There were a lot of bumps in the road to get here, but we are finally getting the much-hyped Rizin Bantamweight Grand Prix starting at Rizin 28 this weekend on June 13. The brackets include an eclectic selection of fighters and as a result many intriguing fights in the opening round. Part one of the bracket kicks off at the famed Tokyo Dome, where MMA hasn’t been put on for years. We will look at the matches and look at the fighter’s strengths and weaknesses and potential keys to victory.
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Hiromasa Ougikubo vs Takeshi Kasugai
Hiromasa Ougikubo (21-5-2) is a familiar face to fans of MMA. The former TUF finalist has made a name for himself for his exciting energy and tenacity in his fights. Even at the age of 34, there is no evidence of him slowing down. He doesn’t usually finish his fights but when he wins, it’s usually by dragging his opponents through deep waters with numerous takedowns and enough striking to wear them down. This could potentially be his last time to have an opportunity to get a championship shot. He failed in his attempt last year when he fought against then-champion Kai Asakura.
Takeshi Kasugai (26-7-1, 1 NC) might be the least well-known fighter in the tournament but he’s not coming in to lose. Kasugai has many notable wins including being the first fighter to submit Yuki Motoya. He also has a win over Rizin regular Kazume Sone. He is mainly a grappler as he has finished most of his fights by RNC. This will be his first time on a big stage as he has mainly fought in Pancrase, Deep, and Road FC.
If you didn’t know this is a rematch. These two met in VTJ in 2014 at flyweight but now will be fighting at bantamweight. Ougikubo won by majority decision. While I couldn’t find any video footage of the footage by all accounts it was an incredible action-packed fight. Ougikubo is already going in there knowing he has a win over his opponent. That mental advantage is especially important in a tournament like this. Kasugai will have to go in not dwelling in his previous loss. This is a fresh, big opportunity for him to make a name for himself on the big stage. At least publically he seems to be mentally ready. He said during a press conference “I think it is destiny. I was meant to face Ougikubo in this tournament. I am going to get revenge in this fight.”
One big difference between the two fighters is the height discrepancy. Ougikubo is 5’3” while Kasugai is 5’8.” Kasugai is lanky and will have to use that long reach to stuff and block Ougikubo’s takedowns.
Very few fighters can match the energy and cardio that Ougikubo has. Even as the clock gets closer to the end of the fight, Ougikubo looks like he can still go another 10 rounds. In watching Kasugai’s fights, he’s a fighter that looks to finish fast. Hoping his opponent gets close so he can trip them and work his way in a submission. Kasugai will have to pick and choose his spots. If he tires himself out, that’s going to affect his ability to finish and give Ougikubo the ability to control the fight to a decision win.
Shintaro Ishiwatari vs Naoki Inoue
Out of all the fights in the opening round in the BW GP, this is the most high level and hardest to pick a winner.
Shintaro Ishiwatari (26-8-4) is a fighter who has been around the block for many years and already knows the rigors that come with a GP. The former King of Pancrase bantamweight champion was a finalist in the 2017 RIzin BW GP but lost to Kyoji Horiguchi. He also has connections to many of the fighters that are involved in this tournament including two wins over Takafumi Otsuka and Alan Yamaniha. Ishiwatari brings years of fighting experience that is practically unmatched in this GP.
Naoki Inoue (15-2) has perhaps had the most successful post-UFC runs. And he’s only 23! He is undefeated in RIZIN and has gotten two submission wins over fighters that are incredibly hard to submit. He’s managed to RNC both Yuki Motoya and Shooto Watanabe in the first round. In addition, his striking has looked great and much improved since going back to Japan to train at Sonic Squad. Inoue is one of the favorites to go far in this tournament.
As stated it’s very hard to pick a winner. Ishiwatari and Inoue are two high-level smart fighters who are incredibly well-rounded. We have seen that Inoue can destroy fighters at their own game. He managed to submit unsubmittable fighters such as Watanabe and Motoya. His game plan is for opponents to get too confident in their offensive and he uses that to work his way to grounding them and submitting them. Ishiwatari has only been submitted once in his career and that was by “The Korean Zombie” back in 2009.
