At a certain point -- who's to say when, but probably sometime between the lacy bunny lingerie and that gawky Saturday afternoon vacuuming excursion -- Rin Nakai the concept seemed to eclipse Rin Nakai the fighter. The 1,000-pound elephant in the room, the one whose twinkling tiara lay in uneasy contrast to the stone-face staring back into the camera, rested in the unanswered question of why exactly was Pancrase's ruling royalty engaging in awkward, semi-fetishistic but otherwise banal activities on the regular, rolling out oodles of softcore strangeness via the promotion's YouTube account each month like clockwork.
Skill became spectacle, and ultimately that was the point.
Women's mixed martial arts can be a tough enough sell here in America, where trailers for Ronda Rousey films squeeze between replays of Ronda Rousey fights, but only after checking out the latest Ronda Rousey sponsored gadget. (Did you know Ronda Rousey loves her dog Mochi and pie à la mode?)
So considering her role in the Japanese sporting ecosystem, where MMA gloriously peaked in the early aughts only to tumble down a void of unexpected inconsequence, maybe it makes sense when Nakai shrugs off the notion that coercion must have been at play. After all, is it that hard to believe she donned nothing but a towel and a few horned beetles as a means to simply draw attention to her abilities, attention which may have otherwise arrived in a slow trickle across the Atlantic rather than the constant stream to which she's grown accustomed?
"It definitely differs from what my boundaries would be," says Miesha Tate, the top-ranked contender who will welcome Nakai into the UFC's Octagon this weekend in Japan. "However I think that it's her best effort to get women's mixed martial arts noticed over here. It's probably her [attempt] at what I call the ‘something shiny effect.' Hey, look at me, look at how attractive I am, this and that to get the men's attention... and now watch me fight and see what a great fighter I am."
Ultimately, while Tate says it's "unfortunate" that assembling an archive of voyeur-esque online clips is what Nakai felt she had to do in order to gain recognition, Tate doesn't begrudge the 27-year-old's hustle, because hey, take a look around -- it must have worked in some capacity. Rarely are UFC newcomers given an opportunity as lucrative the one Nakai carries into UFC Fight Night 52: an instant shot against a top-three opponent, in what is effectively a home game for the native of Shikoku.
In many ways, the prospect of this contest is an awkward one for Tate, who last winter became an honorary member of the Rich Franklin Limbo Tour when she fell short against champion Ronda Rousey for a second time in as many tries. As Junior dos Santos and Urijah Faber will attest, number two can be the loneliest number of them all when first place appears half a world away and the only realistic outcomes are to maintain a status quo or topple back down the ladder.
"It's not anyone's fault but mine," says Tate, who nonetheless admits she was surprised to see the unranked Nakai's name on the dotted line. "It was my job to go out there and take the belt, and I didn't do that. I can't look at it any other way, but I have to find a way to continue to improve. If that's what it takes, if I have to ward off all the other contenders until I get another title shot, then that's what I have to do.
"The girl is 16-0. She's been beating people, she's finishing people, and she's been doing judo for a really long time, so I think [the UFC] feels like if she were to get through me, that they would have a great argument for (giving her) a title shot. She's 16-0, she also has a very strong judo background. No one has had that style match-up against the champion yet, so I think for them it's a win-win. If I beat someone with a similar style to Rousey, and I do it well, then it's definitely a step in the right direction.
"Fortunately for me, there aren't as many women competitors as there are men, so my job is a little bit easier," Tate goes on to acknowledge. "Plus the fact that, it's a little bit different than the men's division because nobody has been able to do hardly anything to Ronda. Nobody else has made it out of the first round, nobody has really presented much of a challenge or a threat besides me. And granted, I lost. But do the fans want to be entertained or not? At the end of the day, it was an entertaining fight, and it was probably one of the most entertaining of the entire year, so regardless of whether I win or lose, fans win every time."
In a perfect world, Tate says she'd run through Nakai, avenge her loss against Cat Zingano, then brush aside as many contenders as it took to earn her third opportunity at dethroning Rousey. It's a practical enough plan for the woman who's generally considered to be the second-most popular fighter in the division, although as Benson Henderson recently learned, the life of the nearly-but-not-quite-there is one fraught with peril, one where it only takes one shot, one slip-up to send you back to Start.
Tate nearly experienced that same sinking feeling this past April, when in her first post-Rousey fight she struggled mightily against Liz Carmouche before recollecting herself and stealing the final two rounds to snatch a close decision win, warding off those division-changing demons for the time being.
And when it comes down it, that consistency, more than any bizarre video controversy or questions of unmerited opportunity, is what she observes most when she stares across at Nakai and her curious attire.
"To get to 16 fights and beat everybody, never make a mistake, never get caught and never have an accident, that's impressive," says Tate. "She's flown under the radar a little bit, and I know her promotional videos are a little strange, but women's mixed martial arts has never taken off in Japan. People don't really care about it, and it's sad because they produce some of the best women's fighters. I think that was just her best efforts to try to get women's mixed martial arts on the map in her home country, and who am I say? I don't understand the cultural differences, and I really don't know kind of a road or life she's had to have to even get to this point, to be in the UFC. Maybe it's what she thought was really necessary to be recognized.
"But," continues Tate, "I know that no one is going to present the challenges that Ronda Rousey presents to me. I feel like having gone three rounds with Ronda, being the only female to ever get out of round one with her and actually giving her a little bit of a fight, that gives me confidence. I don't believe that Rin is going to be able to bring anything to the table that I'm unprepared for, or anything that I've never seen before. I've been fighting the best women in the world and that gives me confidence.
"She's a dangerous opponent, definitely not someone I want to take lightly. But with that being said, she's never fought anyone like me. And I really believe that."