Here is the 2014 edition of Fighters to Watch For. Kyoji Horiguchi landed himself a spot in a major organization (UFC), but there are many newcomers on this year's list.
Tanaka's 2013 campaign involved winning a championship in Guam/Philippines promotion PXC and carefully developing his career. While fighters he has defeated have begun to land themselves positions in the UFC, Tanaka's coach Katsumura has a conservative plan for his career. I think he needs improvement in his striking, but his grappling is already top-level. Tanaka went to donate money to the Philippines embassy for victims of Haiyan and I am looking forward to his 2014 campaign.
Sasaki beat Wajyutsu Keisyukai mentor Tetsu Suzuki and took Shooto's Pacific rim title during his 2013 campaign, and he beat Naoya Uematsu in a grappling match. He has become Japanese MMA's best grappler in his weight class. I am curious about what will happen when he can't take opponents down. He struggled against Kota Onojima when he could not get him down. His 2014 campaign starts with a fight against Keisuke Fujiwara, who is ZST champ.
Ishiwatari's 2013 campaign did not go the way that he had wanted it to. He lost to Shooto champ and current UFC fighter Kyoji Horiguchi in the Japanese fight of the year and best comeback in Japanese local MMA history. His 2014 campaign begins with a title defense against Yo Saito, who is known as a guillotine specialist.
Inoue's 2013 campaign is best remembered for her first appearance in Invicta FC. She showed continuous improvement in her striking against Bec Hyatt. In that fight, she won clearly, but it wasn't a perfect game since she get overpowered in the clinch. After that, Inoue faced Emi Fujino, who has outstanding power for a Japanese female MMA fighter, but Fujino never got a chance to use that power. I saw drastic improvement in Inoue and I am looking forward to her next fight against Emi Tomimatsu.
In 2013, Ando was best known for becoming a champion for Legend FC. Not only that, but he became champ by defeating Jadamba Narantungalag, who is considered to be one of top talents in the Asian MMA scene. Their fight ended due to an unfortunate ankle injury when Jadamba's weight was only supported by his right leg and his ankle broke, but Ando's win is legit since he led the fight at that point. His 2014 campaign will decide how his new contract goes and hopefully he will fight again soon.
Nakahara's only fight in 2013 was against UFC veteran Marcos Vinicius Borges Pancini for Rebel FC. He finished Pancini, but I want to emphasize that his left body shot determined how the fight went. It's hard to land effective body blows in the lower weight classes.
Last year's Shooto Rookie tournament MVP was Paraestra Matsudo's Takaki Soya. 2012's MVP Masatsugu Sakaki, 2011's MVP Michinori Tanaka and 2010's MVP Kyoji Horiguchi are all still unbeaten in their professional MMA careers. Before entering the tournament, Soya won the East Japan Amateur Shoooto tournament and became the youngest professional Shooto fighter at age 17.
This year's rookie tournament's number of participants was reduced because of Shooto's policy change for non-Tokyo fighters who build their early careers in the regions where they live. That reduced regional promoters' expenses, but at the same time I can't say that this year's rookie tournament was the same as the previous three in terms of quality.
Still, I can say that Soya is a good finisher. I can't say that he'll become a local Japanese champ because bantamweight is the most crowded division in this country and the fighters he faced in the tournament aren't as good as the ones that Horiguchi and Tanaka faced in their tournaments. Shooto Rookie tournaments are still high quality and they bring about awareness of young talent like Soya.
DEEP Flyweights (Photo is Yuki Motoya)
I said last year that I was looking forward to the DEEP flyweights and Tatsumitsu Wada vs. Yuki Motoya was one of the best fights of 2013 in DEEP. Wada took down Shooto striker Haruo Ochi for a decision win. Former champ Yuki Motoya got a decision win over Pancrase champ Kiyotaka Shimizu. With those wins over rival organizations' champs and contenders, I feel that DEEP's most high-level weight class is flyweight.
Last year, one of the best upsets was Mikihito Yamagami's decision win over Mamoru Yamaguchi. Yamagami succeeded by continuously taking the back of Mamoru. Allowing back-takes is considered to be a primary fault in Mamoru's fighting style, but people did not expect that Yamagami would be able to exploit that so well. Yamagami used 2013 to build up his body for a new weight class and he will appear for Road FC this year.
SKILL MMA : Japanese MMA scene Fighter to watch out 2013
Big thanks to Robert Sargent (MMA Rising) for English editing.