With no UFC card last weekend, and nothing scheduled for the organization this weekend, most of this week’s MMA headlines have been dedicated to one of two things: Bellator’s highly-anticipated collaboration with Glory, which goes down this Saturday on Spike TV, or Nick Diaz’s ridiculous 5-year suspension, which came courtesy of the shockingly incompetent Nevada Athletic Commission. Both of these stories are sturdily newsworthy, but at risk of beating a dead horse, it’s probably time to look ahead to other things, like the UFC’s looming return to Japan.
The Octagon is set to touch down inside the storied Saitama Super Arena on Saturday, September 26, with a solid night of fights. Headlined by a heavyweight scrap between Josh Barnett and Roy Nelson, and featuring fighters from Japan and the world over, it’s a card that is rich in compelling narratives. Of all the storylines woven into the event’s 12-fight lineup, however, perhaps none are quite as interesting as that of that of Tokyo-based fight team Krazy Bee, whose two most successful fighters are set to appear on the main card.
One of these fighters, of course, is team-founder Norifumi “Kid” Yamamoto who, at 38 years old has years of experience in MMA, kickboxing and wrestling to his name, and appears to be on the tail end of his illustrious career. The other is his star pupil, 24-year-old Kyoji Horiguchi, who is on the opposite end of his career. Despite being at very different stages of their fighting lives, however, these two Krazy Bee staples are united by a shared struggle: a fairly desperate need for a UFC win. Both men need a victory for different reasons, but the fact remains that both need one badly, and failure to produce one in Japan could have serious implications for their respective careers.
Let’s start with Kid, who is undoubtedly on thinner ice than his young protégé. Despite being a relative unknown amongst MMA’s casual fans, he was once considered one of the best fighters on the planet, thanks mostly to his wolfish aggression and the C-4 he carries in both fists. Unfortunately, by the time he made his debut in the UFC bantamweight division in early 2011, his competitive prime seemed to have come and gone. As a result, his first UFC bout saw him lose to Demetrious Johnson. Then, he stumbled against Darren Uyenoyama. Next came a loss to a hot-and-cold Vaughn Lee, and finally, after a three-year hiatus from competition, Kid’s comeback fight was cut short by an accidental eye-poke in a bout with Roman Salazar, which catches us up to the present.
For all his momentous accomplishments, the Japanese legend now stands at 0-3 with 1 no-contest in the UFC. Considering that many fighters have been released from the UFC for far less, all signs point to Kid being cut or encouraged to retire should he come up short in Japan next weekend. Unfortunately for the fading icon, he faces a stiff test in Matt Hobar: a talented, if inconsistent fighter very much capable of playing the spoiler.
Kid’s young training partner is in no less danger when he takes on Chico Camus in Japan. While it’s true that Horiguchi, who now sits at 15-2 overall, remains one of the best flyweights on earth, it’s going to be hard for the young fighter to bounce back from his last outing: a downright ass-kicking at the hands of current divisional champ Demetrious Johnson. The one-sidedness of this recent title loss means that Horiguchi has a tall task ahead if he ever wants to recapture our imagination as a deserving challenger for Johnson’s throne. If he ever hopes to achieve this, he needs to avoid a loss against Camus at all costs. Failure to do so, after all, would thrust him onto the first two-fight losing streak of his career and leave him stranded miles from a second title shot. Yes, just like his mentor, Horiguchi faces mountainous stakes in Japan.
Still, the two Japanese sluggers are not without advantages. In fact, they have many, even outside of their superhuman athleticism and fight-ending punching power. First and foremost is the support they’ll get from the Japanese fans in attendance at the arena; an intangible but invaluable edge for any fighter. Their second advantage arises from the fact that they will not have to travel for their looming bouts. The arena is just an hour’s commute from their gym; close enough that they could take public transit if they wanted. This is a real rarity for Japanese fighters, as the UFC does not generally touch down in their country more than once a year. Indeed, this time around, their opponents will be the ones traveling across the world to compete, and forced to contend with jetlag, unfamiliar food, a language barrier, and the typical struggles of being thrust into a different culture. And finally, Kid and Horiguchi’s third and most crucial advantage is their being in this one together. Teacher and student have been training side-by-side, pushing each other to the brink for hugely important fights on the same night, in the same city, on the same card. This is luxury the two fighters have never enjoyed before—not in the UFC, not on the regional circuit, not ever.
Yes, when the UFC lands in Japan on September 26, we’ll get Kid Yamamoto’s last stand, and Kyoji Horiguchi’s crucial attempt to bounce back on the same broadcast. Now, this obviously leaves the door open to a tragic night for Krazy Bee, but it could also turn out to be a perfect night for this fantastic Japanese camp. And if Kid and Horiguchi are able to capitalize on their advantages, that is the more likely outcome. Expect big things from two of Japan’s finest when the UFC returns to the country.
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