New Year’s Eve in Japan, at least as far as fighting is concerned, is nowhere near what it once was during the kakutogi boom of 2003-2006. Gone are the days of superstars like Bob Sapp, Masato, Mirko ‘Cro Cop’ Filipovic, Hidehiko Yoshida, and Wanderlei Silva anchoring grand spectacles that did massive television numbers on the biggest TV watching night of the year. Nonetheless, come Tuesday, RIZIN Fighting Federation will stage its annual soiree.
Last year was headlined by kickboxing ace Tenshin Nasukawa getting trounced in his exhibition boxing bout with all-time great Floyd Mayweather. This year has nothing of that sort for Rizin to promote. They don’t even have the best Japanese fighter on the planet, Kyoji Horiguchi – whom the promotion has built around and positioned as its top ace – owing to Horiguchi’s recent knee injury.
So, lacking a spectacle of that magnitude, who can Rizin even turn to in order to drum up any measure of excitement? The answer: two wild, street-fighting brothers, who just happen to be the best up-and-coming fighters Japan has to offer.
Headlining Rizin 20 will be 26-year-old Kai Asakura, who burst into the larger MMA consciousness this past August when he shocked the aforementioned Horiguchi—levelling the Rizin bantamweight champ in just 68 seconds. Now, in lieu of a rematch with the injured Horiguchi, he will vie for the vacant Rizin crown against Manel Kape. Meanwhile, on the undercard, his older brother Mikuru will face Bellator veteran John ‘Macapa’ Teixeira.
In truth, the Asakura brothers are not the biggest stars this card has to offer. Those distinctions would likely go to Olympic judo gold medalist Satoshi Ishii, Shoot Boxing darling Rena Kubota, and Miyuu Yamamoto, whose visibility is informed by being the elder sister of the late Norifumi ‘Kid’ Yamamoto – once a legitimate superstar in Japan – and her father Ikuei, who wrestled at the 1972 Olympics. Nonetheless, there are no two more important fighters – both to Rizin and to MMA on the whole – than this pair of fire-fisted brothers.
The story of the Asakura brothers is viciously quaint, but not unique to MMA. They grew up terrorizing their neighborhood in Toyohashi, Aichi—particularly the elder Mikuru, who served as both his block’s bully and protector. But mostly, he relished pounding on his little brother – constantly bloodying him up – which Kai now attributes to formulating his toughness as a pro fighter. Their mother, Emi, was so distraught and at her wits’ end that she sought out a family therapist, who suggested that she push her kids into boxing—in order to channel their adolescent rage and teach them discipline. However, her children bristled at the idea. Particularly Mikuru, who thought that the dedication and restraint necessary to train in a boxing gym would be far less “fun” than simply getting into streetfights.
As the duo reached their teens, Kai straightened up to some extent and became more obedient, compliant and less of a wild child. However, Mikuru doubled down on his devil-may-care mentality. He became even more reckless and frankly, dangerous. He would schedule times to go out at night and jump unsuspecting people, often recruiting his goon squad to film the encounters. He became resigned to the idea that eventually, he would join a gang. And, at some indeterminate point – ‘when’ didn’t matter – he would die. He would eventually write a last will and testament in his cell phone, tacitly preparing himself for what he thought was an inevitable early death.’
Enter The Outsider
Akira Maeda is one of the most important figures in mixed martial arts history. While never an MMA fighter per se, he was a trailblazer in the world of shoot style pro-wrestling—a progenitor to modern MMA. In 1991, he would found Fighting Network Rings, which – while initially a shoot-style outfit – would eventually morph into a legitimate MMA promotion. One that would foster the early careers of the likes of Fedor Emelianenko, Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, Alistair Overeem, Kiyoshi Tamura, Ricardo Arona and countless others. In 2008, he launched his latest project, The Outsider, a truly one of a kind product.
Maeda’s goal with The Outsider was, as the promotional name suggests, to take marginalized amateur fighters, people at the fringes of society – often miscreants and outright gangsters – and give them a legitimate venue to fight. It seemed like a crazy idea, though Maeda’s entire professional livelihood has hinged on having outside the box ideas that others thought foolish. In literally the very first fight in Outsider history, in March 2008, unassuming kindergarten teacher Tsubasa Akiyama choked out local gangster Takahiro Kuroishi in 84 seconds. This instantly led to Kuroishi’s gangster comrades rushing the ring and attempting to instigate a brawl. The die had been cast.
After the Asakuras began fighting professionally in 2012, a friend of Mikuru’s (Kohei Oka) suggested that The Outsider might be the perfect venue for them—both in terms of mentality and development. Over the next two years, the brothers cut their teeth there before making the jump to being full-time pros, where they’ve steadily improved ever since. They’ve shed their gaudy yakuza-ikemen haircuts and jewelry they sported in their tenure with the promotion and, by and large, harnessed their wild aggression into becoming sturdy, explosive sprawl and brawlers.
That said, despite how dangerous they are on the feet, they’re still works in progress. Neither man will have it easy at Rizin 20: Teixeira is easily one of the best fighters that Mikuru has faced, and Kai barely slipped by Kape in their first encounter—taking a narrow split decision. Younger Kai is the better fighter of the two, yet, on the undercard there is a bout between Shintaro Ishiwatari and Hiromasa Ogikubo; both men might be favorites against him at this point in time, despite Kai’s Horiguchi upset earlier this year.
This is what makes Dec. 31 so critical for the brothers. Are they flashes in the pan with an intriguing backstory that have tapped out their potential, or are they going to continue to improve and take the next steps toward legitimate greatness?
Regardless, neither are going to account for major ratings. After all, Rizin’s recent New Year’s Eve events have averaged only around 6.0 ratings the last few years. Last year, the main event between Tenshin Nasukawa and Floyd Mayweather only peaked at 7.5. As I said, the kakutogi boom days are gone. MMA is not en vogue, and the Asakuras are not going to change that. However, as Rizin tries to cultivate its own native talent, major wins on New Year’s Eve may slide them into the role of becoming posterboys for a company that desperately needs them.
“Being saved by the referee or being submitted by somebody by tapping, that’s not the fight we’re in,” Mikuru said in a Rizin promo video earlier this year. “That’s not our mindset. We won’t submit easily and we’re in this to die. “
Death wish or not, New Year’s Eve in Saitama could change their lives.
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