Here is the 2015 edition of Fighters to Watch For. Michinori Tanaka and Uruka Sasaki landed themselves a spot in a major organization (UFC) last year. There is, of course, a few new faces this time around and we have more fighters with clean records. How I evaluate is based upon who won against whom, but if a specific performance convinced me, I’ve done a more risky pick. I hope that, with this list, hardcore MMA fans will take note of who are JMMA's up-and-comers.
Motoya's 2014 was an active one and perfect for what he wanted. He avenged a loss against Tatsumitsu Wada and won his first international fight against former RFA champ Matt Manzanares. He used a variety of kicks to make his movements harder to read and his front kicks stopped Manzanares's pressure. Motoya is the most highly-touted rookie who remains in local Japanese promotions and he will soon move on to fight in a major organization.
Wada lost his DEEP flyweight strap against Motoya this past year, but his year-end performance against Ryuichi Miki defined him as a top-three Japanese flyweight. Wada is known for his boxing skills and often continuously jabs his opponents. Not only that, he avoided Miki's strike-takedown combinations and finished Miki with a rear-naked choke.
Ogikubo's year was all about winning the VTJ flyweight tournament. He had a competitive fight against Takeshi Kasugai, but after that he choked out Kana Hyatt and showed positional grappling superiority against Czar Sklavos. Ogikubo asked for a fight against Yuki Motoya, but his injury prevented the fight.
Ando signed with One FC and his wins against Rafael Nunes and Zorobabel Moreira both ended with finishes but in different ways. He choked Nunes and tapped him out, then fought a striking battle against the huge-framed Moreira. Ando forced Zoro to fight passively after pressuring him and, with Zoro’s mind weakened, Ando finished him with a body shot.
Nakahara's 2014 did not go well because he did not have an opportunity to fight. He was supposed to face Honggang Yao, but the fight was scrapped because Yao missed weight. When I think about Nakahara’s record and improvement curve, he remains here on this list.
Kato is not yet well-known, but he is the current HEAT middleweight champion and also a Daidojuku champion. HEAT is a Nagoya-based organization, so I haven't watched his fights yet, but from his record and quick finishing times he should be seen as at least a top-three Japanese middleweight. Another reason why I am interested in him is his Daidojuku skill. The first Japanese fighter in the UFC was Minoki Ichihara and he had no solution against Royce Gracie's grappling, but after all of these years of MMA evolution, perhaps Daidojuku can contribute to major MMA's style diversity? That's not a pure fighter evaluation, but I am interested in him for such a reason, too.
Ayaka's 2014 was about testing herself in a new division. She dominated former Jewels featherweight champ Naho Sugiyama in striking and on the ground, then fought and defeated Mei Yamaguchi. We can expect that she will soon fight in the U.S. since she did not participate in the DEEP Jewels featherweight GP, which is being held in her new division.
Mizuki's 2014 did not go how she had wanted. She missed weight in the finals of the DEEP Jewels lightweight GP and lost by DQ even though she submitted Emi Tomimatsu. She avenged her “loss” against Tomimatsu in her next fight to become Deep Jewels featherweight champion. Mizuki next fought Karolina Kowalkiewicz at Invicta FC 9, but her precision striking was not favored against Karolina's volume of strikes. She will begin 2015 against Alexa Grasso at Invicta FC 11. Mizuki is still only 20 years old, but she needs to develop more physical strength to give her precision striking more value.
Kanbe may not be expected to be on this list because he is so early in his career at 18 years old, but his dominance over opponents with his grappling made me convinced that he needed to be included here. Kanbe trains at Alliance Square and is a grappling-based prospect at the moment. His strong point is obviously his ground game, but we know that current fighters in major promotions can't rely too much upon grappling. Alliance Square’s coach, Tsuyoshi Kosaka, knows how to build MMA talent, so I think that Kanbe will develop considerable striking skills but I don't know how far he can go. I think we will someday see him challenge for a Pancrase title.
Ryohei Kurosawa vs Tateo Iino
Ryohei “Ken Asuka” Kurosawa
Kanbe is Pancrase's lightest weight prospect. I don't know if he will fight in the upper divisions in the future, but Shooto's lightest prospect is Ryohei Kurosawa. His nickname, “Ken Asuka,” is from Karate Manga. His style is karate, which he began training at age six, but what impressed me most was his sprawl against the takedowns of Ryuto Sawada, who is a top prospect.
Ando's career is too short yet, with only three fights so far, but he was a top-three wrestler in college. In his third bout, he beat Takahiro Ashida, who has 16 fights on his record and fought to a split decision against Miguel Torres. It shows Ando’s potential and what kind of athlete he is.
Ryuto Sawada vs Masayoshi Kato
Ryuto Sawada vs Masayoshi Kato
Big thanks to Robert Sargent (MMA Rising) for English editing.