Upstart Japanese promotion Rizin Fighting Federation announced wrestling prodigy Asen Yamamoto (nee Sasaki) will be making his MMA debut at their inaugural New Year’s Eve card against Brazilian jiu-jitsu phenom Kron Gracie, who will make his sophomore appearance in the confines of MMA at 145lbs.
So far, much of the focus of Japan’s newest promotional power has been the signing of Fedor Emelianenko and a string of other stars including King Mo Lawal, BJJ behemoth Gabi Garcia, Shinya Aoki and Kazushi Sakuraba—with the latter fighters competing in a catchweight freakshow fight akin to the old days of PRIDE, Rizin’s ancestor of sorts.
For a while it looked like Rizin’s emphasis was to capitalize on the nostalgia factor for those yearning for “the good old days” of Japanese MMA. In fact, Rizin are even utilizing PRIDE’s old system of an initial ten minute round followed by two five minute rounds with the option of a tie-breaker if required. But, pitting two promising fighters against each other suggests otherwise.
It’s a tough start to life in the world of mixed martial arts for the new Yamamoto. Kron is well known as the son of legend Rickson Gracie and a masterful BJJ competitor in his own right: earning a gold medal in the 170lbs division at the ADCC Submission Wrestling World Championships in 2013. But, less is known about Yamamoto in the MMA world.
Just like his uncle Kid, Asen comes from a family with a long lineage of top-class wrestlers. The 19-year-old prospect himself has won wrestling gold in the 152lbs division at the FILA Cadet World Championships in Serbia against Turkish standout Serkan Akkoyun.
What is impressive in the above video is how many people in the Serbian audience were rooting for Yamamoto while competing against a fellow European. Were the Serbs cheering on Asen for his dogged determination and rough handling of Akkoyun? Perhaps. But, Asen has carved a name for himself in the European wrestling circuit by plying his trade in neighboring Hungary and is considered as one of the continent’s own.
Despite taking up MMA, Yamamoto harbors hopes of competing for Japan in the 2020 Summer Olympics and at 19 with some impressive accolades already to his name, that might not be such a far-fetched dream. This would be following family tradition as Asen’s grandfather—Ikuei Yamamoto—competed for his country in the 1972 Munich Olympics. Though the wrestling heritage enjoyed by Asen doesn’t stop there with his mother Miyu winning several world championships, his aunt Seiko winning four international titles—not to mention the fact his uncle Kid Yamamoto was a pretty handy grappler himself.
While this is a change of pace for Japanese MMA to be able to showcase two MMA prospects on the big stage. It does bear resemblance of the scene’s favorite family fights you’d associated with the series of battles between Sakuraba and the Gracies. However, the new Yamamoto carrying the family name tried to distance himself from this in the Rizin presser: “Spectators may just think that this is a fight between two families. But, for me, I don’t want to lose as a Japanese fighter, and as Asen. My plan is to beat him up and get my hand raised.”
Whether you’ll be watching it or not, this fight adds a whole new dimension to a fight card which is finally filling the New Year’s Eve MMA void the demise of the Japanese MMA scene left behind.
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