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Missed Fists: Recommended viewing from Rizin’s year-end shows

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Gallery Photo: UFC 166 Fight Night Photos Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Welcome to the inaugural edition of Missed Fists where your two misfits Jed Meshew and Alexander K. Lee shine a light on fights from across the globe that may have been overlooked in these hectic times where it seems like there’s an MMA show every other day.

This week, we both selected fights from the year-end event of Japan’s Rizin Fighting Federation, which took place in the wee hours of the morning for most North Americans who were getting well rested for a night of New Year’s Eve debauchery.

Kyoji Horiguchi vs. Manel Kape

JM: Over the last couple of years, the UFC has let a lot of top talent - Ryan Bader, Phil Davis, and Rory MacDonald, to name a few – walk away from the organization in pursuit of greener pastures. But among the many curious personnel decisions made by the UFC, none is more puzzling than letting former flyweight title challenger Kyoji Horiguchi leave the UFC, and last weekend was a first-class example why.

Horiguchi, who competed at flyweight during the whole of his UFC run, had a stellar weekend to close out 2017, recording three stoppage wins to cruise through Rizin’s bantamweight Grand Prix. Of these wins, by far the most entertaining bout was his semifinal fight against Manel Kape.

AL: It’s worth noting that Kape set himself up as the villain of the tournament, getting into a weigh-in scuffle with the popular Ian McCall and just generally relishing the role of cocky upstart in the leadup to his clash with Horiguchi, who was clearly positioned as the crowd favorite.

JM: Not just the crowd favorite but the odds on favorite. Horiguchi was a massive favorite to win the whole tournament, and I know what you’re thinking: ‘If he was such a big favorite, why is him winning so impressive?’ Because he looked awesome doing it and he was competing a full division up from his optimal weight. Kape was clearly the bigger man in the cage but it didn’t matter. Horiguchi dominated the fight with explosive, leaping punches and perfectly-timed counters that dropped Kape multiple times.

Then, after receiving an inadvertent headbutt that seriously rocked him, Horiguchi did the smart thing and quickly took Kape down, tapping him out with an arm-triangle choke in short order. It was an all-around awesome performance that highlighted why people think he’s the man to rule the flyweight division when Demetrious Johnson eventually calls it quits.

AL: Vince McMahon couldn’t have booked Horiguichi’s run through the tournament any better.

JM: If you have the time, I recommend watching all three of Horiguchi’s fights from the Grand Prix – the other two will only take you a combined 9 minutes and 44 seconds – but if you can only watch one fight from the past two weeks, make it Horiguchi-Kape.

Also, if you’re in the mood to have your nostalgia strings given a good strumming, take 60 seconds out of your day to watch a *ahem* reinvigorated *ahem* Mirko Cro Cop obliterate 47-year-old Tsuyoshi Kosaka in a performance that looked like vintage Cro Cop and showcased why a lot of people are likening Rizin to Pride.

Takanori Gomi vs. Yusuke Yachi

AL: Did somebody say nostalgia? Well, I’ve got just the thing.

If seeing Cro Cop pick up his eighth (EIGHTH!) consecutive victory wasn’t enough for the “Pride Never Die” crowd, then they’ll be happy to know that the legendary Takanori Gomi also made an appearance on this card, his first time fighting for a Japanese promotion since 2009. I didn’t expect Gomi’s fight with Yusuke Yachi to be more than a brief trip down memory lane, but it somehow ended up producing one of the most thrilling rounds of 2017.

Unlike with Horiguchi, it’s doubtful that the UFC has any regret about letting Gomi walk last year. The 39-year-old lost his last five fights inside the Octagon, with only one of them lasting longer than half a round. His homecoming on Dec. 31 was undoubtedly cause for celebration, but even the most ardent fans of “The Fireball Kid” had to be skeptical that Gomi had anything left in the tank after seeing his UFC struggles.

JM: Skeptical is putting it gently. Gomi has one of the worst records in UFC history with four wins to nine losses. Were he anyone other than “The Fireball Kid” he would have been cut by them long ago but the reality is, Gomi isn’t “The Fireball Kid” and hasn’t been for many years. All signs pointed to Yachi, a sneaky good fighter, crushing him. I was pleasantly surprised with Gomi though! He didn’t look completely terrible!

AL: That is faint praise for a fighter that was considered to be one of the three best at 155 pounds during the mid-2000s. That said, seeing him fight for a promotion with echoes of Pride, it was almost as if he’d stepped out of a time capsule and the last decade of mediocrity was forgotten.

An emotional video package (a Rizin staple) highlighted Gomi’s epic return even more and his opponent Yachi approached the situation in the best possible way: He went in looking to take Gomi’s head off.

Whatever reverence Yachi had for the legend across from him, it didn’t stop him from starting the action with a wild flying kick. They proceeded to stand in the pocket, flinging hands at each other before Yachi secured a Thai clinch that he used to brutalize Gomi with knees. The fight was headed down familiar territory for Gomi, but he responded to the next clinch attempt by tenderizing Yachi’s body with right hands.

JM: You forgot the part after Gomi got smashed by knees where he rocked Yachi with one of those desperation haymakers that has basically become the entirety of his game at this point. I was losing my mind watching it happen! PRIDE NEVER DIE! GOMI’S BACK!!! BOOK THE BJ REMATCH!

AL: Jed’s reaction is a pretty accurate reflection of how the crowd was becoming unglued at that point in the match.

Yachi pulled guard and Gomi responded by continuing to drop bombs onto his ribcage. He threw with the reckless abandon of a fighter 15 years younger, to the point that he didn’t seem to care about Yachi’s telegraphed triangle attempt. He shrugged it off several times, but stubbornly remained in Yachi’s guard until he was eventually forced to tap out to a triangle choke.

Cue losing horn.

JM: We should ban grappling from MMA unless you’re Khabib or Demian Maia. Or if you’re fighting Francis Ngannou because making people stand up with him seems cruel.

AL: You joke, but we’re talking about Rizin here. That could be one of the stipulations for the inevitable Cro Cop-Gabi Garcia bout.

So we get another loss for Gomi in just barely over a half-round. However, this time it’s different. This time, a glimpse of that old Bushido spirit has left the crowd rapt with appreciation, not filled with gloom. Retirement seems to be the furthest thing from his mind, and Gomi uses his post-fight mic time to let people know that he’s ready to have a few beers to celebrate the New Year.

For one night at least, for better or for worse, The Fireball Kid lit up Saitama one more time.

JM: RIZIN NEVER DIE! (It’s totally going to die).

AL: For now, Rizin is very much alive and if you want to see this event yourself, you can purchase a stream of the replay over at FITE TV.

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