Kyoji Horiguchi will enter the cage at UFC 182 on an eight-fight tear. | Photo: Taro Irei/Sherdog.com
Japanese fighters have not always thrived in the Ultimate Fighting Championship, as some of the most prominent names from the Pride Fighting Championships era struggled to make the transition to the Octagon. However, Kyoji Horiguchi appears to have adapted seamlessly, winning all three of his fights since signing with the Las Vegas-based organization in 2013.
Horiguchi established himself as the most dominant bantamweight on the domestic scene in Japan. There, he became Shooto’s 132-pound champion and defeated Pancrase counterpart Shintaro Ishiwatari with a fifth-round comeback at Vale Tudo Japan 2, the fifth-round technical knockout victory ultimately securing his spot on the UFC roster.
After starting his UFC run with wins over Dustin Pague and Darrell Montague, Horiguchi was scheduled to face Chris Cariaso at UFC Fight Night “Hunt vs Nelson” in Japan. However, his opponent was pulled from the fight in order to face reigning flyweight champion Demetrious Johnson the following weekend. That meant Horiguchi was denied the opportunity to test himself against a top-ranked flyweight contender, but the 24-year-old claims he was not disappointed when Cariaso moved on.
“No, not at all,” Horiguchi told Sherdog.com. “I was a bit excited when I heard the reason why Chris was pulled out of my fight, since if my opponent is ready to be a title contender, it means I must be getting closer to the title shot.”
Instead, Horiguchi found himself facing a fighter who was relatively new to the UFC: Jon delos Reyes. He made short work of the Guam native, blowing him away in less than a round with a striking onslaught. It did not have quite the same significance a victory over Cariaso would have, but the former Shooto champion was quite satisfied with his night’s work.
“I am not sure that delos Reyes was an easier fight than Cariaso because he is a tough and dangerous fighter, and he always finishes the fight,” Horiguchi said. “In his seven wins, he had three KOs and four subs.”
It was a solid victory for Horiguchi, his second at 125 pounds and one which took his overall record to 14-1. Wins over unranked fighters like delos Reyes, no matter how impressive, are not the stuff of which title shots are made, but he believes he is on the right track. Horiguchi would relish the prospect of a fight with Johnson.
“I feel I am ready for a title shot,” he said, “and it would be a very exciting fight because both of us have speed.”
Perhaps the most important aspect of the victory over delos Reyes was that it demonstrated Horiguchi was capable of maintaining his impressive ratio of stoppages inside the Octagon. Nine of his 14 wins have come by knockout and technical knockout. Add his one submission to this list, and 66 percent of Horiguchi’s opponents have been finished. With UFC cards occurring so frequently, there is even more onus on fighters to do something spectacular in order to stand out from the crowd. Horiguchi is happy two of his three UFC wins have come inside the distance.
“I was very pleased because it is very important for me and for my career to finish my opponent,” he said.
One trait that immediately distinguishes Horiguchi from your average MMA fighter is his distinctive karate style. He does not have quite as square a stance as former light heavyweight champion Lyoto Machida, but you rarely see the Japanese flyweight holding his hands anywhere near his chin, preferring to rely exclusively on head movement to evade punches. Conventional wisdom states that a fighter should always keep a high guard; while Horiguchi’s approach is undoubtedly unorthodox, it has been extremely effective so far. He has to this point resisted the school of thought that says top Japanese fighters need to travel overseas in order to receive the caliber of training required to succeed in the UFC.
“I train at Krazy Bee with my teammates,” said Horiguchi, who has won his last eight fights. “In the future, I would like to try training in the U.S., but at the moment I have no plans to do so.”
Asian fighters frequently cite long flights and the time difference as factors preventing them from competing to their full potential in the West.
Having won both of his stateside fights in the UFC, Horiguchi has had no problem making the necessary adjustments. If he wants to continue working his way up the flyweight rankings to face top contenders in marquee matchups, he will need to grow accustomed to fighting on the road. With that said, he relished the opportunity to face delos Reyes in his native Tokyo.
“I enjoyed it a lot and had a great time with my team and my friends and family,” he said.
Next up for the 24-year-old is a spot opposite Louis Gaudinot at UFC 182 on Saturday at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas. It appears to be the perfect stage for Horiguchi to make a serious statement regarding his title credentials. Team Tiger Schulmann’s Gaudinot is a former Ring of Combat champion who appeared on Season 14 of “The Ultimate Fighter.”
“He is a good, well-experienced fighter with good karate who has ‘TUF’ [on his resume], but I would like to show my best performance; and if I do, I will get the win,” Horiguchi said. “I feel extremely happy and honored to fight in UFC 182 in Las Vegas.”
In many respects, Japan is one of the best home-base countries for aspiring mixed martial artists, as there are events in Tokyo almost every weekend. Opportunities to compete and move up the rankings are rife. However, the heyday of Japanese MMA, when tens of thousands of fans would gather in outdoor stadiums to see the likes of Fedor Emelianenko and Mirko Filipovic, are long gone. Horiguchi is pessimistic about the state of the sport in his country.
“MMA is not as popular as it once was in Japan,” he said. “It is unfortunate.”
In this context, there could be no more important time for a Japanese fighter to make the breakthrough and become a UFC champion. Horiguchi hopes he can be the first.
“I don’t know what it would mean to MMA fans in Japan if I won the belt because I have not won it yet,” he said, “but I hope to be able to find out soon.”