The Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) is the world’s top mixed martial arts competition, but who is No. 2? The answer may come On New Year’s Eve when top Bellator MMA’ers face stars from the Rizin Fighting Federation in Saitama, Japan.
Bellator MMA, established in 2009, is the second-largest combat promotion in the United States and one of the largest Worldwide. Rizin, a Japanese endeavor, has been in existence since 2015. No title belts will change hands in these exhibition matches.
While this is the first “all-star event,” the partnership between the promotions began in 2015. The five-card event will occur at Saitama Super Arena, starting at 8 p.m. on Showtime.
A.J. McKee (Bellator) vs. Robert de Souza (Rizin)
The lightweight match is the main event. McKee (19-1), No.3 on Bellator’s pound-for-pound fighter rankings, is a former Bellator featherweight champion. De Souza (13-1) is the current Rizin division champion.
McKee began his career with 18 straight victories, a Bellator record, including a submission of Patricio Pitbull to win the promotion’s featherweight World Championship and Featherweight World Grand Prix. After losing to Pitbull in the rematch, McKee moved to lightweight and defeated Spike Carlyle via a unanimous decision on October 1.
De Souza is on a five-fight win streak. He has successfully defended his lightweight title twice, including a submission victory over Johnny Case – who he lost to in the Grand Prix quarterfinal in 2019 – the last time out in April.
I expect this match to be very entertaining and competitive. While De Souza’s grappling will give McKee problems, I like the native Californian to prevail ultimately.
McKee is an extreme talent who is a solid all-around fighter. McKee has shown the ability to win via finish and grind out a victory, posting a 6-1 record in fights that have gone the distance. McKee will push the pace to take advantage of De Souza’s inexperience against top-tier competition.
Pick: A.J. McKee
Patricio “Pitbull” Friere (Bellator) vs. Kleber Koike Erbst (Rizin)
This featherweight co-main event features two long-time veteran fighters. Friere (34-5-1), ranked No. 1 pound-for-pound fighter, is Bellator’s featherweight champion, and Koike Erbst (31-5-1) is Rizin’s title holder in the division.
Pitbull is 22-5 since joining Bellator in 2010 and is a four-time promotion champion (lightweight (1), featherweight (3)). He is on a two-time win streak defeating Adam Borics in a title defense bout in October. Pitbull owns several Bellator records, including wins, title fight wins (15), and total fights.
Koike is 6-0 since joining Rizin in 2019. He defeated Juntaro Ushiku to win the promotion’s featherweight title the last time out.
Pitbull is a heavy favorite here and Bellator’s finest. He is a tremendous all-around fighter, who may be the best outside UFC’s conglomerate. Pitbull does have to be wary of Erbst’s wrestling ability, but he should be able to keep upright with quick and fierce strikes.
Kyoji Horiguchi (Bellator) vs. Hiramasa Ougikubo (Rizin)
This flyweight bout features familiar foes. Horiguchi (30-5), Bellator’s No. 6 ranked bantamweight, and Ougikubo (25-6-2) are fighting for the third time.
Horiguchi has held both Bellator and Rizin bantamweight titles in his career. The 32-year-old is 12-3 since leaving the UFC in 2016 though he has lost three of his last five bouts. Horiguchi defeated Yuto Hokamura via technical submission at Rizin 38 on September 25.
Ougikubo, the 2021 Rizin Bantamweight Grand Prix winner, is 8-3 with the promotion and is a former bantamweight champion. He lost to Soo Chul Kim in his last outing, snapping a five-match win streak, on September 25.
Pick: Horiguchi. Horiguchi has defeated Ougikubo in both their previous meetings and I don’t see anything changing this time around
.Horiguchi won the first encounter via submission in 2013. He took the rematch when both combatants were members of Rizin in 2018.
Juan Archuleta (Bellator) vs. Soo Chul Kim (Rizin)
This is a bantamweight matchup. Archuleta (26-4) is ranked No. 3 in Bellator’s bantamweight division, while Kim (18-6-1) is making his second appearance under the Rizin umbrella.
Archuleta is 7-3 since moving to Bellator. The 35-year-old California native snapped a two-fight losing streak with a victory over Enrique Barzola via a decision the last time out on October 1.
Kim has fought for several promotions since turning professional in 2010. The 31-year-old South Korean has won two straight, defeating Hiramasa Ougikubo in his Rizin debut the last time out.
Gadzhi Rabadanov (Bellator) vs. Koji Takeda (Rizin)
This is a lightweight matchup. Rabadanov has a career 18-4 record, and Takeda owns a 15-3 record.
Rabadanov enters the match on a four-fight win streak, which includes all three of his Bellator fights. The 29-year-old Russian defeated Bobby King via unanimous decision on July 22.
Takeda has won 7 of 9 matches with RIzin FF. The 29-year-old has won two straight, defeating Johnny Case (UD) and Zach Zane (submission).