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RIZIN champion Kleber Koike: ’I lost a year of my life believing in the UFC’

Kleber Koike
Photo via RIZIN

Kleber Koike once dreamed of signing with the UFC, but that is no longer a goal for the RIZIN featherweight champion.

Back in 2017, when Koike clinched the KSW title and capped off an impressive 20-1-1 run over seven years competing in Asia and Europe, a UFC move felt like a foregone conclusion. However, after becoming a free agent following a KSW title loss to Mateusz Gamrot in 2018 did not lead to the UFC shot he was hoping for, Koike instead ended up in RIZIN. He promptly finished five straight opponents to take the 145-pound title away from Juntarou Ushiku.

Now set to face Bellator featherweight champion Patricio Pitbull in a non-title bout at the Bellator vs. RIZIN card this Saturday in Japan, Koike doesn’t care about one day competing inside the UFC octagon.

“Being in the UFC is only an option these days,” Koike said on this week’s episode of Trocação Franca. “I have what it takes to be in the UFC if I wanted to, but now I want to defend my organization, I want to build my legacy and my name. I lost a lot of time, I lost a year of my life believing in the UFC and expecting things from the UFC, but I understand it.

“I tried going to the UFC when my contract with KSW ended but they wouldn’t get me because I was coming off of a loss. I accepted it, I fought my fights and started winning again, and then they came with an offer. I refused it because of RIZIN. They came again [later], and now it’s only an option. I can say today that I didn’t want to be in the UFC.

“RIZIN took me in when I didn’t have a job, when I had nothing. RIZIN gave me an opportunity to come to Japan, so I don’t dream of being in the UFC [anymore]. It’s in the past. I have other dreams, like helping my organization grow and become more well-known. I want to show that that we have other champions in other organizations that can take the MMA further. Media focuses too much on the UFC.”

Koike returns to the ring to face Pitbull only two months after his title win over Ushiku.

He admitted that he would’ve rather have more time to prepare for such challenge, but that being said, it’s also an opportunity Koike simply wouldn’t let pass by.

“We know Pitbull is one of the best pound-for-pound fighters outside the UFC, I think he’s the best outside the UFC and would easily be top three, top five in the UFC,” Koike said. “We stay active all the time because we never know when an opportunity like that will come. It’s a unique opportunity to be fighting someone like that and show my work.”

Koike is on a seven-fight winning streak with seven submissions and expects a win over the Bellator champion to “put RIZIN and myself on the radar.”

Pitbull won decisions over A.J. McKee and Adam Borics in his most recent bouts under the Bellator banner in 2022.

“I believe I can put on a great fight and win,” Koike said. “Everybody talks about Pitbull being a knockout artist, but if you look at his record, he has more submissions than knockouts. He’s a well-rounded guy and that’s what I admire the most about him, but I believe in my work and my jiu-jitsu. The same way I know he’s coming to knock me out, I’m going for the submission. The same way I know I can’t make mistakes against him, he knows he can’t make mistakes against me on the ground.

“Even though he says he has a lot of submissions and his jiu-jitsu is aggressive, my jiu-jitsu is unique and I think I can surprise him. I respect him a lot, a fantastic fighter, but I want a better life for my family and for myself. I know that beating him puts me on another level as a fighter.”

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