This Saturday at Rizin 35, Roberto 'Satoshi' de Souza will aim to avenge his sole professional loss and defend the Rizin Lightweight title against Johnny Case.
Who would have imagined that the man who got knocked out in bizarre fashion would end up becoming Rizin's leading star three years later?
Welcome to 'Hollywood'
In 2019, an undefeated Satoshi stepped into the Rizin ring against former UFC fighter Johnny 'Hollywood' Case. Boasting back-to-back knockout finishes, it may have been easy to overlook that the Brazilian fighter was one of the most lethal submission specialists in the sport. To beat Case, he would have to avoid the standup and find a way to get the fight to the ground.
Their fight was part of the opening round in Rizin's Lightweight Grand Prix tournament.
In the opening exchange, Satoshi managed to get the fight where he needed it but Case scrambled to shake Satoshi off and force the fight back to the feet.
The Brazilian, without disguising his next takedown attempt or chaining it with another move, shot for a double leg in the middle of the ring and was caught with a perfectly timed short uppercut from Case. It was the obvious move to throw - anything down the middle would have worked just as effectively - to punish a lazy attempt to grapple from Satoshi.
As Satoshi fell, he immediately touched his eye and curled up on the floor. In what still remains to this day a peculiar thing, the Brazilian tapped to the strike. There was no eye poke involved, and Satoshi's team later confirmed he had not broken his orbital bone. It's likely that Case landed with a knuckle directly into the eye of Satoshi.
Johnny Case advanced to the next round of the tournament where he would meet eventual Grand Prix winner and Lightweight champion Tofiq Musayev.
Satoshi had finally suffered defeat in the biggest fight of his career up until then. After the fight, his team mentioned Satoshi potentially considered retirement from MMA and a return to active participation in BJJ competitions.
Three years later, Satoshi is now inarguably one of Rizin's biggest stars. Let's examine how he managed to make that happen.
At the height of the Coronavirus pandemic in 2020, Japan took measures to close its borders to foreign travelers. As such, Rizin began to struggle with the inability to fly some of their top fighters into the country. They would have to revert to a homegrown model akin to the smaller fight promotions in Japan (DEEP, Heat, etc) and build their product around fighters living in Japan.
Satoshi, who had already been living in Japan for over a decade, would become one of the prime beneficiaries of the travel restrictions.
Back to Winning Ways
In August 2020, Rizin held its first event since the outbreak of Coronavirus. Satoshi was tasked with taking on JMMA veteran Yusuke Yachi in the main event.
A criticism of Satoshi's game under the Rizin banner had always been that he could only finish older, 'washed up' fighters. Yachi, a primary striker, would be a serious test of Satoshi's game against a fresher and more motivated opponent.
The fight lasted less than two minutes.
Yachi opened up the encounter with a knee stomp and some leg kicks that troubled Satoshi a little. Instead of shooting for a naked takedown akin to the Case fight, Satoshi showed immediate improvements in his game, throwing an overhand right to back Yachi onto the ropes and force the grappling exchange.
While he didn't keep Yachi grounded for long, the progression in Satoshi's comfortability on the feet was evident. He adjusted to Yachi's kick-heavy gameplan and caught a leg, securing the takedown and drowning his opponent on the ground.
After an unrelenting array of strikes on the ground, the referee stepped in to save further damage being dealt to the Japanese fighter.
Though few in the arena could have imagined it, this would signal the start of something special for both Satoshi and Rizin.
A Grave Mistake
Five months after the victory against Yachi, Satoshi found himself standing in the Rizin ring once more. Though we had entered a new calendar year, Rizin was no closer to being able to fly foreign fighters into the country.
Satoshi was handed a co-main event slot against Kazuki Tokudome who was coming off the back of two wins in ONE Championship prior to the pandemic.
Another fight, another finish in under two minutes.
Tokudome bafflingly crowded Satoshi with strikes and took him down. Satoshi, naturally, offered little resistance. If the world didn't already know this man was one of the most dangerous fighters off his back, they were about to find out.
