When Rizin announced that Gabi Garcia would be facing the much smaller and much older Shinobu Kandori on their New Year’s Eve card, the news was met with a fair amount of suspicion, bemusement, and maybe even disgust.
Those reactions aren’t necessarily wrong, but it is, to a certain extent, a matter of perspective. If you’re a serious MMA fan, the matchup is likely cheap spectacle. If you’re well-versed in fair fights, pitting Garcia, a 31 year old, 6’1”, 210-pound MMA fighter and highly decorated BJJ star, against any 52-year-old, let alone one who stands at 5’7” and weighs 187 pounds, probably sounds downright unconscionable.
If you’re the 52-year-old international judo medalist-turned legendary pro wrestler- turned MMA fighter- turned longstanding politician in question, though, this borders on business as usual.
Shinobu Kandori began her combat career as a judoka in the early ‘80s, winning multiple national championships in Japan and earning a bronze medal in the women’s 66k division at the World Judo Championships in Vienna, Austria in 1984. The way she chose to capitalize on the success was almost unheard of for a successful fighter, especially a female fighter, at the time: she took up professional wrestling.
“Her legitimacy was uncommon for pro-wrestling and she was an instant superstar,” her Wrestling Scout entry states (the entry also chocks up her switch from amateur grappling to scripted fighting to her notorious stubbornness, for what it’s worth). With a combination of genuine competitive combat background and a sense of pro wrestling’s physical storytelling that’s still hard to find today, aside from the occasional Kurt Angle, Kandori quickly became a popular figure in JWP. But when she started developing concerns with the management at that promotion, she left with Rumi Kazama to form their own, called Ladies Legend Pro Wrestling, in 1992 (or 1993, depending on the source). “This new group with Kandori as their main star was a major factor in the series of interpromotional events that were the biggest women's wrestling events in history,” Wrestling Scout writes.
The biggest and most legendary of those interpromotional matches went down on April 2, 1993 when Kandori represented LLPW against Zenjo’s Akira Hokuto. The 30-minute bout was so bloody, so epic, and so gut-wrenching that it continues to inspire rapturous praise and breakdowns over a quarter of a century later. Voices of Wrestling’s JR Goldberg published a particularly philosophical take on the match, “Wiping Blood From A Face: Akira Hokuto vs Shinobu Kandori,” just last month.
As her promotion branched out into mixed martial arts tournaments, so too did Kandori. Debuting at the LLPW Ultimate L-1 Tournament held on July 18, 1995 in Tokyo, she easily scored victories over Liz Africano and Fleni Klee, both via rear naked choke, both within the first round, to earn a spot in the finals. While she put up an admirable fight against her opponent Svetlana Goundarenko, a super heavyweight Russian grappling dynamo, the size 100-plus pound size differential proved too much at the 5:55 mark of the first round. That was when Goundarenko handed Kandori her only loss with via neck crank.
Balancing real and “fake” fighting, Kandori continued to wrestler during her active MMA years, including this intestinal fortitude-demanding hardcore match against Megumi Kudo for Frontier Martial Arts Wrestling 1997:
On October 10, 1998, she was able to avenge her loss against Goundarenko in the main event of the LLPW Ultimate L-1 Challenge with a David vs Goliath-like submission win at 4:08.
Her final MMA match to date came two years later, on November 22, 2000 where she defeated Yumiko Hotta via armbar in the main event of LLPW L-1 2000: The Strongest Lady
In 2004, Kandori kicked off her political career with an unsuccessful run for the House of Councillors in Japan. She did win the LLPW Tag Team Championship for a brief period earlier in the year, though. In 2006 she traded wrestling for full time civic service when she joined the House of Councillors in the Diet.
And now, ten years into her new life as a politician and sixteen years since her last MMA fight, Kandori is preparing to step back into the cage when she takes on Garcia.
From most perspectives, this will seem like a questionable decision on her part. Given her past, though, she probably sees things a little differently.
Is it ill-advised to take on an elite athlete young enough to be your child and big enough to be your most infamous opponent’s child in a sanctioned fight (although Garcia will be cutting with the assistance of Cris Cyborg to get within 15lbs of Kandori’s weight come weigh-ins)? Perhaps. But for most of us not named Mick Foley, so are wrestling matches where the ropes are replaced with barbed wire.
And although Garcia was somewhat stunned and still seems to be a little amused by the spectacle surrounding her next fight, she’s also made it clear that she won’t be treating her victory like a done deal. “The last time I underestimated an opponent I lose, so I will never do that,” she recently told MMA Fighting. “I respect her history. I had losses to smaller girls in jiu-jitsu in the past, so I respect everyone.”
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