The champion’s wish has come true.
This weekend (Sun., July 31, 2022) at RIZIN 37, a new tournament will begin. For the first time since 2017, the Super Atomweight division will be showcased as eight women begin a battle for supremacy. Rather than waiting to see who comes out on top, the current queen of the weight class, Seika Izawa, looks to defend her throne throughout the potential three-fight stretch.
Following her official coronation as champion, defeating the legendary Ayaka Hamasaki for a second straight time at RIZIN 35 in April 2022, Izawa made it clear she wanted to compete against the best in the division. Highlighting a possible tournament format, the champion’s newly present target on her back is now only amplified.
The grand prix has a unique mixture of elite-level talent, ranging from veterans to prospects and fighters familiar with such formats. Most famously building a rivalry throughout the 2017 variation were runner-up, Rena Kubota, and that tournament’s winner, Kanna Asakura.
In different ways, both have their eyes on the prize with Izawa as an intriguing obstacle.
“I’m not really thinking about winning this tournament,” Kubota said. “For me, I want to focus one fight at a time. My goal is hopefully if I win this one, I want to fight Izawa next and if I beat her, it will eventually get me to the finals. So, I think for this tournament it’s just focusing one fight at a time.”
Asakura found herself as the likely underdog in her first go-around. Understanding that Kubota was the centerpiece of the overall arrangement, Asakura felt her underplayed role was a comfortable one to be in and recognizes that once again all these years later — despite any advantages she may have gained with her experience.
”I just realized during the press conference that most of the participants have already participated in tournaments before so I don’t really feel that I have an advantage over anybody,” Asakura said. “Plus, the last grand prix, I had to fight twice in one night but this one is already set that we all fight once for each round. In that way, it’s so much easier to get ready for and I don’t really feel a specific advantage over everybody else.
“Obviously, I’ve fought Hamasaki and Rena before, I don’t know too much about the international fighters and I’ve never fought Izawa before. For me to face Izawa, it would be a great challenge and test for me to test my abilities. I know in some areas I’m better than her, certain areas she’s better than me, so I think this overall grand prix is a great opportunity for all of us to be able to showcase our skills and take ourselves to the next level.”
Izawa’s spot atop the 108 pound mountain was earned in one of the most stunning fashions ever seen in mixed martial arts (MMA) history. Her career began in Oct. 2020 after Judo competitions were shut down because of the pandemic, otherwise, this tournament would look have a glaring omission.
“Starflower” needed only 14 months to go from rookie to best in the world with her first massive upset over divisional all-time great, Hamasaki, defeating her via second round technical knockout. The instant rematch provided Hamasaki with her first career pair of back-to-back losses.
”Of course, I want that [trilogy bout],” Hamasaki said. “I would love to fight Izawa, but that’s if I continue to advance and that should happen if I continue to advance. I can’t really look past my first opponent because she’s a very tough opponent, too. So, right now, all I can focus on is how to beat my first opponent which is Jessica Aguilar.
”Obviously, it all depends on how good the Brazilian and Ukrainian girls are, their talent, their skills. But I do believe Izawa should be the one making it to the finals.”
For the champion, tournament-style competition is nothing new for her after all the time she spent honing her craft as a wrestler and judoka. However, this will be Izawa’s first time competing in an MMA-based tournament.
Unrattled by the 14 eyes that are fixated upon her, the undefeated 24-year-old (6-0) finds confidence not only in what she’s capable of by having tested it against one of the best ever but in the fact that each fight will happen on a single night rather than the semis and finals taking place within a matter of hours.
”So, at first I was assuming this was going to be an all-Japanese tournament,” Izawa said. “But it turned out to be a world grand prix and that was a very pleasant surprise for me. And for me, facing international competition means I’ll get more eyes on my fights, more exposure, so I’m generally very excited and happy about this tournament happening. My opponent for the first round is a Brazilian girl, she’s a finisher and I’m excited to see how I can perform against her.
”From their perspective, they might see a target on my back, but from my perspective, I’m just focused on winning every fight that’s put in front of me. They have their own perspective, but I have my own perspective and that’s only to look forward and winning the fights one by one. So I don’t really feel any pressure.”
Izawa will unsurprisingly headline RIZIN 37 for her opening round match-up, welcoming promotional newcomer, Laura Fontoura, to Japan and the ring.
Not lacking any confidence herself, the also undefeated and youthful Fontoura (7-0) feels ready for the massive opportunity and knows what’s at stake. Although the title isn’t on the line, it would be impossible not to view her — or whoever hypothetically defeated Izawa in the tournament — as the new champion.
”She’s considered the queen but I’m going there to take the throne, you can be sure of that,” Fontoura said. “This opportunity that my team put in my hand, I’m not going to miss it, I’m going to make the most out of it.
”I’m ready for anything. If she wants to take me down, I love to be on the bottom so it’s no problem for me. If I need to take her down, I was the Brazilian champion in wrestling a few years ago so it’s okay for me. If she wants to stand up, I have nine Muay Thai fights [under] my belt as well so it’s all good. I’m ready for anything that she wants to propose. I’m going into this fight open-minded and ready to fight on her gameplan and frustrate her.”
The main event and last bout of the 2022 Super Atomweight grand prix opening round comes as an intriguing one for several reasons. Despite still having a horrifying amount of time to continue improving, Izawa has proven herself as a true prodigy. Meanwhile, Fontoura, 21, has hopes of joining her in that same category, highlighting the new wave of incredible talent that the lightest weight class in MMA has to offer.
”More than feeling the pressure, I’m feeling confident,” Fontoura. “I’m a really positive person and I believe in my game a lot. If I didn’t believe I was able to win the whole thing, I have no reason to go to Japan. I’m not going there to just fight, I’m going there to win it all. I really believe the pressure is all on her but not because she’s the champion or anything, but because she’s facing the toughest girl in the tournament.”
Check out the full RIZIN 37 fight line-up here.
Watch the full episode in the video embedded above or you can listen on Spotify.