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Kron Gracie versus Erson Yamamoto 

and other Fights

Rizin 1

December 29 and December 31, 2015

Saitama, Japan

Rizin Fighting Federation is a new organization in Japan whose objective is to resurrect the fighting arts as a form of popular entertainment and source of income for fighters and promoters, managers,  and everyone else involved. In other words, all of the usual reasons. If successful it will be welcome news for anyone who trains or teaches any martial art in Japan, among other places, because these events are primarily what drive enrollments and retention of students.

The inaugural events took place on Tuesday December 29 and Thursday December 31 (Japan times) and were broadcast free on channel 8. The scheduling was intended to allow fighters participating in the tournament sub-event to recover from their elimination matches. The finals were held on Thursday. Fights were presented so as to provide a little of something for all tastes, including K-1 (Muay Thai without clinch and elbows), shoot boxing, and MMA, known in Japan as 総合格闘技 [sougoukakutougi]. Some relatively new faces were introduced. Some veterans were dusted off. Former super-stars came out of retirement, in some cases successfully, in others disastrously. People who had no business going anywhere near a ring were somehow induced to defy common sense and their own physical well-being to do precisely that. Money perhaps? It's been known to motivate people to do things that they shouldn't do, so why not? Several retired sumo wrestlers made appearances and were among the surprises of the event.  A former Olympic judo champion found that judo without a 道着 [dougi] and with punches is not easy. Two representatives of the legendary Brazilian jiu-jitsu family, Rickson and Kron Gracie showed up, one to fight, one to lend moral support, reminisce, be on display for the benefit of adoring fans, and probably, to provide symbolic continuity between the glory days of Japanese kakutougi and its (hopefully) bright shining rebirth.

So how did it go? 

Results were mixed. Among the highlights, low-points, educational examples, and object lessons were the following.

Satoshi Ishiii, 2008 Beijing Olympic heavyweight gold medallist, was eliminated in the tournament by Jiri Prochazka. Ishii, as his gold medal attests, is undoubtedly an excellent judoka. He has the weight to contend. But he is short. In boxing, shortness can be compensated by style. Ishii might have tried emulating short boxers like Rocky Marciano, Joe Frazier, Mike Tyson, even David Tua. The key is to approach from oblique angles, get inside and nullify the opponent's longer reach, and throw hooks (although Rocky and Mike also had serviceable jabs). It's harder when kicks, knees, and grappling are involved, but still doable. The bigger problem (apart from the fact that Ishii's boxing skills are not at a high level) was the lack of gi. Judo and wrestling are not that different, according to Gene Lebell. The main point of departure is the cloth, or rather, the grips. It's a small difference that however makes a big difference in the ring when punches are added. Ishii was a better grappler than his opponent but it didn't matter. His opponent didn't need to try to out-grapple Ishii. He only needed to prevent Ishii from out-grappling him. Defense is easier than offense. Ishii got knocked out. The Japanese fans did  not seem particularly upset. That's what happens when you get hit. Judo is judo, judo is not sougoukakutougi. And everything is difficult in life, especially for a man [男は辛いよ].

As Sakuraba Kazushi can confirm. Sakuraba retired in 2011 at the age of 43 after losing to Yan Cabral. He then returned to pro-wrestling (specifically, to 新日本プロレス), where he had gotten his professional start (in Giant Baba's UWF), typically playing the role of hero against the heel, often played by former Pancrase fighter Suzuki Minoru. Unfortunately real fighting is a young man's game and at 47, Sakuraba is not young. His knees are so shot that he can barely walk. His opponent on Tuesday December 29 was former judoka Aoki Shinya. Aoki is also good at both jiu-jitsu and no gi grappling. In his prime it would have been an easy payday for Sak but that was then and this was now. Aoki got a quick take-down and stayed on top throughout, pummeling Sak's face. Sak tried twice to turn over and (possibly) snake, shrimp, or bridge out, but without functioning knees, it was a fool's errand. He never should have signed that contract. The referee let the beating go on. Sak refused to tap out (warriors go out on their shields). Aoki chastised the referee for not stepping in sooner but part of the responsibility for the debacle was Aoki's. He could have tried to make it more of a grappling match, showcase his jiu-jitsu skills. Instead it was just ugly. Ironically, it probably earned Sak even more fans. Japanese people love noble losers and warriors who refuse to quit. If there is any bright side to this fight it is that Sak will probably never again try to engage in a real fight. Unfortunately, fighters who need money, and Sak is one, will continue to fight as long as anyone will pay them. Hopefully no one will pay Sak to fight again.

