Last time I checked out some of the best talent making their names in Brazil, this time we head to the Land of the Rising Sun; Japan. Upcoming Japanese-based MMA promotions such as Rizin Fighting Federation hope to produce talent, while long-time staples like Pancrase, DEEP, Shooto, VTJ, JEWELS and IGF have already done so, and all of them are still going strong and producing great talent. Remember, unlike other countries, Japan puts less value on win/loss ratio and more value on personality, heart and entertainment-value. (Note: If a fighter has fought exclusively outside of Japan for more than 12 months as of writing, they are not eligible for this list.)
(Bantamweight) Go Kashiwazaki | 19 years old | 13-0-2 w/ 2 (T)KO, 10 Submissions, 1 Decision.
At just 19-years-old, this product of K-Place gym in Saitama, Japan has yet to lose in 15 professional bouts and can already be considered a ZST veteran, with 14 of his 15 pro bouts taking place in the promotion. Debuting in late 2012, Kashwazaki is the current ZST bantamweight champion, beating Keisuke Fujiwara for the strap in May of 2015, he then went on to defeat Tyrell Hogan three months later. He is currently set to defend his title in a few weeks at ZST 49 on November 22 vs. Atsushi Kato (8-3-3).
- Kashiwazaki vs. Keisuke Fujiwara at ZST 46 on May 24, 2015
- Kashiwazaki vs. Tatsuya Watanabe at ZST 43 on November 23, 2014
- Kashiwazaki vs. Takahiro Furumaki at GRANDSLAM: Way of the Cage on July 13, 2014
(Bantamweight) Victor Heny | 28 years old | 11-1 w/ 2 (T)KO, 6 Submissions, 3 Decisions.
Though not of Japanese descent, Victor Henry has been fighting exclusively in Japan for almost a year now, and hopes to win the bantamweight title of one of Japan’s greatest organizations in the very near future. Training out of CSW Training Center with the likes of Erik Paulson and catch-wrestling great Josh Barnett should be all the evidence you need to see that, when it comes to catch-wrestling, Victor Henry knows what he’s doing. Henry was introduced to Japan when he beat Japanese veteran Hideo Tokoro under the GRANDSLAM banner in 2014. After this he defeated Vom Baur in America before returning to Japan again, going 3-0 since doing so. Henry will fight for the Pancrase bantamweight title in December where he takes on champion Shintaro Ishiwatari.
(Bantamweight) Koichi Ishizuka | 28 years old | 10-1-1 w/ 4 (T)KO, 4 Submissions, 2 Decisions.
Training out of Brightness Monma Dojo, Ishizuka has remained undefeated since December of 2011 where he lost in the finals of a one-night DEEP Future King tournament to Yuki Baba. Since then he has fought still exclusively for DEEP and not lost. In his sole fight of 2015, Ishizuka knocked out veteran Makota Kamaya in the first round back in July. He has no bout current scheduled.
(Atomweight/Strawweight) Mei “V.V” Yamaguchi | 32 years old | 15-8-1 w/ 2 (T)KO, 6 Submissions, 7 Decisions.
Fighting out of Riki Gym, Yamaguchi is currently fighting for JEWELS and is a veteran of promotions such as Smackgirl, VTJ, Pancrase and Valkyrie. With a background in BJJ and Karate, Yamaguchi debuted in 2007 winning Smackgirl’s Next Cinderella Tournament by defeating three other competitors. After this she entered Valkyrie’s featherweight tournament and won it, earning a shot at champ Yuka Tsuji. Yamaguchi won, getting revenge on Tsuji for beating her earlier in her career. Entering the contest, Mei was 5-2, Tsuji was 22-1. Since losing to Tsuji in 2008, Yamaguchi has only lost to the likes of Megumi Fujii, Seo Hee Ham, Ayaka Hamasaki and Katjaa Kankaanpaa.
- V.V Mei Highlight
- (Loss) Yamaguchi vs. Gina Iniong at PXC 43 on March 29, 2014
- (Shoot Boxing/2009 S-cup) Yamaguchi vs. Madoka Okada
- Yamaguchi vs. Yukiko Seki at DEEP JEWELS 4 on May 18, 2014
(Bantamweight) Shintaro Ishiwatari | 30 years old | 19-6-4 w/ 8 (T)KO, 1 Submission, 10 Decisions.
