At approximately 1:15am ET, the sound of the wadaiko, an oversized Japanese drum, could be heard on laptop screens and television sets around the world. Powerful red and green strobe lights crossed paths repeatedly while they circled the center of the arena. As the mesmerizing drumbeats reached a crescendo, the ceiling-high curtains strung up above the ring dropped to reveal Nobuhiko Takada clad in traditional samurai attire and positioned in front of an even larger wadaiko.
Everything thereafter was a reminder of a bygone decade.
Remarkably reminiscent of the PRIDE Shockwave 2005 show, Takada menacingly began to slam the drum to a rhythmic beat, while the voice of ‘Crazy Pride Lady' Lenne Hardt boomed through the speakers with thunderous clarity. As she named each individual fighter with her trademark shriek, they appeared on stage and proceeded to their position. Takada continued to casually undress as the fighters gathered on stage. Then, without warning, the camera was redirected to Takada's mawashi-clad behind. After all, how can we have the second coming of PRIDE FC without a semi-nude Takada?
As Takada addressed the crowd in his official role as General Manager, Rizin doused the proceedings in nostalgia and blasted the original PRIDE theme song into the arena. Audible cheers could be heard from the crowd, while those watching at home could hardly contain themselves on social media.
With their message heard loud and clear, Rizin kicked off its inaugural show.
As the lights dimmed down to signal the first pair of fighter entrances, a red beam shone down on each respective fighter as they rose to the top of the stage and walked down the ramp to the ring. James Thompson set the tone for his fight when he walked out to ‘Clubbed to Death' from the original Matrix soundtrack. Unfortunately for the towering Brit, that was likely the only impression he made on the Japanese crowd. While few thought he would lose to Tsuyoshi Kosaka, who hadn't fought professionally since Pride Total Elimination in 2006, the Japanese legend surprised many when he knocked the big man out in the second round.
Shortly thereafter, the first member of Team Fedor, Kirill Sidelnikov, walked to the ring with his Russian posse led by Fedor Emelianenko. Sidelnikov, who was dubbed ‘Baby Fedor' by the legendary heavyweight years back, outstruck Carlos Toyota - Jaideep Singh's second of two opponents in his MMA career - to score a KO win in the opening round. The Russians later outdid that performance when top prospect Anatoly Tokov bulldozed an unsuspecting A.J. Matthews in a matter of seconds. By the end of the night, Team Fedor was 4-0, all by knockout.
The event also featured a K-1 rules bout between Akiyo Nishiura and Hiroya Kawabe, as well as a mixed rules fight between Kazuyuki Miyata and Hinata Watanabe. Both fights were entertaining, if not entirely unnecessary. However, the most noticeable differences from an average MMA show were all rooted in the MMA rule set. Rizin Fighting Federation opted to enforce Pride's unique rules, which include a 10-minute opening round, no elbows to a grounded opponent, soccer kicks, and a judging criteria that focuses on the overall fight rather than a 10-point scoring system.
Given that 11 of the 14 fights ended in the first frame, the 10-minute opening round was certainly a welcome addition to the broadcast and helped distinguish Rizin from its international competitors.
Five of the aforementioned first round finishes took place in the opening round of the World Grand Prix tournament, which just so happened to offer a $300,000 prize to the victor. With impressive light-heavyweight prospects outside of the UFC's grasp, the Rizin Grand Prix was one of the shining portions of the entire night.
Unfortunately, there were numerous other cringe worthy moments sprinkled throughout the show.
During one of the smaller intermissions, we got a taste of the freak show aspect of MMA, when retired kickboxing legend Peter Aerts and former Estonian Sumo professional Baruto Kaido made their way to the ring. While only a minimal amount of the announcement was in English, it became clear that the 45-year-old Aerts was going to step in for Jerome Le Banner on two days notice.
"Mr. Sakakibara came to me with a big problem for Rizin. Jerome said ‘sorry, I won't fight,'"Aerts blared through the microphone. "[Sakakibara] asked me to help him and I want to help martial art in Japan a lot."
Baruto, who looked twice Aerts' size, stood next to his newly minted opponent with a wry smile across his face, clearly aware of the freak show fight that had turned in his favor.
And so began an all-too-common trend with Japanese MMA promotions: irresponsible booking that highlights a lack of care for the fighters involved.
That theme could not have been clearer during the perilous main event between Japanese legend and former PRIDE staple Kazushi Sakuraba and current ONE lightweight champion Shinya Aoki. The contest, a 78kg catchweight bout, became the single most depressing moment of the entire fight card.
Aoki, renowned for his sadistic style of fighting, opted to strike with the legend instead of submitting him as was expected. Aoki pounded the 46-year-old Sakuraba for the better part of the first round until the bloodthirsty referee mercifully stepped in to put an end to the lopsided affair. A crowd swarmed around Sakuraba to attend to his needs - a sight MMA fans have witnessed far too often over the past two decades - while Aoki watched over patiently.
Sakuraba was later forced to make the walk to the backstage area with his head held low, unable to look up at the crowd in attendance. It begged the question: was this all truly necessary?
In the end, Rizin Fighting Federation's inaugural show surpassed all expectations, even though the main event was anti-climatic and entirely unnecessary. Whether that is due to the exceptionally low bar set by the Fedor negotiations debacle, or simply due to the promotion's strategic application of nostalgic touches, Sakakibara and co. could not have asked for a more successful show.
However, does this mean Japanese MMA will finally emerge from the ashes? Unlikely.
Rizin's path to consistency and long-term success will be a difficult one. They are destined for the same fate as other Japanese promotions unless they continue to evolve and adapt to the changing MMA environment. If not, they will become nothing more than a novelty show that nostalgic fans tune in for every six months as a change of pace from their regular scheduled MMA viewing.
Your move, Rizin.