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When Kyoji Horiguchi fought out his contract with the Ultimate Fighting Championship at the end of 2016, he left under peculiar circumstances. Zuffa had just sold the organization to Endeavor, and a subsequent bloodletting of talent took place. Horiguchi was part of a wave of top-tier fighters -- it included Ryan Bader, Rory MacDonald, Lorenz Larkin and Nikita Krylov -- who left the UFC, not because they were cut but because they couldn’t come to terms with the promotion. Translation: They wanted more money than the UFC thought they were worth.
In some of those instances, the UFC’s rationale was understandable. Bader, for instance, is an exceptionally skilled fighter who, if it were up to me, would still be in the UFC for the simple reason that he’s an elite talent. However, I can understand not wanting to pay more for someone that is not known for putting on exciting fights and definitively lost to the best fighters in the division.
Horiguchi was and is different, though. For starters, he is an exciting and dynamic fighter. As his nine-second knockout of Ian McCall this weekend showed, he’s a slick striker with finishing ability. He glides in and out of range and lands quick, powerful combinations. You don’t want to take your eyes off him during a fight. He was also Japan’s best chance at winning a UFC title in any weight class. That’s important given the immense contributions to MMA the country has made, but probably more importantly, Japan remains an untapped market opportunity for the UFC. There’s nothing like a homegrown star to break into a market, and Horiguchi had all the potential to be the go-to guy for future Japan cards. On top of everything else, the flyweight division has long been in dire need of competition. Especially now that Demetrious Johnson has all but cleared out the weight class, young and exciting flyweights are more important than ever. The UFC let him walk when he still had a tremendous amount of upside.
When Horiguchi left, he was just 26 years old and 7-1 in the UFC. His only loss, of course, was against Johnson in his fifth fight in the promotion. It’s worth remembering that before he was given the title shot, Horiguchi’s four opponents had a combined UFC record of 2-12-1 -- hardly the type of competition to groom someone for a fight against one of the greatest fighters ever. After beating Louis Gaudinot at UFC 182, Horiguchi admitted he needed a few more fights before he would be ready for “Mighty Mouse,” who at that point had more UFC title fights than Horiguchi had UFC total fights. Up until the armbar at the final second of their bout, Horiguchi hung tough with Johnson despite clearly losing every round. He was right; he simply wasn’t ready.
Times have changed. Since leaving the UFC, he has stretched his winning streak to nine fights while notching five consecutive finishes. It goes without saying that his level of competition has dropped to some degree -- the McCall he fought in the Rizin Fighting Federation was a far cry from the “Uncle Creepy” that arguably beat Johnson in 2012. While Horiguchi’s Rizin opponents may be untested, that doesn’t mean they aren’t good. Gabriel Leite de Oliveira, for example, was 10-0 and fresh off a knockout of Tatsuya Kawajiri; Manel Kape was 9-2 with eight stoppages, including a technical knockout of McCall; and Shintaro Ishiwatari was 25-6 and on a seven-fight win streak. Horiguchi stopped all three of them in a span of three days, 10 pounds above his natural weight class.
A closer inspection of Horiguchi’s game indicates that his recent success has not simply been a factor of weaker competition. He’s growing more comfortable and proficient in his style. American Top Team can take much of the credit for the sharpening of his skills. His killer instinct and opportunism have improved without compromising the patience that made him a puzzle before. He times his combinations better before weaving out of range, and his head movement -- often an Achilles’ heel for karate stylists in MMA -- has smoothed out his striking.
All things considered, Horiguchi is the best, most proven fighter currently fighting outside the UFC. Though he’s only 27 years old, he’s entering his prime now; years of professional competition is usually a better metric than raw age when assessing one’s prime, and Horiguchi has been fighting for almost eight years. While much of his UFC exile is self-imposed, it would be a shame if he never returned to the promotion. None of this is to suggest that Horiguchi would beat “Mighty Mouse” now. Johnson is one of the most profoundly effective fighters the sport has ever seen, and he has shown no signs of slowing down. Yet as he looks for superfights with other champions and embarks on a rematch tour of failed contenders, it’s hard to think of a more compelling flyweight bout than Johnson-Horiguchi 2.
Whether or not the UFC needs Horiguchi more than Horiguchi needs the UFC is up for debate, but one thing is for sure: The flyweight division is better off with him in the mix.
Hailing from Kailua, Hawai’i, Eric Stinton has been contributing to Sherdog since 2014. He received his BFA in Creative Writing from Chapman University and graduate degree in Special Education from University of Hawai’i. He is an occasional columnist for Honolulu Civil Beat, and his work has also appeared in The Classical. You can find his writing at ericstinton.com. He currently lives in Seoul with his fiancé and dachshund.