A product of CAVE Gym in Tokyo, Japan, Shintaro Ishiwatari is the current Pancrase bantamweight champion who has wins over the likes of Caol Uno, Trevor Ward and Tashiro Nishiuchi. His last bout was under the DEEP banner, where he stopped Takafumi Otsuka in the first round at the end of 2014. He returns to Pancrase to defend his title on December 13, where he’ll take on Victor Henry. If you look at his losses, you will see familiar names such as; Jonathan Brookins, Chan Sung Jung and Kyoji Horiguchi.
- Ishiwatari vs. Kazuhiro Ito at Shooto: Shooting Disco 4 on February 23, 2008
- (Loss) Ishiwatari vs. Chan Sung Jung at Sengoku – Seventh Battle on March 20, 2009
- Shintaro Ishiwatari Highlight (NinjaPRD)
(Middleweight-Heavyweight) Ken Hasegawa | 28 years old | 10-0-1 w/ 3 (T)KO, 2 Submissions, 5 Decisions.
Associated with Kingdom Tachikawa, Ken Hasegawa has fought across multiple weight classes and is a former DEEP Megaton champion. In 2014 he defeated Kazuhiro Nakamura in an openweight bout at DEEP 65, afterwards he made his Titan FC debut and beat Matt Thompson by unanimous decision in a light heavyweight contest. In his sole bout of 2015, Hasegawa took on Ryuta Sakurai at middleweight in late February at DEEP 71, he won via submission. Hasegawa vacated his DEEP Megaton title earlier this month, Jaideep Singh defeated Carlos Toyota for the vacant belt.
- Hasegawa vs. Ryuta Sakurai at DEEP 71 on February 28, 2015
- Hasegawa vs. Peter Tornow at DEEP Cage Impact 2012: 2nd Round on December 8, 2012
(Flyweight) Mitsuhisa Sunabe | 36 years old | 25-7-4 w/ 7 (T)KO, 5 Submissions, 13 Decisions.
Sunabe has spent almost his entire career in Pancrase, making his pro debut all the way back in 2001, Sunabe won two flyweight amateur tournaments under the Pancrase banner as well. This product of Reversal Gym OKINAWA CROSSxLINE is a multi-time Pancrase flyweight champion, and he won it once more in October on UFC Fight Pass when he beat Hiroyuki Abe at Pancrase 271 in the co-main event.
- Sunabe vs. Hayato Sato at Pancrase – Passion tour 4 on April 29, 2010
- Sunabe vs. Noboru Tahara at Pancrase 252 on September 29, 2013
- Sunabe vs. Takuya Eizumi at Pancrase – Changing Tour 3 on June 7 , 2009
(Featherweight) Kazunori Yokota | 37 years old | 24-5-3 w/ 4 (T)KO, 5 Submissions, 15 Decisions.
After spending most of his career with the likes of Gono and Misaki at Team Grabaka, Yokota took his Judo background to DEEP after just three professional fights. He went undefeated during his first eight bouts, picking up two draws and six wins, including a lightweight title win. He went on to lose the title to Tae Hyun Bang in 2008. Following the title loss in DEEP, Yokota moved to Sengoku where he became a mainstay for almost two years, picking up wins over the likes of Schultz, Leo Santos, Mitsuoka and Hirota. For a year between late 2009 and late 2010 Yokota dropped three fights in a row, losing to Kawajiri, Cobb and Jadambaa. After these losses, Yokota dropped to featherweight and returned to DEEP in mid-2011 and has not lost since. Currently on a 12-fight win streak, Kazunori Yokota also added the DEEP featherweight title to his list of accomplishments. His current streak sees wins over the likes of ISAO Kobayashi, Juri Ohara, Yusuke Kajiyama and Katsunori Tsuda. Since returning to DEEP, he has also fought once in Abu Dhabi Warriors, beating Anatoly Safronov by submission.
- Yokota vs. Kosuku Umeda at DEEP 23 on February 6, 2006
- Yokota vs. Anatoly Safronov at Abu Dhabi Warriors 1 on November 2, 2012
- Yokota vs. Juri Ohara at DEEP: Funbashi Bom-Ba-Ye on May 8, 2015
(Flyweight) Hayato Suzuki | 29 years old | 14-0-2 w/ 5 (T)KO, 5 Submissions, 4 Decisions.
A veteran of Brave Fight, Vale Tudo Japan, DEEP, and Grachan, this product of BRAVE GYM made his professional debut in October of 2012, submitting Kotaro Kazama in three minutes at DEEP 60, going on to draw with Hirukawa two months later. After this he went on to finish Kota Ishibashi and Shunya Nagatani, the latter being in Brave Fight. Following the two wins, he went on to have one more draw. Since his final draw, Suzuki has 11-wins in a row over names like Kirihito Kodama (twice), Ryuya Fukuda, Yosuke Saruta and a Grachan flyweight title win over Keichi Iio.