Another former sumo wrestler, holding the very respectable rank of ouzeki (the second rank after yokozuna), named Baruto fought Peter Aerts, a former K-1 champion now well into middle age. GTR's initial prediction was that Aerts, even at 45 and with a bad back, would easily dispose of Baruto, if Baruto tried to exchange punches and kicks with Aerts. But if Baruto was the beneficiary of wise coaching, he might try to rush Aerts and drive him into the canvas, stay on top, and basically never get off. But there was also another angle. Many foreign sumo wrestlers from Eastern Europe have previous wrestling backgrounds. Baruto, from Estonia, did. He was also a judoka and used his judo to put Aerts on the ground (the ring announcer called his technique an ashi-gaki). He did exactly what Randy Couture did to Vitor Belfort in the first and third fights, which was to immediately get underhooks and never give them up. Randy liked double underhooks. Baruto liked one underhook with a collar tie. It was highly effective. Aerts could have and should have avoided this tactic by using lateral movement (Muhammad Ali), but sticking and moving was never Aerts' style and he was too old to adapt. The upside is that Aerts will return to retirement but Baruto, by virtue of his relative youth, good physical conditioning, and exemplary performance, will undoubtedly receive future Rizin contracts. His size and skills will serve him well.

Akebono (Chad Rowen), a retired yokozuna, is the highest ranking sumo wrestler currently participating in MMA (and also pro wrestling). He is also probably the worst, with a record of one win and 12 losses, including a KO loss to Bob Sapp.  The December 31 match was a rematch with Sapp. Akebono wanted to rehabilitate his wounded pride after his previous ignominious defeat. Sapp is not a highly skilled fighter but he has had the advantage of good boxing coaching, and after all, he did beat Ernesto Hoost twice, something that not many fighters have accomplished.

It was expected that Akebono would collapse after the first punch landed on his head. It was a surprise when that didn't happen. Someone taught Akebono the most basic skill of boxing--keep your hands up, in front of your face (whenever the opponent is close enough to punch), along with another important rule--clinch when you start getting hit too much. Akebono did both of these and as a result avoided a second humiliating KO loss. He lost on decision, but he looked relatively good doing it--relative to his previous performances. He made a sincere effort and didn't complain, and Japanese fans appreciate fighters who make sincere efforts and don't complain. Bob and Akebono are two more fighters who should never get into a ring again, other than to wish someone good luck.

Mighty Mo (Muhammad Lawal) ended up as winner of the tournament and looked impressive. A wrestler who can punch straight will always be a formidable foe (as would a boxer who can sprawl). In 2011 Mighty Mo Knocked out Roger Gracie who unwisely chose to exchange punches. Not the smart thing to do, as both Royce and Rickson Gracie said. Roger, it was rumored, wanted to show off his boxing skills. So much for that. "The day that I try to box with a boxer is the day that I will lose," Roger's uncle Rickson once said. Whether he was right or wrong we'll never know, but it is a fact that he said it (read it here). He was Rickson.

Jiu-jitsu representative Gabi Garcia, from Brazil, beat Lei'D Tapa, who hails from the island nation of Tonga. Tongans are tough people, as Lei'D Tapa showed when she flattened Gabi with the first punch of the fight. But Brazilians are tough too and Gabi survived. After some ineffectual flailing and stumbling around from both contenders, Gabi accidentally landed a weak backhand to Lei'D's face, knocking her down (although "knock down" implies too much) and somehow attained a mounted position from which she dropped powderpuff punches on the clueless Lei'D. It was a fight devoid of athletic or artistic merit and was the closest thing to a genuine real fight (in the "street" sense) on offer that evening. Gabi is a good jiu-jitsu fighter, no doubt, but no jiu-jitsu was in evidence in this fight. The positive point is that she won, cashed a nice check, both of which will probably encourage more Brazilians to train and fight, which is good.