For this fight, I can see Ishiwatari picking and choosing his shots. Let Inoue get close enough, but not too close. Stick and move and move. Inoue is very durable and has never been finished in his pro career so Ishiwatari finishing seems unlikely. Going to the ground would not be wise because while Ishiwatari is good at grappling, it’s not on Inoue’s level. His strength will be in the stand-up.
Inoue should look to do what he has done in his previous fights in Rizin. Get Ishiwatari down to the ground and work his submission game. He needs to bait Ishiwatari with his striking and look to work takedowns that way. Use the ring ropes to get close and look for throws and takedowns. I can’t see Inoue knocking out Ishiwatari so standing and banging with him would not be advised.
Yuki Motoya vs Ryo Okada
With this match, two veterans of the fight look for a big win.
Former Deep bantamweight champion Yuki Motoya (27-9, 1NC) is a fan favorite grappler. With Motoya you never what submission is planning to throw on. Whether it’s a quick guillotine choke or a leg scissors choke, he is always fun to watch hunt for the submission. Leave your neck open and you’ll be gasping for air. He is also a quick and fast striker.
Ryo Okada (17-4-3), the Shooto bantamweight champion and member of the Paraestra Chiba team, is on a seven-fight win streak. The heavy-handed fighter will be making his Rizin debut with this fight but has wins over two other competitors in the GP. He has a decision win over Takafumi Otsuka and handed Kazuma Kuramoto’s first pro loss.
You may not be too familiar with Okada but he is a fighter you shouldn’t ignore. He has lightning-fast powerful striking that can put down many opponents. That will be his strength. While Motoya is good at striking, it is not as backed with power as Okada’s. Okada will want to use powerful, fast shots to not only try to KO Motoya but also to keep Motoya at bay. Motoya will hunt for a takedown and Okada will need to keep that in the back of his mind.
Motoya is an incredibly crafty grappler and his submission game is strong. Okada has been submitted twice in his career by RNC. Motoya has a strong choke game and will need to use those tools to finish Okada. He will need to use speed to get a quick takedown on his opponent and drag him down to the ground. If Okada also tries to takedown Motoya, that will be an easy opening for him to submit him from there.
Kai Asakura vs Shooto Watanabe
We have a classic striker vs grappler clash here.
Former Rizin bantamweight champion Kai Asakura (16-3) is one of Rizin’s most popular fighters. Not only does he have a huge following on Youtube, but his name recognition among MMA fans skyrocketed when he knocked out then-champion Kyoji Horiguchi in a non-title match. Asakura is an incredibly well-rounded fighter but his strength is his striking which is quick and full of power.
Fighting Nexus bantamweight champion Shooto Watanabe (22-5-6, 1NC) is one of the best grapplers and submission artists in bantamweight MMA. His specialty is the RNC which he has finished 12 opponents with. Once he gets your back, he will fuse to your body like a conjoined twin and your only saving grace will be the bell to signify the end of the round.
For this fight, Watanabe and Asakura are going to need to rely on their respective strengths.
Watanabe is a wizard on the ground but his striking leaves little to be desired. And that is fine. He usually uses his striking to set up takedowns or waist lock his opponent so he can work to take their back. Watanabe should not look to engage with fisticuffs with Asakura or else he is liable to look up at the lights.
Asakura is having his first fight since losing the title to Horiguchi and is looking to rebound. But during that fight, Asakura’s lead leg took a lot of damage from Horiguchi’s low kicks. If that is a factor during this fight, he may not have the power. If he is 100% he will look to keep it standing to get that knockout of Watanabe. If he is not, he will not work that striking to weaken Watanabe so that it gets harder for him to grapple. Leg kicks should be minimal as if it gets caught that can lead to being taken down on the canvas.
Rizin 28 will be live June 13 2:30 am from the Tokyo Dome. You can watch shows with English commentary here on Live-Now.