MMA organizations exist to entertain and make money. But they often drop the ball on promoting fighters who could have been huge superstars and bring lucrative returns to the organization. We cover those missed opportunities, uncover some of the most fascinating fighter stories, and try to push fight promotions to give these fighters the shine they deserve.
Episode 1: Kyoji Horiguchi
Kyoji Horiguchi is the former UFC #1 contender and current RIZIN bantamweight champion. During his time in the UFC, he went 8-1 with his only loss coming at the hands of the greatest flyweight to ever live in Demetrious Johnson. Since leaving the UFC and signing with RIZIN, he’s gone 12-1 while avenging his only loss in that time period.
Horiguchi also captured the Bellator bantamweight title during that run in a cross promotional champion vs champion event with RIZIN, and finished 8 out of his last 10 opponents which is unheard of at the 125lbs weight class.
This guy is entertaining, likable, has the support of an entire nation behind him (Japan), doesn’t have long layoffs from injuries, never gotten busted for PEDs, hasn’t even reached his prime yet at 30 years old, and is practically unbeatable. He should be a fight promoter’s dream.
But the UFC released him in 2016 despite riding a 3 fight winning streak. After signing with Japanese promotion RIZIN, he’s barely been covered in U.S.
And that’s a shame because he has an incredible back story that fans and RIZIN are both missing out on.
So this is the story of Kyoji Horiguchi:
Horiguchi started his martial arts at journey at 5 years old under a Karate Master who lived deep in the mountains of Japan. After watching Norifumi “Kid” Yamamoto demolish bigger opponents in PRIDE as a teenager, he left the mountain town he grew up in and literally knocked on Yamamot’s gym to asked him if he could train there.
Yamamoto took Horiguchi under his wing and helped him climb the MMA ladder until he was signed to the UFC in May 2014.
Even though Horiguchi was loyal to Yamamoto and his team for bringing him this far in his MMA journey, drama was brewing as he realized that training MMA in Japan was exceptionally lacking. Horiguchi realized that he needed a head coach to take him to the next level, which is a foreign concept in traditional MMA training in Japan (instead they usually have 1 coach for each discipline such as wrestling, boxing, jiu jitsu, etc.). There is an amazing clip of Hroguchi bringing this uncomfortable reality to his mentor Yamamoto, and Yamamoto not only gives Horiguchi his full blessings, but offers to move to the U.S. with him so Horiguchi could get the best of both worlds (clip is in Japanese, but you can get a lot from their body language).
So he left his long time girlfriend in Japan and went to one of America’s premier MMA gyms in ATT (American Top Team). Horiguchi didn’t even speak English but said “Fuck it I need to be world champion and bring Japanese MMA to the next level. If moving to America is what it takes, I’m doing it”.
He lived in the dumpy ATT fighter dorms where all he did was wake up, train, eat, train, rinse and repeat. And it paid off big time. Horiguchi goes on to beat everyone the UFC put in front of him not named Demetrious Johnson.
And this guy absolutely LOVES Japan. Ever since his first UFC fight he’s been saying all the right things: That he wants to represent Japan in the big leagues, wants to be an example for other Japanese fighters, wants to bring more Japanese fans into MMA.
During his tenure with the UFC he only fought twice in Japan, and never as a headliner or co-headliner. Instead the UFC decided to promote guys who were over the hill like Takanori Gomi to the Japanese fan base.
Then out of nowhere, the UFC cuts Horiguchi despite riding a 3 fight winning streak. This was during a time when the UFC was considering dissolving its 125 division because it wasn’t bringing in much money, to the point where they also cut the greatest flyweight of all time Demetrious Johnson from their roster.
So Horiguchi signs with RIZIN which at the time was an upstart Japanese promotion founded by former PRIDE CEO Nobuyuki Sakakibara, and the UFC fuck up suddenly becomes apparent.
Turns out Japanese people love Horiguchi, and he becomes an overnight superstar in Japanese MMA. Every card Horiguchi is on sells out and he’s raking it in for RIZIN.
Couple years later he gets his RIZIN title shot. He goes back into the mountain to train with his old Karate Sensei. He finishes former Bellator champion Darion Caldwell to win the title despite being severely undersized. His Sensei passes away shortly after witnessing his star pupil winning a major MMA title. A single tear falls from his eye. But he must continue on. The world is watching now. Horiguchi’s storyline is straight out of Cobra Kai.
It’s apparent that the UFC missed a huge opportunity by not promoting Horiguchi. He is currently the biggest MMA superstar in Japan, a market the UFC has always attempted to, but struggled to find success in. Horiguchi could have been that ticket, and the UFC missed out big time.
Even RIZIN isn’t doing the best job promoting Horiguchi. Yes he is now a household name in Japan, but he could easily be a household name in the U.S. too if the promotion took the right steps.
Here are my suggestions:
First they need to cut some a high budget Horiguchi promos in English, which shouldn’t be hard to do. Horiguchi speaks some English now, and his struggles at speaking the language add to his likability. His Karate training background should be very easy to sell to an American audience that’s seen a resurgence of Karate in popular culture.
Then they could set him up with an opponent in a matchup that the UFC could never compete with: A match against a much bigger, intimidating, but terrible fighter. The UFC could never put together such a fight because the commissions wouldn’t allow a world champion like Horiguchi to fight a random guy off the street, nor would they allow a big weight discrepancy.
But the rules are different in Japan. Horiguchi could fight a physically bigger celebrity like a Jake Paul where Horiguchi would most likely fuck him up. If things don’t go according to plan and Jake Paul is winning, the referees and judges who can allegedly paid off in Japan would steer the ship correctly. So unless Horiguchi gets knocked out cold, it’s his fight to win.
Then you make the fight free on YouTube to try to get as many viewers as possible to tune in. This is a loss leader. Put it on the same night as a big Conor McGregor pay per view. This would guarantee that hard core fight fans who would never miss a Horiguchi fight would tell their casual-fan-friends about it at the McGregor PPV watch party.
Then the final step: You take those YouTube views to CBS or ABC or whichever American network and get a TV deal. RIZIN could easily take on second tier American fight promotions like Bellator or WSOF, and maybe even put a dent in the UFC’s dominance. A big TV network could help RIZIN promote in the U.S., and give them a huge competitive edge over the UFC with matchups unfathomable under American regulations.
PRIDE was successful in beating the UFC back in the day before it imploded, by using similar strategies. RIZIN could see similar success with a star like Horiguchi. RIZIN should also pay me for coming up with a plan for them, but oh well – the things we do for love.