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Wrestling breakdown: U23 World champion Rinya Nakamura announces transition to MMA

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A 25-year-old wrestling standout will be crossing over to mixed martial arts.

Emperor’s Cup All Japan Wrestling Championships - Day 3 Photo by Matt Roberts/Getty Images

After two decades of competitive wrestling, Rinya Nakamura of Japan is leaving his career on the mats behind. In a recent short statement delivered on Instagram, the 25-year-old announced that he was retiring from competitive wrestling and had started training in an MMA gym. And that while he was disappointed to not have reached the Olympic stage, he was looking forward to starting his upcoming mixed martial arts career.

His decision came soon after International Olympic Committee senior member Dick Pound announced that the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo would be significantly postponed.

Competing at the Olympic weight class of 65 kg, the odds were already against Nakamura. To make the team for Japan, he would have to defeat 2018 World champion Takuto Otoguro—one of the top five best wrestlers in the world today.

Otoguro last defeated Nakamura in the Japanese National Championship finals back in December. Nakamura took bronze at Japanese Nationals in 2018 after losing to Otoguro for the first time at the senior level.

In terms of training, the Japanese scene has plenty of options for the young Nakamura. According to RIZIN correspondent and Asian MMA expert Mike Skytte, Nakamura has connections to the KRAZY BEE gym through three-time World champion Miyu Yamamoto, sister of the late Norifumi ‘Kid’ Yamamoto.

Nakamura’s profile picture on Instagram is with Team Alpha Male founder Urijah Faber. The Sacramento-based camp has a branch in Osaka and has been the stateside host for Japanese talent in the UFC like Teruto Ishihara and Michinori Tanaka. That could mean an avenue for a move to the United States for Nakamura.

Having competed at both 61 and 65 kg, fans could expect Nakamura to fight at either bantamweight or featherweight. To best capture Nakamura’s wrestling style and how that might translate to MMA, let’s take a look at his gold medal run.


2017 U23 World Wrestling Championship (Bydgoszcz, Poland)

Nakamura had limited experience against the world’s best heading into U23 Worlds. After earning a bronze medal at the 2011 Cadet World Championship, it took until the 2017 senior World championships at 61 kg for Nakamura to really make a splash.

In the first round he defeated the Moldovan Andrei Perpelita 7-3. The European veteran has been solid on the continental scene for over 15 years, collecting medals at top competitions like the European Championship and Waclaw Ziolkowski memorial.

Unfortunately, Nakamura ran into three-time World champion and Olympic bronze medalist Haji Aliyev in the very next match. He fell 10-1, but Aliyev went on to reach the finals—pulling Nakamura back into repechage in the process. From there he crushed two journeymen in Alibek Osmonov and Mykola Bolotnjuk to make it to the bronze medal bout.

However, his run ended there at the hands of the Cuban dynamo, Yowlys Bonne Rodriguez. Just three months later, Nakamura entered U23 Worlds, seeking redemption.

1/8 Final: Rinya NAKAMURA (JPN) df. Gabriel JANATSCH (AUT)

Against the overmatched Janatsch, Nakamura was a buzzsaw. Much like his domestic rival Takuto Otoguro, Nakamura thrives when he can get to his physical snapdown game.

While Otoguro prefers to stay tight off those snaps and take short angles for leg attacks, Nakamura is a quick, explosive athlete who prefers to run his offense from the outside. This bodes well for a career in MMA.

Nakamura’s game is fairly straightforward. He’s going to engage in physical hand-fighting, snapping hard as often as he can. If he can get his man snapped to the mat, he’s looking to run his feet, pass the head and arms and hit a go-behind, preferably straight into a gut wrench.

However, not every opponent is content to be bullied in this fashion. Attempting to resist, they’ll hold strong position and posture back up into their stance after each heavy snap. But that tactic just plays directly into Nakamura’s smooth, bursting leg attacks.

As his opponent builds back up, Nakamura not only times their rise, but he fakes back to the head in order to draw the hands high.

In this case Janatsch stayed in a three-point stance, which makes a straight-on double difficult, but Nakamura keenly identified the window for a high-C entry to the lead leg.

Finishing low on the legs, Nakamura laced up Janatsch for the technical fall.

Quarterfinal: Rinya NAKAMURA (JPN) df. Husein SHAKHBANAU (BLR)

Formerly Shakhbanov of Russia, Husein “Shakhbanau” appeared to be a promising prospect after finishing with a silver medal at the 2011 Cadet World Championship. At the senior level he earned a high profile bronze finish at the Ramzan Kadyrov Cup in 2013, but has not medaled since. However, the fact that Shakhbanov reached the bronze match at competitions like the Intercontinental Cup and Golden Grand Prix shows he can compete with the best seniors at 61 kg.

A consistent theme with Russian wrestlers is solid positioning. It’s difficult to break them from a defensively responsible stance or cut an angle. They tend to stay focused on matching their opponent’s level and maintaining appropriate distance while preventing competitors from gaining a dominant tie.

Nakamura’s usual approach of bullying in the hand-fight to set up his leg attacks would need some tweaking.

