The Bottom Line: NYE Nostalgia

By Todd Martin Dec 22, 2020

Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed below are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Sherdog.com, its affiliates and sponsors or its parent company, Evolve Media.

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One of the byproducts of the deluge of Ultimate Fighting Championship shows in 2020 is that it has been hard for other mixed martial arts organizations to capture the public’s attention. Even for hardcore MMA fans who love the sport and are willing to devote hours every week to watching it, it’s difficult to find the time for Bellator MMA, Invicta Fighting Championships, One Championship or Legacy Fighting Alliance when a six-hour block of fighting is built in every Saturday. As such, happenings like the continued emergence of A.J. McKee and Vadim Nemkov as world-class talents in Bellator or the debut in Invicta of potential Professional Fighters League superstar Kayla Harrison have flown under the radar.

That may change over the next month as the rainstorm of MMA shows will quickly turn into a drought. UFC won’t be running until mid-January and Bellator has nothing scheduled, leaving (with apologies to One Championship) only one major card over the next month: Rizin Fighting Federation’s annual New Year’s Eve special. The MMA world being focused on New Year’s Eve in Japan is far from unprecedented as there was a time when that would be the biggest night of the year for MMA; easily bigger than any UFC card.

New Year’s Eve in Japan was where the best fighters in the world competed in their primes: Fedor Emelianenko, Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, Mirko Filipovic, Wanderlei Silva, Kazushi Sakuraba, Dan Henderson, Mauricio Rua, Quinton Jackson, Dan Henderson, Josh Barnett, Don Frye and so on. It was where Mark Hunt executed the flying butt drop on Wanderlei Silva one year and was knocked out by Melvin Manhoef another. It was where Olympic gold medalists Rulon Gardner and Karam Ibrahim Gaber fought for the only time, with decidedly mixed results.

New Year’s Eve was the stage for the biggest freak shows, like pro wrestling hall of famer Yuji Nagata being thrown to the wolves in Emelianenko and Cro Cop. The same year, Genki Sudo fought at lightweight in the UFC and then fought novelty super heavyweight boxer Eric Esch on New Year’s Eve. Bob Sapp fought Chad Rowan in the biggest freak show of them all. And yes, it was New Year’s Eve that destroyed Japanese MMA, as an alleged yakuza shakedown for the services of Emelianenko on Inoki Bom Ba Ye led Fuji TV to drop Pride Fighting Championships. It’s a storied history, although one more grounded in the past than the present.

Rizin faces serious challenges in putting together this year’s card. Japanese combat sports fans have always appreciated their Japanese favorites taking on stars from around the world, from Antonio Inoki vs. Muhammad Ali through Kazushi Sakuraba vs. Royce Gracie to Tenshin Nasukawa vs. Floyd Mayweather. Unfortunately this year, COVID-19 regulations requiring long quarantine times have limited Japanese access to foreign fighters.

Last year, Rizin’s two year-end cards (merged together for Japanese television and the first run in conjunction with Bellator) featured fighters from 12 nations, including international stars like Fedor Emelianenko, Quinton Jackson, Michael Chandler and Michael Page. This year’s lineup is scheduled to only feature 3 non-Japanese fighters in 14 bouts. This will surely limit international interest in this year’s bill. With that said, the card is a strong one from a Japanese interest standpoint, with three big fights at the top.

The main event features the return of Kyoji Horiguchi, gunning for revenge against Kai Asakura. Horiguchi was on as much of a roll as anyone in the sport when he entered the ring with Asakura 16 months ago. His glittering 28-2 record and dominance in both the UFC and Rizin led some to put him in the pound-for-pound discussion. That ended in violent fashion when Asakura knocked him out and a major knee injury forced Horiguchi to wait for his rematch. The stakes will be high for both men when they rematch in a bantamweight title clash.

Ayaka Hamasaki vs. Miyuu Yamamoto may not mean much to western audiences, but it’s a big fight in Japan. Yamamoto comes from a very famous family. Her father was an Olympic wrestler. Both his daughters, Miyuu and Seiko, became world champion wrestlers. Miyuu’s brother, Norifumi Yamamoto, was a mainstream star as a kickboxer and MMA fighter. She’s only 6-4 in MMA but she is one of the biggest stars Rizin has and this year she will be fighting for a title for the first time against Hamasaki, Rizin’s best female fighter. It’s a mismatch on paper, but easily one of the biggest fights Rizin can make.

The third top fight on the card is Nasukawa returning against Kumandoi Petcharoenvit. Nasukawa is likely still Rizin’s biggest asset, undefeated in pro MMA and kickboxing in spite of his embarrassing loss to Mayweather in a boxing exhibition two years ago. Also on the card are names that will be familiar to longtime fans like Takanori Gomi, Hideo Tokoro and Ikuhisa Minowa. It’s not Pride Shockwave 2004, but for fight fans looking for something to sink their teeth into between now and mid-January, it will do. Advertisement
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