The Long Road to RIZIN 28, Part 1
a preview, of sorts
The poster for RIZIN 28 is an empty Martian-looking landscape with the mammoth Tokyo Dome appearing from behind rocky red cliffs. A comet streaks by in the sky. “We are back to the Tokyo Dome after 18 years,” it reads, referencing MMA’s first show in the venue since precursor promotion PRIDE’s last Tokyo Dome show in 2003. It’s evocative for sure, but it strikes me the image of Tokyo as a desolate wasteland in the midst of COVID-19 is not the most upbeat picture for JMMA’s big return, particularly given the severe limitations RIZIN will be facing in holding the show.
I’ve imagined being in the Tokyo Dome with 50,000 (famously quiet and well-behaved) MMA fans since I first watched grainy PRIDE videos liberated from LimeWire in the mid-aughts. Nothing matches the spectacle of those events: the fireworks and banging Taiko drums, the killer Hall of Fame lineup of fights and fighters.
More recently, in the no-MMA-time at the beginning of the pandemic, I went back and reviewed some of those old Tokyo Dome events and my nostalgia for PRIDE-era MMA was as strong as ever. The 2000 Grand Prix had Wanderlei Silva, Kazushi Sakuraba, Nobuhiko Takada, Guy Mezger, Mark Coleman, Gary Goodridge, Igor Vovchanchyn, Mark Kerr, and Royce Gracie for crying out loud; PRIDE 17 featured several of those guys, Shogun Hua, and Dan Henderson, along with Big Nog and Heath Herring in a fight that still looks technically great today. Those few years in Japan were without a doubt the peak of classic MMA and have never been matched in the country again.
I’ve seen a ONE Championship show in the classic Ryogoku Kokugikan sumo hall; I’ve seen RIZIN in Saitama Super Arena; I saw a fat Rampage Jackson fight an old Fedor Emelianenko at Bellator Japan, and the nostalgia kick was good, but imagine being there with the prime Rampage against Chuck Liddell (and a nerdy, skinny Dana White ringside) at PRIDE Final Conflict 2003 with an announced crowd of 67,000. I’ve seen some fights in Japan, but goddamn if I’ve ever experienced anything like the heights of the early aughts in the Tokyo Dome.
For all these reasons, when RIZIN started talking about doing a Tokyo Dome show I was stoked. It would be epic. The only fight that made sense was the long-desired showdown between kickboxing stars Tenshin Nasakawa and Takeru Segawa, which is probably the biggest fight in Japanese combat sports excluding Naoya Inoue. They’d have to get former UFC fighter and current RIZIN bantamweight champ Kyoji Horiguchi in there somewhere, along with the ever-popular Asakura brothers, Mikuru and Kai. They’d need some gaijin star-power and there were rumors of another Floyd Mayweather RIZIN appearance; he last expertly played the heel by whipping Tenshin’s ass on New Year’s Eve 2018.
They probably wouldn’t get 67,000 but it could be a respectable 35-40K at least. Then Tenshin and Takeru fizzled as it always does in a maze of politics and competing promotions. Old Man Mayweather looks about done after his latest exhibition against a YouTuber, and there’s a State of Emergency in Tokyo as COVID-19 continues to ravage the health care system of the most geriatric nation on Earth.
All of these life events left our once epic (imaginary) Tokyo Dome JMMA return whittled down to the better half of a way overstretched 16-man Bantamweight Grand Prix (without the champ) and very limited spectators (it was originally 5000, but now RIZIN is saying it will be around 10,000).
Five thousand… in Tokyo Dome. What’s even the fucking point? A couple of years ago (pre-pandemic) I went to see a Team USA baseball game in Tokyo Dome during the World Baseball Classic. There were maybe 1500 people there and the energy of the arena was in the negative. Each of us almost literally had our own section. A 1/10 capacity arena is definitely not my old-school crazy Yakuza-era PRIDE fantasy.
Pandemic-era RIZIN has been a mixed bag, understandably. I was thrilled when they came back for RIZIN 22 and 23, but I honestly didn’t want to attend live; COVID was still unknown scary at the time and I wasn’t ready to make the trek to Yokohama and be enclosed with a bunch of rando MMA fans. RIZIN 24 was a dud of a card; RIZIN 26 was great. RIZIN 25 was meh; RIZIN 27 was solid; both were out of town. The question remains: what will RIZIN 28 hold?
On paper, it looks pretty damn good. Shooto Watanabe vs. Kai Asakura and big brother Mikuru Asakura vs. Brazilian expat Kleber Koike Erbst was almost enough to get me there. But the announcement of a lightweight title fight between Tofiq Musayev and Roberto Souza, along with the triumphant return of Hiroshi Saito from his shock win over the elder Asakura (he’ll face Tofiq’s countryman Vugar Karamov), has me bought in. Former sumo wrestler Sudario Tsuyoshi’s got a legit fight, while Naoki Inoue continues his rise to stardom. There’s a weird gimmick fight for Tenshin Nasakawa that people seem to be into, while I really, really think he should just start boxing at this point. Whatever. I’m into it. I’m ready to go. I’m going. It may not be PRIDE 2003 but it’s the closest I’m going to get.
Despite the virus-filled air outside, the floating anxiety, and uneven past pandemic events, like Douglas Quaid in Total Recall, I’m ready to mask up and brave the Martian expanse of Bunkyo-ku, Tokyo. See you there.
Look out for Part 2 on Fight Pizza after the event. Subscribe for free to be notified when it posts.
RIZIN 28 will be available with English commentary for purchase on LIVE NOW. RIZIN fighter Damien Brown will be making his color commentary debut with stalwart Joe Ferraro.