‘My first step back to where I was’: Former two-promotion champ Kyoji Horiguchi returns in Rizin title fight

MMA

Mike Brown had a decision to make. In early November, the Japanese government announced that select noncitizens could enter the country for business purposes if they quarantined for two weeks before mixing with the general population. That meant Brown, one of American Top Team’s main coaches, would be able to corner one of his top fighters, Kyoji Horiguchi, in the main event of Rizin 26 on Dec. 31 at Saitama Super Arena outside Tokyo.

But the trip to Japan and time spent in quarantine would force Brown to make a sacrifice.

Brown wanted badly to corner Horiguchi, who is returning from a knee surgery to compete for the Rizin bantamweight title he once held, in a fight that will take place in the early morning hours, U.S. time. But an even higher-profile ATT fighter, Dustin Poirier, was also in training camp for his blockbuster UFC 257 main event fight with Conor McGregor on Jan. 23 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.

“That was the biggest issue, was that fight coming up,” Brown told ESPN. “Obviously, it’s really big.”

Ultimately, Brown chose to fly to Japan and quarantine for 14 days, missing Christmas at home — and the middle of Poirier’s training camp. Horiguchi, Brown said, deserves that level of loyalty.

“It’s an important fight,” Brown said. “It’s a guy that puts everything in. He’s a crazy, dedicated hard worker, as focused as anybody I’ve ever seen.”

ATT is one of the world’s top MMA gyms, and Brown believes Horiguchi is its hardest worker. “I’m actually surprised he can do as much as he does,” said the coach. “He consistently puts in more volume than anybody else. He’s two or three times a day, every day, for weeks and weeks and weeks. You think, ‘This is not going to last.’ But it does.”

It isn’t just the hard work that sets Horiguchi apart. He’s one of the best lighter-weight fighters on the planet. He left the UFC, in which he once competed for the flyweight championship, as a free agent on a three-fight winning streak in 2017 to fight for Rizin in his home country. Horiguchi promptly won the Rizin bantamweight grand prix in 2017, then the bantamweight title in 2018. In 2019, Horiguchi won the Bellator bantamweight title, courtesy of a cross-promotion between Bellator and Rizin.

Horiguchi (28-3) was on a 13-fight winning streak before being shockingly knocked out in a nontitle fight by Kai Asakura at Rizin 18 in August 2019. The two were set for a rematch last New Year’s Eve, but Horiguchi was forced to withdraw — and vacate both the Rizin and Bellator belts — after tearing his ACL. The second bout with Asakura, for the Rizin bantamweight belt, will finally happen Dec. 31, more than a year in the making.

“Before the injury, I was at a point where I got my two belts,” Horiguchi said through an interpreter. “I was just at the point where I was starting my mission. And that’s when I got my injury. It just stalled and halted everything. This fight is my first step to get back to where I was, which was the starting line.”

Horiguchi, 30, has lost to only two men since 2012: Asakura and Demetrious Johnson, the legendary former UFC flyweight champion. The Asakura defeat has been festering in him for 16 months.

“He’s kind of like taken over the Rizin bantamweight division while I was gone,” Horiguchi said. “I’m just eager to take over and put him in his place.”

The worst part of that Asakura loss, for Brown, was the perception. Asakura, though an up-and-coming star in Japan, is not a household name in MMA. Brown believes Horiguchi is the best bantamweight — or flyweight — in the world. And it was hard to make that argument after he was knocked out.

“That’s what kills me,” Brown said. “That’s what really bothers me. And that’s what really bummed me out about the loss. To the casual fan, if you lose outside the UFC they think, ‘Oh, he’s not that good.’ There are good guys everywhere. There are elite fighters all over the place. And Kyoji is super good. And he can make [flyweight]. What I’d love to see in the future is him fighting [Johnson] or Henry [Cejudo].”

Horiguchi said he’d consider making another run at the Bellator bantamweight title in 2021. First, though, his focus is on avenging that loss to Asakura — and making Brown’s Japanese quarantine worthwhile.

“I am nothing but grateful,” Horiguchi said. “And I feel obligated to meet his expectations and return the favor.”

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