It's a common refrain among fighters of the new generation: They grew up watching PRIDE, and now that they are professional mixed martial artists, they wished they had a chance to experience the whole Japanese big-fight experience they geeked out for as kids.
The big stage presentation. Fighting in a ring instead of a cage. Ten-minute opening rounds. Tactics like knees on the ground and soccer kicks legal. The whole nine yards.
For Daron Cruickshank, the PRIDE-style trappings have been more about necessity than getting to live out the days of yore. After parting ways with the UFC earlier this year, the "Detroit Superstar" was mostly concerned with getting right back into competition and getting back into the win column after a losing streak.
RIZIN, the spiritual heir to PRIDE, was the first to come calling when Cruickshank found himself a free agent. So when the lightweight competitor took his first fight in his new promotion -- while sporting a new mustache which looked like it was inspired by a vintage Don Frye -- Cruickshank wasn't really thinking about old-school PRIDE fandom.
Until he defeated Shinji Sasaki in his RIZIN debut on April 17 in Nagoya. And via soccer kick TKO in the first round, no less. Then he took a moment to ponder his surroundings.
"You get over there and you're really just thinking about the fight," Cruickshank told MMAFighting.com. "I came into that fight with a three-fight losing streak, and I was going over there and fighting in Japan for the first time. It was a lot to digest all at once. All I thought about was staying focused and getting my hand raised at the end.
"But then, I did get my hand raised, and all of a sudden they're giving me a trophy, and that's when you take a minute and go ‘oh yeah, this is pretty cool,'" Cruickshank continued. "If you grow up a fight fan, being a part that scene is actually a pretty cool feeling."
Such an attitude would continue to serve Cruickshank well as he gets set to return to Japan and make his second RIZIN appearance. While the first-round matchups in the openweight grand prix tournament have gotten the bulk of the attention on the Sept. 25 show at the Saitama Super Arena, Cruickhsank's matchup with Andy Souwer is worth a look.
To the uninitiated who might just be glancing at a lineup sheet, it's a 17-8 fighter in Cruickshank against an opponent with a 1-0 record. But this isn't your classic Japanese mismatch. The Netherlands' Souwer is one of the most decorated kickboxers of recent years, with 69 knockouts among his eye-popping 159 professional victories.
Cruickshank plans on showing Souwer's striking a healthy dose of respect -- but only to a point.
"Of course the man can strike, I'd be a fool to pretend otherwise," Cruickshank said. "But this is an MMA fight. He's in my house. It's not just as simple as being more well-rounded on the ground, either. A kickboxer's standup is different than the standup you employ in an MMA fight. It's not easy as to make that change as people who don't know might think. I'm a finisher and I'm not going to be afraid to go in there and stand with him."
And with that, Cruickshank hopes to build on the momentum from his last fight. The meeting with Souwer is the second of a three-fight, non-exclusive deal he signed with RIZIN. The way Cruickshank sees it, if 2015 was one of the tougher years of his career, then 2016 is the year he learns his lessons and grows as a fighter.
"I'm older and wiser now," Cruickshank said. "I'm not the young kid anymore. Last couple years in the UFC I fought like I was still an up-and-coming kid and I made too many mistakes. My attitude has been changed and I want the fans to know they haven't seen the last of me yet."