To get to Shakhbanov’s legs, the key was timing. Nakamura’s attempt to snap down and establish controlling ties was still threatening enough that the Russian was forced to meet each tie-up with respect. When Nakamura reached out, Shakhbanov matched him.

So, after establishing that threat, Nakamura was able to reach to draw out the hands, then disappear for his leg attacks.

On top, Nakamura showed off a technique common in folkstyle or collegiate wrestling, but relatively rare in freestyle—the bar arm tilt. Contextualizing for MMA, the physicality he displayed in securing the arm across the back is encouraging, as was his urgency in transitioning to his next move after gaining a dominant position.

Shakhbanov’s own offense came from low leg attacks off of Nakamura’s stalking motion. To constantly snap down and shoot with power requires a lower, wider stance. Shakhbanov capitalized on these openings, but Nakamura’s chest wrap counters helped him maintain the lead for a 10-4 win.

Semifinal: Rinya NAKAMURA (JPN) df. Islam DUDAEV (RUS)

The semifinals brought a steep increase in competition.

Russia’s Dudaev was five months removed from a Russian Nationals bronze medal finish. On the way, he defeated Ivan Yarygin champion Rustam Ampar, Dmitri Korkin medalist and Buryatia Cup champion Bayar Tsyrenov, and two-time Intercontinental Cup medalist Shamil Omarov. His only loss was to Viktor Rassadin, a man with several high finishes at Russian Nationals and countless medals at tournaments like the Ivan Yarygin Grand Prix and Dmitri Korkin.

On paper, Dudaev was one of the toughest tests of Nakamura’s career thus far.

Looking to mix up his offense, Nakamura hit a short arm drag, swinging to the outside single as he moved the Russian. Dudaev was able to kick back and sprawl, quickly attacking a head-in-the-hole go-behind from front headlock.

Nakamura circled with Dudaev and kept control of the main attacking arm, preventing any serious progress.

Breaking out another new look, Nakamura next attacked by hitting a swing single to his right by quickly breaking off from a loose hand-fight. The shot was smooth and Nakamura worked himself to a dominant angle, but the time it took to build back up to his base allowed Dudaev to fight hands and kick out.

Dudaev wasn’t interested in allowing Nakamura to continue testing out attacks, and he took the initiative. Faking to the head, Dudaev dropped for a low head inside single. However, Nakamura’s eyes were open, he saw the shot coming and immediately flexed back and fed hips to Dudaev, locking through the crotch to discourage him from building up.

Not long after, Dudaev went to the well again, dropping to a low shot off the head. This was far too predictable to work on an athlete of Nakamura’s caliber. He sprawled quickly enough that he was able to turn in and kick his leg free, pull the ankle and go-behind to rear standing, swinging Dudaev back down to the mat.

Using the unique leg lace we saw against Janatsch, Nakamura stuck his head between the legs of Dudaev and pinched them together, rolling through for exposures. It may look odd, but the head inside gave Nakamura greater control of Dudaev’s positioning, allowing for turns even without a full secured lace.

In the most dangerous matchup of his career, Nakamura finished off his foe 10-0 in the first period.

Dudaev went on to win the prestigious Ali Aliev tournament soon after, then took bronze at the 2018 U23 World Championship.

FINAL: Rinya NAKAMURA (JPN) df. Kuat AMIRTAYEV (KAZ)

Compared to Nakamura, Kazakhstan’s Amirtayev came through the easy side of the bracket, in terms of credentials.

Amirtayev himself only had an Alexander Medved Prizes bronze medal to show for himself, an honor he earned two months prior. However, that didn’t mean he couldn’t test the Japanese wrestler.

Having seen Nakamura’s run to the finals, Amirtayev worked hard to stifle offensive opportunities. He avoided any committed tie-ups, but more importantly he actively level changed on the outside, even dropping into a three-point stance to attempt to close off any openings for explosive attacks.

But, as Nakamura has shown, it’s nearly impossible to completely shut out his entries. As soon as Amirtayev stood static in a higher stance for one moment, Nakamura cleared the gap and cracked down on his high-C. Again considering how his techniques might transfer to an MMA context, Nakamura evades the chest wrap counter by passing the legs and getting off to the side, much like he would to avoid counter chokes from front headlock.

Nakamura added wrinkles to his usual game, snapping off the hands and shooting misdirection singles for this match—coming in straight before angling off to the outside. While Nakamura’s entries are exceptional, he does sometimes struggle to finish through tough positions when his opponents counter with crotch locks or chest wraps. If he ends up flat and extended, there is a chance he’ll give up exposure points while trying to finish.

Otherwise, he looked phenomenal. When Amirtayev did attack, Nakamura responded instantly and countered with speed and efficiency, getting right to his signature leg lace. To end the match, Nakamura showed off his mat wrestling. He peeled Amirtayev off the ground, put a boot in to take away a post, then arched to that same side for a gut wrench.

12-2, technical fall. Nakamura outscored his opponents 33-6 on his way to a U23 World title.

Moving forward, be sure to keep an eye on Rinya Nakamura. I could see his athletic style and preferred wrestling attacks translating extremely well to mixed martial arts, under the right guidance.