Fedor Emelienenko retired on a three fight winning streak in 2012. He reemerged to fight Singh Jaideep. Jaideep had a kickboxing record of 40 wins and 10 losses so he was not just some guy off the street, but his MMA experience was limited. He was out of his depth with a sambo master like Fedor, who punches with bad intentions. The only surprise was that Fedor was in excellent condition and that was a surprise only because so many retired fighters unretire and climb into the ring without being in good condition.  

The high point of the two day affair was the Kron Gracie versus Erson Yamamoto. Erson is a wrestler and the nephew of Kid Yamamoto. Like Kid, Erson trained Muay Thai as well. It was not going to be solely a grappling contest.

Both athletes appeared to be in superb physical condition. Erson initiated the hostilities with a right uppercut. Kron tried a punch of his own but, being the son of Rickson Gracie, it was not likely that he was going to defy Ricksonian logic and try to box with a boxer, even though Erson wasn't really a boxer. But Kron didn't know how accurately or how hard Erson could punch (after all, Erson's uncle surprised the kickboxing world by almost defeating Masato in a K-1 match). Anyone can get knocked out and the Gracies in particular don't like getting punched in the face, according to Kron's uncle Rorion. Kron probably knew that taking a good wrestler, which Erson was, down would be hard. But by mixing punches in, it would be less hard, although still risky. 

Kron did the smart thing and jumped guard, bringing Erson to the ground. Kron strategically placed his hand under Erson's knee and when they hit the mat, Kron turned Erson on his back, with Erson's arm under control. So at this point, early on, Kron had Erson's arm and knee controlled and went for the famous "Gracie jiu-jitsu armlock." The crowd erupted. It looked like it was all over. But Erson did what most wrestlers would do (or try to), and precisely what Kim Yamamoto did when Bibiano Fernandes had him in the same position. Namely, he executed a reverse bridge and walk-out (or for lack of a better label, a "hitch hiker" escape). It worked, as it often does, especially without the gi. Kron scrambled and took a cem quilos, or side-control position. From there he went for the mounted position, but a bit incautiously. Erson bridged and reversed. Kron applied a triangle choke with Erson's right arm inside but not quite adequately positioned, whereupon Erson pulled back and out. 

They stood up. Kron took an upper-body clinch and with a leg hook took Erson back to the floor, on top with side-control again. Again Kron tried to mount and again Erson bridged and turned. This time Kron partially took Erson's back but Erson managed to complete the turn and was back in Kron's guard. Kron reapplied his triangle. Erson pulled back but not enough to get out. Kron changed his guard briefly to a low guard but quickly went back up high and seized Erson's left arm. 

This time the triangle was on tight. Erson attempted a last ditch escape that often works (it is illegal in judo and BJJ competitions for that reason), which is to stand up (if possible) and slam the man down hard, breaking the triangle apart. The announcer's commented called this a "basta" probably meaning "bate estaca" (a slamming stack). Unfortunately for Erson but fortunately for everyone else, the bate estaca didn't work because Kron broke the impact with his right arm and maintained the pressure. Erson almost immediately tapped out and afterwards left the ring in tears. 

The reason it was fortunate was that now there is a new Gracie in town and a new rival for the Japanese to try to beat, but no one around capable of doing the beating. Therefore everyone is going to need to get to the dojo or academy and start training seriously, all of which means more interest, more excitement, more fans, more students, and more money for everyone in the game and business.

2016 is off to a promising start. Stay tuned.

**

(C) 2016, Roberto Pedreira. All rights reserved.

Slightly revised September 26, 2016.

See Rizin 2, Kron Gracie vs. Hideo Tokoro, and other match-ups here.

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