The long road back for Kyoji Horiguchi comes to an end next month at Bellator 272.
In 2019, the former UFC standout was on top of the MMA world, holding gold simultaneously in two major promotions: RIZIN, in his native Japan, and Bellator MMA.
Then disaster struck. Horiguchi tore his ACL. After holding two major world titles, he was forced to vacate both in the span of a month. The timing could not have been worse; Horiguchi never even had the chance to defend either title.
Despite what could have been a career-ending setback, Kyoji Horiguchi never considered that his fighting days might be over. “No. I believe in myself. I didn’t think about retiring,” Horiguchi (29-3) told Cageside Press in a recent exclusive interview. “I believe in myself all the time.”
Horiguchi found some external motivation to spur on his recovery. “If I recover, then fans are excited, more than before,” he explained. “That’s my motivation.”
Mission accomplished. Last year, Horiguchi returned to the RIZIN ring, defeating Kai Asakura on New Year’s Eve to reclaim his old bantamweight title in that promotion. On December 3, he’ll look to do the same in the Bellator cage, against fellow former UFC fighter Sergio Pettis.
It’s a pairing Horiguchi says he gave some thought to back in the day. “Yeah of course I thought about fighting against Sergio Pettis,” Horiguchi admitted. As he would any other potential foe. “Always, same [weight class] guys have a chance to fight. So I’m always thinking about, looking at other fighters, opponents. Yeah, of course.”
He’s expecting a tough fight against Pettis, noting the Roufusport athlete is “a good fighter and good kickboxer. Good jiu-jitsu. He’s a really good fighter.”
Still, Horiguchi is laser-focused on reclaiming the gold he once held. If he can do it? The plan, if possible, it to reign over bantamweights in both RIZIN and Bellator. “I want to defend both belts,” said Horiguchi, before adding “but it’s hard, because that’s [Nobuyuki] Sakakibara and Scott Coker’s decision.”
One wrinkle could be Bellator’s next grand prix. Though not officially announced, all signs point towards a bantamweight grand prix kicking off sometime next year. It’s something Horiguchi is happy to take part in. “Of course, I want to fight everybody. I will show that I’m the best,” he said when asked about entering a tournament. “That’s why I want to fight [in the] grand prix; it doesn’t matter who the opponent is.”
Horiguchi is also hoping that Bellator can go back to Japan for another cross-promoted event as well, as they did in conjunction with RIZIN prior to the coronavirus pandemic— but again, he noted, that’s up to the promotion’s respective leadership.
Having lived in Florida for six years now, however, American Top Team’s Horiguchi added that “it doesn’t matter” where he fights. A “Fight is a fight. One man is one man,” he stated. “It doesn’t matter, anywhere.”
When he was training in Japan, Horiguchi admitted, “I didn’t have ground technique. When I lost to [Demetrious Johnson], then I moved to Florida. Right now, I’m a different fighter. A lot of wrestling, jiu-jitsu, getting better. Right now, I’ve become a good fighter.” The proof is in the pudding: since the loss to Johnson, Horiguchi is 14-1, having avenged that lone loss when he defeated Asakura last year.
As for what still drives him to compete, besides the title immediately in front of him, “my goal is to make MMA more popular in Japan,” said Horiguchi. The Japanese star noted that PRIDE, the now-defunct promotion beloved by many longtime MMA fans, was once as big as the UFC. “I want to expand the popularity of MMA. That’s my goal. Because I grew up always watching PRIDE. I want to go back to that time, like that time. That’s my dream.”
First, however, there’s Sergio Pettis to take care of. Horiguchi is confident he’ll be getting his hand raised next week. “I don’t know [how], but I will finish him. I will beat him up,” Horiguchi predicted. “It doesn’t matter what position— KO, submission. It doesn’t matter.”
Kyoji Horiguchi returns in the main event of Bellator 272 on Friday, December 3 at the Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, CT. The card airs live on Showtime in the U.S.