Kyoji Horiguchi was 16 when his shin snapped at karate practice. The style of karate Horiguchi studied at the time prohibited low kicks, but an ashi barai—a leg trip—was totally legal.
“I tried to go for one of those, and I aimed for the inner calf area,” recalled the Japanese mauler, who turned 30 in October. “When my leg landed in my opponent’s inner thigh area, it just split in half. My coach saw me squat down and he yelled at me, ‘Kyoji, what are you sitting down for? Get back in the game.’ I stood back up once, but I couldn’t continue.”
For a driven teenager on the verge of deciding that professional fighting was his future, this seems like a devastating turn of events. However, as Horiguchi said last week, his overwhelming thought was that “injuries eventually heal and I’ll be competing again.” He never contemplated anything but a full recovery. Years later, a lesson from high school helped the former Rizin Fighting Federation and Bellator MMA bantamweight champion make the most of the downtime that came with the second major injury of his fighting life: a ruptured ACL and torn meniscus. The key was not setting himself up for frustration by rushing the healing process.
“I think that experience played a significant role in my recovery,” he said. “This time, I was able to relax and took my time to heal everything I needed to heal, so, yes, that injury definitely played out well for this time.”
While preparing for their first scheduled rematch during last New Year’s Eve event, Horiguchi was told by a doctor that a pop he felt in his knee required immediate attention. The Florida-based American Top Team fighter remained in the United States for his surgery and rehabilitation. When he heard people say he would not return as the same fighter who generated headlines in recent years, Horiguchi regarded it as old, conservative thinking that did not apply to him. Instead, he believed in modern medicine and his own eyes. Personally, he knew several fighters whose knees were as strong—if not stronger—than they were before. The talented Japanese mixed martial artist returned to training and sparring in July as part of a 13-month rebuilding process addressing the knee and a bad hip, all the while refusing to indulge a fast return and quick revenge.
“I feel that my knee has been recovered to the point where it’s almost the same or even better,” Horiguchi said. “There’s some slight pain when I move around, but I don’t feel like I’ve gotten weaker at all. The ligament itself is stronger than it used to be. That’s the purpose of the surgery. As far as the pain goes, I think the scar on my knee, the pain will always be there. I just have to learn with it and deal with it, but as far as the durability of the ligament, I’m told it’s supposed to be stronger.”
Horiguchi arrived in Japan at the start of December and spent his final month before the New Year’s Eve main event walking familiar streets and eating what he described as the best food in the world. As the country attempts to mitigate the effects of the pandemic, Rizin officials expect 10,000 spectators to attend the event, a quarter of what they might otherwise seat under normal circumstances but not bad relative to other parts of the world.
Because he maintained such an active schedule heading into 2020—four fights in 2017 and three apiece in 2018 and 2019—Horiguchi’s focus was locked on fight prep. Time away with injury allowed him the space to adjust his movement-heavy fighting style, which he acknowledged had worn on his body, and implement other changes to his approach that he had thought about adopting for several years.
“All those things considered,” Horiguchi said, “I thought and knew I had to change my style up a bit, for my body. My base will be the same. My movement will always be the same, but I’m just adding more stuff to it.”
Unlike his stunning loss in 2019, Horiguchi walks into his Rizin 26 rematch with Kai Asakura as an underdog.
“I’m not worried if Horiguchi is back 100 percent,” Asakura said following Wednesday’s weigh-in in Tokyo. “He can’t change his style that easily. I know what he’s capable of doing. I can adjust to any changes that he may bring to the fight.”
Asakura (16-2) has proven power in his hands, and he stands confident in his ability after stopping Horiguchi just 67 seconds into their August 2019 non-title fight. The stunning result derailed one of the hottest fighters in mixed martial arts at the time.
“This rematch, I just want payback,” Horiguchi said. “What he did to me, I think I want to return the favor. While I’ve been gone, he’s kind of acting like he’s the man and has been running his mouth that he’s the best while I was absent, so I want to go in there and put him in his place.
“After I get my belt in Rizin, I feel obligated to get the Bellator belt because I had to vacate it due to my injury,” he added. “Going back to where I left off is something I have planned for now, but once I get there, I don’t really have plans. Returning to where I left off is something I look forward to doing.”
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