Lindsey VanZandt strikes Rena Kubota at Bellator 222

Lindsey VanZandt will spend her final day of 2019 in enemy territory.

She will attempt to defeat Japan’s beloved striking specialist, Rena Kubota, for the second time this year on a stacked RIZIN 20 fight card.

It has only been six months since the 26-year-old’s first high profile encounter with Kubota. It came in a June showdown at Bellator 222 from Madison Square Garden. To many fans, the fight felt like a showcase for Kubota. The 28-year-old was already a household name among Japanese combat sports enthusiasts. Despite the bout only being her 11th under MMA rules, Kubota made her name as a highly decorated Shoot Boxing champion and a fan-favorite in Asia. This fight at “The World’s Most Famous Arena” felt like the perfect introduction to American MMA fans not familiar with her body of work.

When the American submitted Kubota in the first round, many fans and pundits alike considered the outcome a surprise and an upset. VanZandt and her team, however, did not share in this line of thought.

“It felt so good, I’ve been working so hard, and everybody thought I was going to lose except for my fight team,” VanZandt told John Hyon Ko of The Body Lock. “It was cool to get out there and show everyone what I’m made of, it literally went exactly according to the game plan. The fight could not have gone more perfect… I was very excited that I performed so well, especially at Madison Square Garden.”

Round two with RENA

The possibility of a rematch with Kubota came to “Damsel” in November, and contracts were signed in December. Both girls stayed active during the brief time between bouts. VanZandt went 1-1 under the Invicta FC banner, while Kubota won her only appearance since her loss to VanZandt. Rena finished Alexandra Alvare in 20 seconds at RIZIN 19. Alvare was 0-3 at the time, now 0-5, a fact that did not impress VanZandt.

“I didn’t see it, but I heard about it,” VanZandt said when asked if she had seen the fight. “The girl was, what, 0-3? Rena has how many fights? Come on. That wouldn’t happen in America, you know, with the athletic commission that we have. It would not happen. They would not allow it. I guess it’s fun to knock people out.”

In contrast, VanZandt’s bouts since have been vital learning lessons for her, particularly her August loss to Jessica Delboni at Invicta FC 36. The fight ended in a split decision. While VanZandt believed she had done enough to get the victory, particularly in the form of several close submission attacks, she also understands why the judges did not award her the win.

“It’s a frustrating fight for me. I was not myself at all, but I learned a lot from that fight. If I can’t get a submission off my back, I gotta get up, and I gotta get on top because some judges just don’t know jujitsu and control, and it looks bad in their eyes. I get it. That want more ground and pound or something.”

Lindsey VanZandt submits Rena Kubota at Bellator 222
Lindsey VanZandt submits Rena Kubota at Bellator 222 (Bellator MMA)


VanZandt believes she will once again edge Rena in the rematch. “Damsel” will enter the rematch with a game plan that is already proven to be successful, but this time it will be executed by an improved version of herself. The two fights she took since this past summer’s showdown helped her recognize some of the few mistakes she made in their first fight and adjust accordingly.

Never one to turn down a fight, VanZandt is, however, slightly perplexed as to why Rena would be willing to run it back so soon. She believes the Japanese native had little in the way of stopping her attack the first time, and six months will hardly be enough to formulate a game plan to change her fortune at RIZIN 20.

“She knows I’m going to take her down. She knew last time. It’s going to happen again. It’s the same game plan… I feel like in the six months since it happened, I’ve grown even more in my stand up and my ground game. I’ve gotten so much better. I think she should have waited a little longer for this rematch, but that’s on her, not me. I’m not going to say ‘yo girl; I think you should wait a little longer.’ I like the card. It’s in the new year. It can’t get much better or more fun than that. It’s a perfect way to start my year.”

An eye on the top

A second win over Rena propels VanZandt from underdog to one of the most desirable atomweights in the world. The possibilities are bountiful, but none may be more enticing than the promotion “Damsel” will be competing for on New Year’s Eve.

There is a limit to the options in the US for atomweights. For now, Bellator seems content with bringing in atomweights on a “per fight” basis. The UFC has shown no interest in creating the division. Invicta FC remains one of the only major US brands where a 105-pound woman could find stability.

The American MMA reluctance towards atomweights has opened doors for Asian promotions, stockpiling some of the best in the world at that weight. RIZIN is at the forefront, with RIZIN 20 featuring an atomweight title fight between Ayaka Hamasaki and Seo Hee Ham. VanZandt will have her eyes firmly fixed on this bout.

“Hell yeah,” VanZandt exclaimed when asked if she had an interest in the fight. “Hell yeah, I do! If I win in a really awesome way, I’m just gonna be like ‘yo, I want the winner.’ I might. We’ll see. It depends on if I get the dominant finish. I might be hyped!”

Whatever path VanZandt chooses to follow in terms of her future, the first step will begin on New Year’s Eve with a familiar foe.

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