“It is doubtful whether the Japanese people and the country as a whole can really be understood or appreciated by anyone without a degree of knowledge of their martial culture.”
-Donn F. Draeger

Japan’s martial arts history dates back to 23 B.C., when Nomi no Sukune claimed victory over Taima no Kehaya in the first sumo match on record. With a little imagination, we can still conjure up an image of these two warriors battling it out in some stone-crafted arena, and of the brutal liver kick that ended Kehaya’s life. In modern times, however, Japan’s glorious martial arts tradition has been stifled by periods of darkness, leading many to believe that the last samurai has indeed fallen. Yet the potential exists for the death of one age to usher in an even stronger one, ripe with new blood that does the ancient warriors of eons gone by justice.

Many mixed martial arts fans are already familiar with Kazuki Tokudome, Naho Sugiyama and Goiti Yamauchi, all of whom were recently added to major Western promotions. But these names represent only the first rays of sunlight from a new class of Japanese MMA fighters ready to shine across the globe. Countless others are waiting (and tussling) in the wings, many of whom already have potential breakthrough fights on tap.

Last weekend, 22-year old Michinori Tanaka defeated Caleb Vallotton at Pacific Xtreme Combat 36. In one of the scrappiest battles of recent memory, Tanaka used superior scrambling skills to maintain the advantage over Vallotton, and slickly assembled a mounted triangle choke in the second round to prompt the tapout. Relentless wrestling provides the foundation for Tanaka’s game, and evolving judo skills add to his arsenal. Now 7-0 with five submission victories, Tanaka is a legitimate threat in the bantamweight division.

This weekend’s big story is another bantamweight match-up, one between Japanese standouts Hiromasa Ogikubo and Kyoji Horiguchi at Shooto: 2nd Round 2013 (okay, this weekend’s other big story). Reigning champion Ogikubo will put his belt on the line for the first time against an ever-fierce Horiguchi in a showdown that has “Fight of the Year” potential.

Horiguchi, whose records sits at 9-1, is a next-generation karate practitioner, employing the discipline so completely that he was recently labeled “The Real Karate Kid”. The 5-foot-5 stand-up wizard comes from a renowned camp whose name could as well be adopted as his nickname—”Krazy Bee.” Horiguchi uses aggressive striking combinations to set up blitzes and brawls, constantly testing his opponent’s defenses for a weakness which will allow him to move in for the sting.

Although lacking technical wrestling defense, Horiguchi’s raw strength allows him to power out of compromising situations and resume his preferred game plan. He can even be seen dragging a determined wrestler across the cage to break free of a single-leg takedown attempt. Horiguchi’s sole defeat came at the hands of longtime Shooto gatekeeper Masakatsu Ueda, and he has since steadily climbed the bantamweight ranks. A recent victory over Ian Loveland at Vale Tudo Japan 2012 makes Kyoji Horiguchi one of the brightest spots on the prospect radar.

Hiromasa Ogikubo, who holds a career mark of 10-2, utilizes a different combat approach, starting from the clinch and working backwards to find his optimum striking range. In fact, he’s often content to control his opponent against the ropes and deliver a variety of crushing knees. At 5-foot-3, Ogikubo isn’t as rangy as Horiguchi, but when he sees an opening he doesn’t hesitate to go for the kill. The team Paraestro Matsudo fighter also adapts well to his opposition and uses sticky ground skills to get the job done when the stand-up isn’t going his way. Throw in some excellent takedown defense to complete a well-rounded game.

Considering this contrasting pair of explosive fighters, the Ogikubo-Horiguchi title affair is a match made in MMA heaven and the perfect fight to fuel a new era of Japanese mixed martial arts.

Also this weekend, Pancrase will continue the Japanese fighting spirit with over twenty scheduled bouts on its 246th numbered card. Most notably, lightweight prospect Isao Kobayashi will take on UFC, Pride and Strikeforce veteran Jorge Patino. Kobayashi is an exciting fighter known to instantly change the dynamic of a fight with what Joe Rogan would call “berserker mode.” The Sakaduchi Dojo fighter lulls his opponent into a point-trading affair and then suddenly explodes into a frenzy of lethal strikes. Kobayashi holds significant victories over Koji Oishi and the UFC’s Kazuki Tokudome, and needed only 16 seconds in his last outing to flatten Kenichiro Togashi. A brawling spirit and uninhibited risk-taking could earn Kobayashi the nickname “Japanese Zombie.”

Two additional prospect fights appear on this extensive Pancrase card: Takumi Nakayama meets Koji Oishi for the featherweight King of Pancrase title and Jon Shores battles fellow knockout artist Yojiro Uchimura, also at featherweight. Along with Oishi, who once fought Nick and Nate Diaz back-to-back, other veteran names like Shintaro Ishiwatari, Takenori Sato and Akihiro Murayama round out this powerhouse lineup for Pancrase.

Looking ahead to April, Road Fighting Championship will feature one of Japan’s most promising prospects in Takasuke Kume. “Da Jaguar” will tangle with Korea’s Yui Chul Nam in Road FC’s lightweight tournament finale. Similar to Kobayashi, Kume uses unorthodox stand-up techniques to break down his opponent, at which point he finds a sixth gear and—in a single motion—tosses his victim to the canvas and completes a submission (think: Tasmanian devil). Fighting out of the Alive camp with Hatsu Hioki, Kume has amassed a record of 15-1 and has forced the tapout from his last nine opponents. A word to the wise: protect your back.

May’s Pancrase 247 fight card will feature Japanese judoka Rin Nakai, who recently took the spotlight by becoming the first Queen of Pancrase. In a rematch with Danielle West, the 5-foot-1 Nakai used dominant wrestling skills to control a much bigger opponent throughout the fight and earn a unanimous decision victory. In other encounters, the Shooto Dojo Shikoku fighter has displayed excellent level changing, explosive striking and refined judo skills, making her a versatile contender in the women’s bantamweight division. Nakai will next meet knockout artist Brenda Gonzales in a non-title fight on May 19.

The average age of the fighters highlighted above is less than 25. Nearly all of them possess incredible strength for their respective sizes, as well as another attribute that’s too often underplayed in MMA: agility. This new wave of Japanese prospects moves well from any position in the cage with the ability to swiftly turn disadvantage into advantage. It’s a quality that Japan’s older-school fighters have often lacked and could be the wildcard that propels this next generation to the top.

When one thinks of Japan, the word “tradition” readily comes to mind. Being a double-edged sword, tradition can hold entire nations of people in the bondage of outdated and destructive ideologies. However, it can also preserve the honor and creative expression found in a country whose rich cultural heritage of fighting is designed not to oppress or destroy, but to elevate the spirit of mankind. Although not free of moments of misused violence, Japan still fits solidly into the latter description. And today, the Land of the Rising Sun can once again march into the martial arts arena waving a flag of valor and pride as a new generation of fighters resurrects the spirits of Nomi no Sukune and Taima no Kehaya, and carries on a tradition that began over two thousand years ago.

Arigatou Japan…may all your sons (and daughters) rise forever.

Photo: Kyoji Horiguchi (Taro Irei/Sherdog)

About The Author

Robby Collins

Robby Collins considers himself a johnny-come-lately to the sport of MMA. He was introduced to it less than three years ago but has since delved into the sport at all levels. As an aspiring fiction writer, Robby adapted his skills to promote his latest passion and landed with The MMA Corner by way of personal initiative and auspicious timing. Robby has dabbled in karate and wrestling, and is currently learning to kickbox.