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The weekend offered wall-to-wall action with MMA from all over the globe, a serious cornucopia of combat. The two real jewels came back-to-back on Saturday evening and Sunday morning, with Bellator 206 and Rizin 13 essentially flowing from one to another, putting every hardcore fight fan’s attention span and ability to stay awake to the test.
Gegard Mousasi stunted on Rory MacDonald, who still has to defend his Bellator MMA welterweight crown through a nasty tournament in the coming months, but many British fans weren’t able to see it. Promotional golden boy Aaron Pico absolutely obliterated former Bellator bantamweight title challenger Leandro Higo in a single round. Across the Pacific pond, former Ultimate Fighting Championship flyweight title challenger Kyoji Horiguchi lost his kickboxing match with 20-year-old phenom Tenshin Nasukawa but gained an immeasurable amount of credibility and clout. Meanwhile, Miyuu Yamamoto gave her recently deceased little brother the best tribute possible.
There’s an awful lot to unpack from these cards. This could easily be 15 lessons learned, but I’m not that cruel of an educator, so here are the five major takeaways from Bellator 206 and Rizin 13:
Mousasi is Calling the Shots
Ahead of his first Bellator middleweight title defense, Mousasi was -- as he always is -- candid and outspoken about his future. He simultaneously talked about his desire to fight at light heavyweight and heavyweight, suggesting he may retire if he didn’t get his wish. Frankly, the man is a smart cookie that doesn’t need the fight game, since he’s invested his money wisely over the years and bought up a bunch of property in the Netherlands that he and his brother Gewik have turned into student housing. He is the superintendent, in more ways than one.
However, by virtue of his complete pummeling of MacDonald, he’s earned that flex. Bellator’s television numbers have been sagging, and while Mousasi is far from a household name, the promotion needs every building block it can get to craft an interesting product for fight fans. A fighter like Mousasi who can ably compete in three divisions and allow the promotion to orchestrate the most interesting fights possible is invaluable. Mousasi has three fights left on his contract, and if Bellator wants to retain his services and dissuade him from retirement, it would be wise to kowtow to his demands.
Mousasi was already calling out grappling ace Rafael Lovato Jr. and desiring a rematch with Lyoto Machida for his next encounter, even before he stepped into the cage to batter MacDonald. Now, it looks like Bellator is going to go along with whatever the man wants.
“That’s the fight that Gegard wanted,” Bellator President Scott Coker said regarding Lovato Jr. at the post-fight presser. “He also said he wanted to fight Machida. I think Lovato is right up there, one of the top contenders to fight Gegard. Maybe we’ll put that fight together because I know Gegard wants to fight right away.”
Mousasi is calling the shots now.
Bellator Ain’t Calling the Shots in Britain
Part of Bellator’s plan for growth is to expand in Europe, especially in the United Kingdom. Over the last two years and change, it has run five shows in the U.K., four in England and one in Northern Ireland, in addition to two events in Ireland proper. British fight fans rejoiced when it was announced that Bellator 206 would be aired live on national broadcaster Channel 5. Things didn’t turn out so well, though, due to some shoddy planning.
Because of a 10 p.m. ET start and having six fights on its main card, Mousasi and MacDonald didn’t hit the cage until 1 a.m. on the east coast. For Britons? That’s 6 a.m. Fans who stayed up for the card were unceremoniously swerved when, all of a sudden, Channel 5 flipped to beloved children’s program Peppa Pig.
“Government regulations said at 6 a.m. that content was not suitable,” Bellator Senior Vice President David Schwartz said. “They had to switch to children’s programming, Peppa the Pig.”
Coker called it a “hiccup,” but it’s not a hiccup that Bellator can afford at this point. The UFC has slowly uncommitted to its previous engagement with the U.K., treating the region like just another territory and offering British fans less-engaging cards -- a major departure from the likes of UFC 70 and UFC 75. The promotion has a major opportunity to seize the reins, yet it stumbled over the simplest of logistical considerations in this case. A six-fight main card, with two fights scheduled for five rounds, and a 3 a.m. start time in Britain? It would’ve taken a miracle for that to work. It’s one thing to have a plan, but it’s another thing to actually plan out things properly.
That Pico Kid? Actually, He’s Pretty Good
Well, British fans at least got to see Pico fight, which is a good thing. MMA fans are fickle creatures; we thirst for young, talented athletes to be the Next Big Things but simultaneously bristle when someone tries to sell us on said Next Big Thing. When Bellator signed Pico back in 2014, we were instantly inundated with propaganda telling us he was literally the greatest prospect ever. Then, when he finally made his pro debut 15 months ago, he wound up getting choked out by a random Missouri journeyman, Zach Freeman, in a mere 24 seconds.
There’s no realistic way for Pico to ever live up to the hype that has surrounded him. All he can do is try to be the best fighter he can be, and in his fight with Higo, he did just that. Pico destroyed Higo on the feet, smashing him with clean one-twos, digging to the body and pounding him every time he fell. Referee Mark Smith could’ve easily stopped the fight on several occasions before he actually did, despite the fight barely going past the three-minute mark.
This is why you don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. There are plenty of elite fighters who lost in an embarrassing fashion early in their careers, but we don’t hold it against them because we weren’t sold a bill goods. It’s not as though Pico was the one who decided to market himself as the greatest MMA prospect ever. If you saw him dispatch any of his last four opponents on Dana White’s Tuesday Night Contenders Series, not only would he get a UFC contract but you’d be excited to see him in the Octagon.
