The favorite, an examination of Kai Asakura before RIZIN 33 Bantamweight Grand Prix 1

One of the earliest staples in the world of MMA was PRIDE FC’s annual New Years’ Eve event card, which brought fans legendary fights like Mark Hunt vs. Cro Cop and Fedor Emelianenko vs. Big Nog. The loss of the yearly tradition was one of the larger blows to MMA fans when PRIDE FC was disbanded in the late 2000s. However, in 2015, the president of PRIDE, Nobuyuki Sakakibara began a new organization. RIZIN Fighting Federation kicked off the promotion with a two-day event culminating on NYE. Since then RIZIN has held their new year’s card every year without fail and continued PRIDE’s legacy. This year the card will play as the host for the final installment of the RIZIN Bantamweight Grand Prix between some of the sport’s best 135-pound fighters in the world.

Of the four fighters who have so far made their way through the tournament, one stands out. Kai Asakura is the former RIZIN bantamweight champion and the heavy favorite since entering the tournament in June. He holds notable wins over fellow ex-RIZIN champions, Kyoji Horiguchi and Manel Kape, both of whom take up two of his only three losses in return. While these two have left Rizin, Asakura has remained searching for a new rival to match his talents, and with two more fights, this week fans will get to see if he has found one.

Growing up, Asakura was reportedly a troubled youth. He and his brother often got into street fights and after starting Karate in elementary school, the two boys were also enrolled in boxing classes as teenagers. By his third year of high school, MMA was the prevailing career path for Kai and his brother and they followed through full throttle.

After completing an 8-2 amateur record in 2014, Asakura was ready to test himself in the professional leagues. Running through competition in his first eight fights, the Japanese prospect had won in organizations, DEEP, Road FC, and the Outsider, before losing to Jae Hoon Moon in his ninth pro bout. From there he was signed to RIZIN FF and would go on to become one of their biggest stars. Three fights into his RIZIN career including a win over Manel Kape, Asakura was granted a rematch with Moon, which he would make the most of, winning by unanimous decision. However the following test would be even bigger, Kyoji Horiguchi the RIZIN and Bellator champion in his return to Japan was expected to defeat Asakura. However, in an upset, Asakura knocked out Horiguchi in the first round.

By the end of the same year, 2019 Asakura was once again pitted up against Kape, this time coming out second, followed by two wins and a loss to his rival Horiguchi. This brings Asakaura to the Bantamweight Grand Prix, two wins, and a ticket to the semi-finals. As of now, while Asakura has three losses on his record, each one has gone 1-1 against Asakura who has defeated every name on his record.

However, the real question is what is it about Asakura’s unique fighting style that has brought him such success?

Kai Asakura Breakdown

Kai Asakura has a very straightforward game that he has sharpened to the point of almost perfection. He has a slim, tall frame for his weight and because of this, he makes full use of his reach when he fights. He primarily boxes from an orthodox stance, using long shots from all angles. While he mixes things up very well, his two best combinations are his basic jab cross and his right cross-left hook, which he constantly mixes by varying his targets between the head and body both ways.

Typically he does not punch in long elaborate flurries but emphasizes two or three shots with fast and laser-like accuracy. Even if he trades, within his sequences there are usually distinguishable punches that he clearly means to hurt his opponents with, and the killer instinct when he throws them is evident. It’s difficult to find anyone with such sharp punches. Overall this usually means that he isn’t going to keep pace with a fighter whose goal is to wear him down over the entirety of the fight, however, the danger in trading with him is that in every exchange there is a shot being expertly set up with lightning-fast KO power behind it.

For the most part, Asakura’s speed, accuracy, and technical prowess allow him to hold a comfortable striking advantage over most opponents. This results often in opponents dipping underneath his long upper body attacks, to either attempt to counter low or shoot for a takedown. This has allowed Asakura to develop a lethal knee game, particularly up the middle in order to intercept wrestlers as well as excellent takedown defense which he chains into soccer kicks very well on the break.

While Asakura has shown an ability to match those who push a battle of dynamic and exaggerated footwork like Horiguchi and Kape, given the choice he much prefers to walk his opponent down and put them in the corner of the ring. When Asakura is able to do so, he elects to use his jabbing hand to frame his opponents in the trapped corner and unload with his signature right cross and a digging liver hook from his left, all while maintaining his preferred range and waiting on the opportunity to draw the knee down the middle.

In terms of grappling is where holes start to arise in Asakura’s approach. He has incredible takedown defense and submission defense and does not accept bottom position almost every time in a scramble. He is also able to posture and use his length to generate a lot of power during ground and pound, however, these two strengths are essentially as far as it goes. Asakura does not have much of an offensive grappling game, his guard is for the purpose of minimizing damage and getting up, and his top game while used occasionally for fundamental control doesn’t usually amount to much. His best scrambles are for the purpose of escaping, not often he himself looking for the takedown.

Most of the time this is not an issue for Asakura who is able to typically defend the grappling situations and dominate on the feet, however, the few times in his career – namely against Horiguchi and Kape, finding his match on the feet was unable to adapt his game and mix things up. Against both fighters, the match swung back and forth, but the difference was both Horiguchi and Kape were able to attack the takedown in order to set up more strikes while Asakura was forced to continue his straightforward path and double down on his original game plan. Against Kape, he was able to get a single takedown and shift the momentum before the second round ended but without being able to mount much of a threat from there, round three started off on equal footing anyway.

Asakura has an extremely dangerous and thought-out style. He has sharpened this style to exact needs in the ring and is likely the best at dictating the fight in these areas, however against the world’s best he finds difficulty in always adapting when in trouble.

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