By Alistair Hendrie
Three years after its first event, Rizin Fighting Federation finds itself in choppy waters and it’s time for Nobuyuki Sakakibara’s Japanese promotion to sink or swim. Ahead of Sunday’s Rizin 13 event at Tokyo’s Saitama Arena, broadcast partners FujiTV are pressuring Sakakibara to deliver strong ratings after Rizin 12 failed to attract half of its target in August. Thankfully, the Japanese CEO has an ace up his sleeve for Sunday: a 127lbs kickboxing main event between 20-year-old wonderkid Tenshin Nasukawa and American Top Team knockout artist Kyoji Horiguchi.
Sakakibara’s decision to place Nasukawa in the main event is a wise one when you consider the crossover appeal and thrilling fighting style of the prodigy simply known as “Tenshin.” If you’ve never watched a Tenshin fight before, expect the unexpected: lead jumping knees, cartwheel kicks and rolling thunders are all on the agenda.
During his meeting with Yusaku Nakamura at Rizin 10 in May, Tenshin corkscrewed in mid-air and smashed his heel into his opponent’s mouth, decking him in the process. Moments later, he glided through the air again, whittling down the distance, and secured a knockout with a flying knee. It’s that kind of athleticism and vocabulary of striking that’s making American media sit up and take notice.
What’s more, there’s a method to his madness – having cut his teeth in the stand-up amateurs with a record of 99-5, he made his professional kickboxing bow at 15 and remains undefeated after 27 pro bouts. That ledger includes upsets over foes such as Wanchalong and Suakim Sit.Sor.Thor.Taew and due to his magnetism and reputation, he’s now one of few Rizin competitors to earn live coverage on FujiTV.
Sakakibara will be all too aware of Tenshin’s skyrocketing fame. The kid’s already a superstar. Think LeBron James in the States or David Beckham in England. In 2017 Tenshin inked a sponsorship deal with the Japanese video game developer Cygames. To put that into context, Cygames also sponsors European football giants Juventus, showing the level of company Brand Tenshin now competes in.
Yet despite his array of magazine features and social media followers – not forgetting his reality TV show on AbemaTV – Tenshin remains grounded and practically lives at Teppen Gym, Matsudo, watched closely by father-turned-coach Hiroyuki. The fresh-faced star won’t be getting carried away with fame and fortune just yet and that will come as a relief to Nobuyuki.
Every superfight needs two dance partners though and Horiguchi, 27, is more than a big enough name to step in. Since leaving the UFC for Rizin in 2017, the Florida-based Gunma native has become Japan’s top MMA fighter (Tenshin focuses on kickboxing despite a 4-0 record in MMA) after a streak of seven victories featuring five finishes.
Think back to Rizin 10, when Horiguchi’s counter hook detonated on Ian McCall’s chin, folding the American in half after nine seconds. Remember, too, in 2017, how he won the Rizin bantamweight grand prix in the dying embers of round three, sinking in an arm-triangle choke against Manuel Kape. Horiguchi might have struggled for rhythm during his verdict over Hiromasa Ogikubo at Rizin 11 in July, but which other 135lb’er holds a more dominant run of stoppages? The UFC’s most powerful bantamweights – TJ Dillashaw and John Lineker – certainly don’t.
However, although Sakakibara is shrewd to make this match-up, Tenshin is a world class kickboxer with a decade of amateur and professional competition –Horiguchi, in short, is nowhere near that standard of kickboxing.
Having taken up karate as a schoolboy, Tenshin fights with a degree of maturity and efficiency beyond his years, holding his left mitt by his temple and his right in front of his chin. He excels in throwing three or four counters at the same speed his rivals throw one, but it’s the way he evades attacks which is almost more impressive. With an air of arrogance, he leans back and watches the strikes slice through the air as they miss their targets by inches.
Then there’s his work going forward. He picks his strikes beautifully, hammering out jabs, high kicks and uppercuts with no wind-up. Once he senses a finish, he doesn’t let up either. He’ll break opponents down with a head-body salvo of punches and as soon as the recipient begins to double up, he’ll shatter their equilibrium with a knee up the middle.
Tenshin’s closing of range and ability to block, parry and deflect strikes on the inside makes him an overwhelming favourite here. Horiguchi is quick, of course, but his low guard and loose frame look like a recipe for disaster against Tenshin. Of course, although Horiguchi has fought in kickboxing, it’s difficult to assess his credentials in the discipline because he very rarely competes under these rules.
In that sense the pick is for Tenshin to sap Horiguchi’s spirit by the middle of the second frame and stop him after a series of knockdowns. The favourite, a former child prodigy, benefits from laser-guided focus that will help him avoid complacency against an inferior opponent. If anything, Tenshin is getting better, so all the signals point to a flamboyant display and a violent finish.
From Sakakibara’s point of view this is the ideal spectacle to convince the sceptics and win over the broadcast partners. A Tenshin win would further justify the hype, whereas a Horiguchi success would be one of the biggest upsets in combat sports history, thereby making the UFC look even sillier for dropping him last year. Whatever happens, an all-Japanese crunch match could be just what Rizin needs to get itself out of a rut.
To explore more of Alistair Hendrie's writing on the global MMA scene, buy his Kindle book, Fight Game: The Untold Story of Women's MMA in Britain
This article was originally posted on The Runner Sports