Part of Bellator’s strategy to strengthen its roster is signing young, talented athletes and building them from the ground floor up, so it’s only natural that on occasion, some of them are going to lose. What counts is whether or not they learn from those mistakes. Pico is still far from perfect; he’s an excellent combination puncher with massive power, but he doesn’t move his head much, he’s an excellent wrestler, but we still need to see more of his submission game. Nonetheless, the 22-year-old is a bonafide stud and legitimate appointment viewing.
Yamamoto Reminds us There’s Triumph in Tragedy
No flowery intro here. Plain and simple, Yamamoto’s ring walk at Rizin 13, even at 6 a.m., nearly drove me to tears. Part of why we love MMA is the pageantry that goes with it, and a hot entrance can instantly elevate a fight, maybe even make it iconic. This was one of those occasions.
Her younger brother, Japanese MMA legend Norifumi “Kid” Yamamoto, succumbed to cancer just 12 days before her fight. He spent his dying days with her in Guam as she trained to rematch Andy Nguyen. She couldn’t have picked a more poetic and appropriate walkout track than “Ready or Not” by The Fugees; who knows if they’re truly “ready” after such a tragedy? However, the actual ring walk sealed the deal. Watching Yamamoto dance down the ramp, with the exact same footwork and maneuvers that were part and parcel of her late brother’s famous entrances, was overwhelming. It was like her little brother’s spirit had inhabited her body. Before she stepped into the ring, she trembled and quaked as she prayed. We may never know what she said, but in that moment, we all felt what she was feeling.
It is hard for me to fathom the fortitude it would take to keep your eye on the prize, continue training and go through with fighting. Yet at 44 years old, that’s exactly what Yamamoto did. She easily avenged her New Year’s Eve 2016 submission loss to Nguyen, taking her down easily in every round, thwarting every sub attempt, passing guard and pounding away. Avenging a loss is normally a solid enough story by which to remember a fight, but the circumstances of Yamamoto’s vengeance were painfully exhilarating. Upon the fight’s end, she took off her game face, like the simplest of masks, and burst into tears, embracing her son Erson.
Yamamoto was shortchanged by time: She was an elite, world-class wrestler in the 1990s, but the Olympics wouldn’t add women’s wrestling to its agenda until 2004. At 44, it’s unrealistic she’ll be anything other than a drawing card for Rizin. With that said, her performance against Nguyen may stand as her greatest achievement, not just an athletic victory but a one-of-a-kind tribute to her brother, who was also shortchanged by time.
Horiguchi Pays Tribute, Shows He’s Tough as Hell
He may train primarily with American Top Team now, but when Horiguchi started his MMA career, he trained under the aforementioned “Kid” Yamamoto at Krazy Bee. While the emotional and psychological toll of Yamamoto’s death may not be as pronounced as it was for his sister, Horiguchi had to bury his lifelong karate trainer last year, as well. Yet despite such back-to-back embattlements, the former UFC flyweight title challenger decided to face off against unbeaten kickboxing star Nasukawa under his opponent’s rules. It was a daring maneuver, but it paid dividends, even if Horiguchi didn’t get his hand raised.
Nasukawa is the darling of international kickboxing. Is he the best kick fighter in the world? No, but he’s 20 years old, has now racked up a 27-0 record and authored dazzling, spectacular knockouts. He has swag and star quality. All of this enhances what Horiguchi accomplished in a simple set of three three-minute rounds. Early in the fight, Nasukawa was far more passive than normal, as Horiguchi adopted a wide karate stance and fought exactly as he would in an MMA bout. He tagged Nasukawa from time to time. As it is when you’re 20 years old, Nasukawa grew visibly upset and became more aggressive, but Horiguchi shrugged off his punches. He started spamming his vaunted cartwheel kicks like an irritated Tekken master, only to have Horiguchi smile at him.
Even in the third round, where Nasukawa legitimately managed to hurt the former Shooto world champion, he wasn’t able to put him away. The final scores were 30-29, 30-28 and 29-28 for Nasukawa, who despite his youthful anger, needed to embrace Horiguchi after the fight for showing his skill and toughness, putting him through the paces in a way that many of his legitimate kickboxing opponents could not.
Heading into the bout, the fight was compared to “Kid” Yamamoto’s fight with K-1 Max star Masato on New Year’s Eve 2004 -- a bout Yamamoto definitively lost, yet knocked down Masato despite being the much smaller man and not a trained kickboxer. More than 34 million Japanese television watchers tuned in for “Kid” and Masato’s fight at K-1 Dynamite 2004. When Rizin’s numbers come back, they won’t hold a candle, but Horiguchi paid a fitting tribute to the departed man who helped put him on the map. It also shows that Nobuyuki Sakakibara, for all his warts, has a vision for Rizin and a penchant for figuring out what an audience wants to see, whether they’re Japanese or not. More than that, it’s a clue-in that the UFC absolutely goofed by not re-signing Horiguchi, who is the best Japanese fighter to come along since Kazushi Sakuraba, Hayato Sakurai or Takanori Gomi. Horiguchi and Nasukawa may not recreate the “Kakutogi Boom 2.0,” but their fight was absolutely electric and even a layman would thirst to watch a Rizin card after their fisticuffs.