RIZIN’s Sakakibara Hopes Crossover with Bellator Start of New Movement in MMA

Along with Obon and Golden Week, New Years in Japan is among the three biggest national holidays — and MMA has become a New Year’s Eve tradition. So it’s no surprise to see arguably RIZIN’s biggest card to date arrive on December 31 this year, in a head-to-head showdown with Bellator MMA.

In an incredibly rare occurrence, two of the world’s largest MMA promotions are coming together not with a mishmash of names booked to ensure everyone leaves smelling like roses, but with the best against the best. Namely, RIZIN’s best against Bellator’s best.

It’s inspired. It’s practically unheard of. A.J. McKee faces RIZIN lightweight champ Roberto de Souza, a pair of fighters with just one loss each. Patricio Pitbull, Bellator’s featherweight champ, faces his RIZIN counterpart Kleber Koike.

Ex-Bellator bantamweight champ Juan Archuleta gets RIZIN’s Soo Chul Kim. Kyoji Horiguchi, representing Bellator despite fighting for both organizations simultaneously in recent years, has a trilogy fight with Hiromasa Ougikubo. Gadzhi Rabadanov faces RIZIN’s Koji Takeda to round out the main card.

These fights are not afterthoughts. They’re not gimmies either, with the closest perhaps being Horiguchi vs. Ougikubo, given the former Bellator (and RIZIN, let’s not forget) bantamweight champ has beat him twice already.

The situation is something RIZIN CEO Nobuyuki Sakakibara hopes to see more of moving forward.

“We don’t want this to be a one-time thing. We have no intention of making this into a one-off,” Sakakibara told Cageside Press during a virtual press conference on Tuesday, ahead of the massive New Year’s Eve show. “Obviously the top versus top is what everybody wants to see, and we’re hoping that this can be the beginning of a new movement in our industry, that we can start something new. Because you can only go so far when you’re doing the ranking system within your own promotion. And we do believe that serious competition amongst the promotions is the next step of what we need in our industry.”

“So with Scott [Coker, Bellator CEO], we’ve been talking about how to create this new action, new movement,” the RIZIN chief continued, touching on Coker’s idea that the next chapter featuring both promotions could come in the U.S. “I think it makes absolute sense that after this event, a successful event, that we take our Japanese athletes, our RIZIN athletes, and head over to the States and fight under the Bellator rules. It only makes sense.”

Coker earlier spoke to the quality of competition, and bringing out the big guns. “When we first started talking about this event, I really was thinking ‘okay, maybe we’ll send a couple of our top guys, a couple of our B-level guys, a couple of our C-level guys, and just bring a very mixed team.'” Sakakibara instead asked Coker to bring his best fighters. “I was surprised. I said ‘are you sure?’ and he said ‘yeah. Let’s do your best, and let’s get the best of the best fighting in Saitama Super Arena on New Year’s Eve. And that’s what we did.”

In years past, Bellator and RIZIN have worked together, notably in 2019. But the main event of Bellator 237 in Japan that year was Fedor Emelianenko vs. Rampage Jackson — two fighters with strong ties to Japan, but both under contract to Bellator at the time. Patricky Pitbull also joined RIZIN’s lightweight grand prix that year, but in more of an on-loan situation.

Bellator MMA vs. RIZIN has a very different feel to it, meanwhile. And at the very least, Bellator boss Coker is on board with a second cross-over event sometime next year, possibly on U.S. soil.

“Sakakibara and I talked about a two-fight event, because the next one has to be in a cage, and has to be under the Bellator rules,” Coker said on Tuesday. “Things can be different when the rules are different and the apparatus is different, and just coming into a different environment. Whether we do that here, in the U.S., or Japan, it hasn’t been figured out. I think Hawaii would be something that would be a lot of fun, maybe in the future we could do something there.”

Watch the full Bellator MMA vs. RIZIN press conference with Scott Coker and Nobuyuki Sakakibara above.