Two Former Pride Stars Booked for Rizin's Openweight Grand Prix

Fightland Blog

By Tom Taylor

Photo by Mike Roach/Zuffa LLC

We haven’t heard much from Rizin Fighting Federation, the Japanese promotion helmed by former Pride boss Nobuyuki Sakakibara, since their last show went down in mid-April. As it turns out, however, the organization plans to close out 2016 in the biggest way possible, by promoting a 16-man, openweight grand prix—an exciting throwback that harks right back to the Pride days.

The first round of this tournament will go down on September 25 at Saitama Super Arena in Saitama, Japan, while the quarterfinals will occur on December 29, and the semis and finals will both go down New Years Eve.

At this stage, just a few of the tournament’s 16 competitors have been announced. The names that have been announced, however, are big ones.

One such name is Mirko 'Cro Cop’ Filipovic, who is one of the most recognizable fighters from Pride’s heyday. When we last saw the Croatian striker, he made good on a late-career UFC return, defeating Gabriel Gonzaga with a beautiful onslaught of elbows. Unfortunately, Cro Cop’s return to relevance was quickly deflated by a banned substance bust—a crime he took full responsibility for. At the moment, the legend’s resulting suspension will keep him from competing on US soil. He can, however, compete overseas, where he is well outside the jurisdiction of the UFC’s anti-doping partner, USADA.

Cro Cop will be joined in the tournament by another Pride legend and former UFC fighter, Wanderlei “The Axe Murderer” Silva. Just like Cro Cop, Silva’s recent career has been marred by controversy. After a memorable defeat of the famously durable Brian Stann, the Brazilian brawler blatantly dodged a random drug test, and was released from the UFC during the chaos that followed. The Nevada State Athletic Commission then handed Silva a lifelong ban for his crimes, though that sentence was later reduced to a much fairer three years. Though Silva’s suspension also still stands, he too can technically compete outside the sway of the Nevada Athletic Commission—hence his involvement in this Japanese tourney.

Both Silva and Cro Cop are expected to be given byes in the tournament’s first round, meaning they won’t compete until the quarterfinals on December 29.

Also confirmed for the tournament are former pro wrestler and Pride fighter Kazuyuki Fujita and sumo export Kaido Hoovelson, who will fight each other in the opening round.

Fujita, who is now 45-years-old, is currently on a 5-fight losing-streak, having not tasted victory since a 2008 defeat of kickboxing vet Peter Graham. The Japanese veteran last appeared during Rizin’s April show, when he was knocked out by Czech prospect Jiri Prochazka.

Hoovelson, who is better known by the nickname “Baruto,” was last seen on New Years Eve, when he smothered “The Dutch Lumberjack” Peter Aerts en route to a successful MMA debut. Despite his inexperience, Baruto’s youth and size (he’s 6’6 and almost 370 pounds) should make him an interesting entrant into this tournament.

With four fighters confirmed for the tournament, we can expect twelve more tournament competitors to be announced sometime between now and September. And while that leaves us with little choice but to speculate for the moment, there do appear to be some likely candidates as far as other tournament entrants go.

One such candidate is Quinton “Rampage” Jackson who, like Cro Cop and Silva, was a staple of the Pride days. Sakakibara expressed interest in Rampage’s enrollment in the tournament shortly after the Pride veteran defeated Satoshi Ishii at Bellator Dynamite 2 in late June. Though Rampage is currently under contract with Bellator—which is the result of a lengthy custody battle with the UFC—Rizin and Bellator’s partnership makes Rampage’s involvement in the tournament a very real possibility.

Rizin could also target Russian legend Fedor Emelianenko for the tournament. Emelianenko has competed under the Rizin banner once before, and though his recent defeat of Fabio Maldonado, which was later changed to a draw, proved he is a shell of the fighter he once was, he remains a fighter with sizable drawing power. While the Russian’s future currently looks shakier than ever, don’t be surprised if he’s yanked back into the fray for a scrap amongst some fellow Pride legends.

Muhammed “King Mo” Lawal is another possible tournament competitor. Having blown through Rizin’s inaugural grand prix back in December, he’s got some history with the organization. And though he’s spent most of his career in the 205-pound light heavyweight division, he’s made no secret of his urge to fight at “moneyweight”—that is, which ever weight class is home to the biggest, most lucrative fights.

Finally, Rizin could also call upon light heavyweight prospects like the aforementioned Jiri Prochazka, as well as Lithuania’s Teodoras Aukstuolis to take part in the tournament. Both fighters competed in the organization’s 2015 tournament, and both have since scored additional wins—albeit over less-than-stellar competition—under the Rizin banner. As such, both seem like likely candidates for this massive tournament.

All this to say, there seems to be a real chance that Rizin caps off this year with a fairly massive mixed martial arts event; one that could feature Pride veterans, relevant talents, and rising prospects alike. Though the continued success of the rather circus-like Japanese organization is far from a forgone conclusion, they seem poised to make some serious noise on the international MMA circuit in the months to come.


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