There isn’t just one reason why Kyoji Horiguchi opted to sign with Rizin FF when his UFC contract was up in 2016. There are a host of them.
The “most important” of those reasons will manifest itself in a big way this weekend. Horiguchi will headline Rizin 13 against Tenshin Nasukawa in a kickboxing match in front of more than 10,000 fans at Saitama Super Arena. Tickets sold so well that the venue had to open up the second level and now Rizin is expecting closer to 20,000 in attendance.
“I have fans in Japan and I can now show my fights live in front of them,” Horiguchi told MMA Fighting in a recent interview through an interpreter.
Horiguchi, 27, has become a bonafide star in his home country — a main-event fighter, rather than just another cog in the UFC wheel. The American Top Team athlete has won seven straight since leaving the UFC, where he was an elite flyweight. Horiguchi has finished five of those victories and raised his profile, becoming a highly sought-after star.
The kickboxing fight with Nasukawa, a 20-year-old blue-chipper, was supposed to end up being the finals of a Rizin tournament in December. But the matchup was in such demand that the promotion just put it together right away. Horiguchi figured it would be good for Japanese combat sports if he ventured into Nasukawa’s style of kickboxing for this premier bout.
“The fighting business in Japan is not like it used to be, like in the Pride age,” Horiguchi said. “People are looking forward to seeing big matches, like with Tenshin and myself. This will help the fighting business and fighting fans to take a step back toward the Pride age. That’s the reason why I decided to jump into his area.”
Horiguchi, who is 25-2 in MMA, has other reasons for leaving the UFC. He wanted to fight again in front of his master, Hirou Nihei, who was ill for years and died recently. Horiguchi wanted to keep active — he only fought about twice a year in the UFC. In Rizin, he will fought eight times since April 2017 after this weekend.
Of course, there is a financial element to Horiguchi going to Rizin, too. He laughed when asked about how much money he was making now compared to in the UFC.
“From my point of view, I would say that Rizin gave me a very fair offer compared to the UFC,” Horiguchi said.
Horiguchi said he would consider a return to the UFC “depending on what kind of match they could offer to me.” He fought for the UFC flyweight title in 2015, falling to Demetrious Johnson by fifth-round submission. Overall, Horiguchi went 7-1 in the UFC and he said he believes he is the best flyweight in the world, gaining confidence after moving his camp to American Top Team.
Horiguchi said he was somewhat surprised that Henry Cejudo beat the previously dominant Johnson at UFC 227 last month, but after watching the fight he understood how Cejudo won. Unlike many, Horiguchi doesn’t believe Johnson should get an immediate rematch.
“Because the ticket sales are not there,” Horiguchi said. “It would be a big challenge for the UFC to get him [to fight again for the belt]. He’s a great fighter, but doesn’t have such a big popularity. People are not really excited to watch him.”
In Japan, it seems like fans are very excited to watch Horiguchi. It is likely to an emotional week. Kid Yamamoto, Horiguchi’s idol and former trainer, died almost two weeks ago. Horiguchi said he was already planning on honoring Yamamoto in the fight against Nasukawa after seeing his physical condition as a result of cancer.
In some ways, Horiguchi has taken the baton from Yamamoto as an exciting, headlining Japanese talent in the lower weight classes. He is not in the Yamamoto realm yet in terms of popularity — “Kid” was like a rock star in the mid-aughts — but there is clearly growing stardom for Horiguchi, as this weekend will attest.
That’s one of the things on the list of why Horiguchi is in Rizin now and not the UFC. He gets to fight in front of his home country fans, make more money, get more fights and — it is the hope — help bring Japanese combat sports back to prominence.
“That’s what I want to do and that’s what I want to see happen soon,” Horiguchi said.