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Nobuyuki Sakakibara discusses Rizin FF plans for 2016, Fedor Emelianenko’s opponent, drug testing and more

Leonardo Fabri, Jungle Fight

Former PRIDE head Nobuyuki Sakakibara returns to the MMA world in December as the president of Rizin Fighting Federation, and detailed some of his plans for the future in his recent trip to Brazil.

The Japanese promoter, who visited Sao Paulo to watch Jungle Fight 82 on Saturday, discussed several topics with the local media, including the return of former PRIDE heavyweight champion Fedor Emelianenko.

According to Sakakibara, the promotion will officially announce Emelianenko’s opponents in the coming days.

"We have many names, but we will only decide that in 10 days, at most," Sakakibara told the media Saturday. "It’s been hard to choose because we have to live up to the expectation around Fedor’s debut in the event, so the opponent needs to have a good name to make it an attractive fight."

Sakakibara revealed he also reached out to other PRIDE veterans, but couldn’t get a deal done yet.

"We had other names in mine like Wanderlei Silva and Mirko Cro Cop, fighters that did well in PRIDE, but Fedor was the only one who had no contracts stopping him," he said. "The Japanese audience would be really excited with the return of Wanderlei Silva as they are with Fedor, but Wanderlei still has a contract with the UFC. If he gets free of this contract, we will speak with him, absolutely. I would be the first to call him.

"I want for Rizin every fighter that shined in PRIDE. We reached out to some of them, like (Ricardo) Arona, but he said he has a knee injury and has no timetable for his return."

Royce Gracie, Ken Shamrock and other legends of the sport could also return to action in the future, according to the Japanese promoter.

"We think about doing a master class soon," Sakakibara said. "It would be a category over 45 years, to give a chance to those who want to fight. You see Dan Henderson fighting in a high level at 45. I met Royce Gracie in the United States and he said he’s ready to fight. Ken Shamrock is also interested. We can do Wallid (Ismail) against Royce Gracie, for an example."

Jungle Fight president Wallid Ismail, who tapped Gracie in a jiu-jitsu match in 1998 and hasn’t fought in mixed martial arts in 13 years, quickly responded to the idea. "Write the check," he said with a laugh.

Rizin FF was created to put on fights that fans want to see, Sakakibara explains, and that’s why they won’t worry about weight divisions that much. Shinya Aoki vs. Kazushi Sakuraba, booked for Dec. 29 in Japan, is one example.

"My personal opinion is that athletes today don’t fight because of a few kilos," he said. "Because of two or three kilos, we can’t book a fight that could be very interesting. For Japanese, who have judo and sumo, athletes that are used to weight and absolute, it’s kind of weird for a fighter to worry about two or three kilos.

"We want to change this mentality. Fans are missing many great fights, like (Cris) Cyborg and Ronda (Rousey), because of a little difference in weight. We can say examples here like Fedor and Hong Man Choi, ‘Minotauro’ and (Bob) Sapp, that the smaller guy doesn't always lose. And people still get impressed watching those fights today. We won’t force anyone to fight, of course, but if the athlete wants to fight despite a few kilos, we will promote the fight. Of course, always respecting the safety of the fighters."

Rizin FF will promote two events in December, and plans to hold four shows in 2016. According to Sakakibara, fighters who compete in the event will be drug tested by an American company.

"We will do four events per years, at most," he said. "In 2016, we plan on doing two events in August and two more at the end of the year. The intention is to motivate the athlete to prepare to fight at Rizin, to create an excitement, like the World Cup of soccer, which happens every four years and people get excited to watch it.

"I respect the UFC, Lorenzo Fertitta and Dana White, but if they are big today it’s because they worked hard," he continued, "but I want to do something different, something that benefits both sides and makes MMA stronger."

The promotion has yet to unveil the ring where the fights will take place in December, but the events will use different rings this year.

"On the 29th, it’s going to be an event to remember PRIDE, exactly like that, the same ring. On the 31st, it’s going to be completely different, a different structure. It’s like a rite of passage," Sakakibara said. "It’s going to be a ring, but not a normal ring. It’s going to be something never seen before. We’re building it. It’s going to be a square, but everyone will be shocked. The show won’t lack anything compared to the old PRIDE."

Rizin FF has signed TV deals in Japan and United States, inking contracts with Fuji TV and Spike TV, respectively, and is currently under negotiations with Brazilian networks, Sakakibara said. They also plan on holding an event in Brazil in the future, but a trip to the United States wouldn’t be that easy since 10-minute rounds aren’t legal in the country.

"In a five-minute round, a fighter can stall for three minutes and attack on the last couple minutes. It’s hard to do that in a 10-minute round," Sakakibara said. "I’ve talked to jiu-jitsu fighters, and 10 minutes is better to take the fight to the ground, do transitions and submit. An athlete trying to avoid getting submitted would have to spend more energy, so the fight would be more interesting and dynamic."

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