Rizin and Bellator continue Japanese year-end tradition while UFC makes way for football

By Michael Hiscoe, MMATorch Columnist

The end of the calendar year is a busy time for combat sports in Japan. Going back to the days of Pride and K-1, New Year’s Eve events with MMA, boxing, kickboxing, and professional wrestling, or a combination of them all would pull massive TV ratings in Japan. The success and scale of these events wained as UFC became the dominant player in MMA in the mid to late 2000’s and UFC began holding their own big events near the end of the year.

With the move to ESPN, UFC has abandoned this tradition as the cable network’s focus is on college football at the end of the year. Still, the tradition continues in Japan, although on a smaller scale than in the past.

Bellator and Rizin came together to co-promote two events from the Saitama Super Arena on Dec. 29 and 31. Bellator’s offering was headlined by two former Pride stars Fedor Emelianenko and Quinton “Rampage” Jackson. Emelianenko made short work of Jackson, who had ballooned up from his former 205 lb fighting weight to the heavyweight limit of 265. The win, while decisive, was far from impressive and served as more of an indictment of Jackson’s condition and deterioration than an indicator of a return to form for Emelianenko.

Rizin’s event, which took place overnight Saturday for western audiences had less star power up top but much more to offer fans competitively. The eight-hour, 15-fight event flowed well despite its length and had important and interesting fights scattered throughout the card rather than the more traditional practice of loading from top to bottom.

The main event saw Rizin bantamweight champion Kai Asakura take on Angolian Manel Kape. Asakura was originally scheduled for a rematch against Kyoji Horiguchi, who he upset earlier this year to take the title, but Horiguchi was forced out with a knee injury. Asakura and Kape met last year in a fight that Asakura took by split decision. The two had a banger of a fight with Kape stunning the crowd with a second-round knockout of the hometown favorite.

The win creates a variety of interesting matchups in Rizin’s bantamweight division, which had been dominated by Horiguchi since his arrival from UFC. A rubber match between Kape and Asakura is practical if Horiguchi needs more time to heal and Horiguchi will have the option to either rematch Asakura or go after the Kape’s title if he is ready sooner.

Also on the Rizin card was a four-man lightweight tournament that culminated with Tofiq Musayev going the distance with Bellator’s Patricky “Pitbull” Freire in the finals. Musayev and Freire had defeated Johnny Case and Luis Gustavo respectively to open the card, both first-round finishes. Freire had Musayev hurt in the first round but Musayev was able to hold on to take the unanimous decision to win the tournament. There was also an unusual sequence in the second round with Musayev holding Freire’s legs looking for a takedown while Freire walked on his hands and fell through the ring ropes to the floor at ringside. There was some concern that Freire may have injured himself in the fall, but the fight continued after a short break. Musayev received a yellow card for interference because one of his cornermen tried to assist Freire while outside the ring.

Former UFC fighter C.B. Dolloway was on the card, to challenge Jiri Prochazka for Rizin’s light heavyweight championship. The 36-year old Dollaway could not rise to the occasion and was knocked stiff by the champion in the first round.

The other championship fight on the card featured Seo Hee Ham, who went 1-3 in UFC from 2014-2016 take on Ayaka Hamasaki for the Rizin atomweight championship. Ham took the closely fought and very competitive three-round fight via split-decision.

With UFC stepping aside for a few weeks to close out the year, it allowed Bellator and Rizin to have MMA fans’ attention all to themselves. While Bellator’s outing felt a little depressing, Rizin made up for it last night with a fun card that had a little something for everybody.

(Disclosure: PPV access for Rizin 20 provided by Fite.tv)

More from Mike Hiscoe:

Conor McGregor to return at UFC 246 against Donald Cerrone (w/ Hiscoe’s Analysis)

HISCOE: Is UFC broadcast pacing really better since moving to ESPN?

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