In a way, Kleber Koike feels like he lives in a no man’s land. Born in Brazil and promoted as Japanese in his days as a KSW featherweight champion in Poland, Koike isn’t seen as Brazilian in his native country nor a Japanese in the country he calls home for 17 years.
Koike hopes to change it on New Year’s Eve, when he makes his RIZIN debut against Kyle Aguon in Saitama.
“I made my name for myself in Europe and I have good attention wherever I go there, and I hope to reach a new audience fighting in Japan now,” Koike said in an interview with MMA Fighting. “Many Brazilians are focused in fighting in Japan because it’s a dream for them. It’s different from fighting in Europe.”
Koike’s road to RIZIN wasn’t easy. The Sao Bernardo do Campo-native parted ways with KSW after losing a title fight to Mateusz Gamrot in December 2018, which likely halted his plans of signing with the UFC, or at least a spot on Dana White’s Contender Series.
Koike agreed to fighting at ONE Japan Series in 2019 and says that a victory would have earned a contract with ONE Championship. But the COVID-19 pandemic changed the company’s plans despite his first-round finish of Akiyo Nishiura. Away from the rings and cages for a long stretch, he finally found a new home in RIZIN.
“I was trying so hard to fight for RIZIN, had many conversations with them, but it was hard,” he said. “[Roberto] Satoshi helped me, and thank God I got in, but still had some barriers.
“Everyone that follows MMA knows I was a champion overseas, so they are afraid to fight me. The Japanese audience that only watches RIZIN don’t know who I am, so Japanese fighters said I was too tough and not popular enough, so [RIZIN] ended up giving me a foreigner. At the same time, it’s so cool that I’ll be making my debut at the New Year’s Eve show.”
Koike had the chance to compete for a long list of traditional Japanese promotions throughout his 31-fight career, but none had the importance of RIZIN. It all came full circle with Nobuyuki Sakakibara as his new “boss”; the Brazilian first got interested in MMA by watching jiu-jitsu specialists Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira and Antonio Rogerio Nogueira compete in PRIDE in the 2000’s.
“I started to understand more about PRIDE before I came to Japan, and then I knew jiu-jitsu because of the ‘Minotauro’ and ‘Minotouro,’” said Koike, who moved to Japan with his parents at age 14. “My family went to Tokyo for the New Year’s [in 2004] and we ended up watching Wanderlei [Silva] fight Mark Hunt. We got super sad. We were in a car in Tokyo, watching the event… PRIDE was over a few years later.”
Training judo as a child – and not walking away from street fights – was the closest Koike got to fighting before moving to Japan. Watching his countrymen perform inside the PRIDE ring convinced him to give it a try.
“I watched PRIDE and thought to myself, ‘These people are crazy, that’s awesome,’ but it’s like soccer: You always think you know it all, but won’t play well when it’s you there, under pressure,” he said. “It’s easy for us to judge from the couch. It’s easy to say they missed a punch, but I wanted to get in there and feel what it was like. That’s how I started.”
Koike “didn’t believe I would have a future in this” before he actually competed outside of Japan for the first time, but still wasn’t confident enough in his abilities that he would one day become champion. He never had the chance to enter an arena to watch a PRIDE show live as a fan, but vows to make RIZIN 26 special for those in attendance when he battles Aguon.
“I’m fighting a young kid, and he’s good,” said Koike, who thanks his “godfather,” PRIDE veteran Kazuo Misaki, for his guidance and support throughout his journey in the sport. “[Aguon’s] wrestling is OK, his boxing is OK, but my plan is to take him down and submit him. There’s no other way. That’s my style. I have so many submissions in my career and I’ll have one more. I respect everyone’s history, but I want to show my jiu-jitsu.
“I want to bring back what the Gracie family has done back in the PRIDE days, bring back what ‘Minotauro’ and ‘Minotouro’ have done, and score another submission and become champion.”
The Bonsai Jiu-Jitsu talent scored 21 of his 25 MMA wins by way of submission, including 10 triangle chokes, and looks up to former PRIDE and UFC heavyweight champion “Minotauro” Nogueira as inspiration.
“I believe in doing guard in MMA,” he said. “It’s kind of crazy, I know, and I’ve paid the price for that, but I really believe in jiu-jitsu. I always say you can’t fight MMA and only worry about attacking and not knowing how to defend yourself. I use the Gracie jiu-jitsu in my fights, the basics, self-defense, simply things that do work.
“It’s easy to point out 10, 20 good strikers, but it’s hard to name five good jiu-jitsu fighters in MMA. There are so few you can name those five with ease, like Demian Maia and Charles ‘do Bronx’ [Oliveira]. Many people have good jiu-jitsu and really take risks in MMA today.”