(Featherweight/Lightweight ) Yoshifumi “Junior” Nakamura | 27 years old | 18-7 w/ 4 Submissions, 14 Decisions.
Though his lack of finishes and the fact he’s coming off two losses may make some wonder why he is a fighter to watch, Nakamura is no joke, getting 25 fights under his belt in just 6 years of fighting. Nakamura trains at Mach Dojo under the tutelage of Hayato “Mach” Sakurai, one of the best Japanese fighters ever. His last two outing saw him drop decisions to veteran Michihiro Omigawa and prospect Yutaka Saito. Before this he beat pioneer Caol Uno in January of 2015 to become the Shooto lightweight champion, he went on to lose the title to Saito a few months later.
(Bantamweight/Flyweight) Shunichi “Rolling Star” Shimizu | 30 years old | 30-11-11, 1NC w/ 4 (T)KO, 19 Submissions, 7 Decisions.
After training with former fighter and Olympic gold medalist Hidehiko Yoshida straight out of college, Shimizu wasted no time to begin his MMA career. In his first eight professional fights, he compiled a somewhat uneventful record of 1-1-6. He had never lost more than one in a row prior to losing three-straight in 2014, going 0-3 that year. Since then he has been unbeaten in his last four, including two wins, a draw and a no contest. Spending most of his career with ZST, he was given the nickname “ZST no Tetsujin” by some, which translates to “Ironman of ZST”. Shimizu was briefly signed to the UFC in 2013 where he was cut after losing to Kyung Ho Kang.
- Shimizu vs. Yuta Nakamura at Pancrase Progress Tour 10 on September 1, 2012
- Shimizu vs. Takeaki Miyakwa at ZST 19 on January 25, 2009
- Shimizu vs. Yerjan Estanov at Bushido Lithuania 51 on June 8, 2012
- Shimizu vs. Wataru Takahashi at Sengoku 15 on October 30, 2010
(Bantamweight) Motonobu Tezuka | 28 years old | 25-10-5 w/ 3 (T)KO, 7 Submissions, 15 Decisions.
Tezuka has a background in multiple martial arts including jiu-jitsu, karate and Judo and has been a professional for just over a decade now and trains with the likes of Kiichi Kunimoto at Cobra Kai MMA Dojo in Osaka, Japan. He is the current Grachan bantamweight champion after beating Kensaku Nakamura at Grachan 14 in a rematch of their draw at Grachan 13. He was briefly signed with the UFC in 2012/2013 but was cut after losing two close decisions to Vaughan Lee and Alex Caceres. He will look to defend his Grachan title when he faces Yoji Saito (8-5) on November 29 at Grachan 20.
(Middleweight) Riki Fukuda | 34 years old | 23-7, 1 NC w/ 11 (T)KO, 1 Submission, 11 Decisions.
Fukuda trains out of GRABAKA with the likes of Sanae Kikuta, Eiji Ishikawa and Yuki Sasaki. Unlike most on this list, Fukuda actually has had a two year stint with the UFC, entering the promotion as DEEP champion he amassed a record of 2-3 in the promotion, with all five bouts going to decision. Since being cut from the UFC however, Riki Fukuda has been on an absolute tear in ROAD FC, picking up 4 knockouts as well as the ROAD FC middleweight championship.
- Fukuda vs. Jeon Uh Jin at ROAD FC 24 on July 25, 2015
- Fukuda vs. Dool Hee Lee II at ROAD FC 22 on March 21, 2015
(Lightweight) Tetsuya “Helper” Yamada | 25 years old | 15-3-2 w/ 8 (T)KO, 4 Submissions, 3 Decisions.
Yamada trains at the Shinwa Sports Academy in Kanagawa, Japan under Hiroyuki Yamashiro. Currently competing at lightweight, he is the former ZST welterweight champion who has been fighting exclusively at lightweight over the last 2+ years. He has won seven-straight with four first round finishes in that run and will likely be fighting for the vacant lightweight title very soon.
This is just a handful of the strong talent making a name for themselves over in Japan. If you have the time, I highly suggest clicking around on the hyper-links throughout the piece. They will lead you to pages dedicated to specific gyms producing this great Japanese talent, where you will find even more great fighters to watch. This list is not in order, this is just a list of people who I consider great prospects fighting in Japan.