicks. West dove for a takedown, but Saiga stuffed it with ease and the fight moved to the corner of the ring which saw Saiga land a number of big shots, countering West’s wild hooks thrown in response.
A combination of punches and knees—punctuated with a stomp to the head for good measure—saw the referee save West, who was left turtling up for protection from the punishment being meted out to his head and body.
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