Through the use of a body lock, Satoshi managed to create a few inches of separation between himself and Tokudome, allowing him to work for a triangle choke. After locking it in but noticing Tokudome still had a little room to breathe, Satoshi rapidly switched legs to tighten the move up. It was a moment of sheer brilliance - an on-the-fly adjustment you rarely see in MMA.
After prolonged gasping and audible gargling, Tokudome submitted.
The back-to-back dominant stoppages in both main and co-main event spots saw Satoshi become a star. The Japanese fans had adopted him as one of their own and Rizin obliged by granting him a shot at the vacant Lightweight belt three months later against Musayev.
King of the Triangle
While foreign fighters were still unable to enter Japan, Rizin managed to get approval from the government to allow Musayev entry into the country from Azerbaijan.
Musayev won the Lightweight Grand Prix in 2019 by defeating Case and Patricky 'Pitbull' on the same night. Since then, due to the travel restrictions and mandatory military service in his home country, Musayev had not competed in MMA. As such, his Lightweight title had been vacated until Rizin could secure a return for one of their most talented fighters.
At Rizin 28, the prestigious Tokyo Dome played host to the biggest night of Satoshi's career. How would one of Japan's own fare against the seemingly unbeatable Musayev? The Azerbaijani striker entered the bout on a 14-fight win streak and a record of 18-3.
It felt as though Satoshi had been rushed to the belt as a byproduct of Rizin's inability to pack their Lightweight division out with more fighters. They were dealing in a small pool of fighters and Satoshi's name was impossible to miss. The Brazilian was rightly deemed the underdog against a guy many believed to be one of MMA's best-kept secrets at 155lbs.
Once more, the fight would last less than two minutes. In fact, 72 seconds was all it took for a new Lightweight champion to be crowned.
Satoshi rushed across the ring and put pressure on Musayev - a complete disregard for the striking prowess of his opponent - and immediately initiated a clinch. Landing some solid knees, Satoshi dragged Musayev down to the ground with him.
Satoshi had Musayev laying on top of him and masterfully allowed his opponent to posture up. Musayev took the bait as an opportunity to land some ground and pound but, before he knew it, Satoshi had him beat.
Another beautiful triangle choke. Satoshi's late father's favourite move.
Not only had Satoshi defeated his toughest opponent to date, but he'd also done so in an indisputably dominated fashion. And in style.
He had become a full-blown star, celebrating with the Japan flag in a crowded Tokyo Dome. If he didn't already have the Japanese crowd in the palm of his hands, proclaiming that "the belt will stay in Japan" in his post-fight interview certainly did the trick. This was the first time since the pandemic that a homegrown fighter had a chance at fighting a foreign star. And Satoshi had beaten arguably Rizin's best. Satoshi shutting down any rumours of him joining the UFC gained him even more adoration among the Japanese public.
In defeating Musayev, he also became the first fighter to win a belt in the Tokyo Dome since PRIDE: Final Conflict in 2003. Above all else, though, Satoshi had proven he could hang with the best. He was no longer the wide-eyed upstart who would tap to strikes. He had become, for all intents and purposes, the most valuable player under the Rizin banner.
But there was still work yet to be done.
To cap off a stellar 2021, Satoshi defended his belt at Rizin's prestigious New Year's Eve show. Since being stopped by Satoshi, Yachi had won two fights against highly respectable opponents in Yuki Kawana and Koji Takeda.
Yachi had done well to rebuild himself, proving his resilience and improvements in the grappling department - particularly against the powerful Takeda.
Satoshi was right back at where his fairytale run had started. This time around, the fight lasted longer than two minutes and Yachi was not an easy get for the BJJ wizard.
To open the round, Yachi stormed at Satoshi with a flying kick - a move he had started to add to his arsenal at the beginning of fights. Satoshi displayed his improved striking defence by countering with a push kick to the midsection, throwing Yachi off balance.
Satoshi's newly-developed overhand right-into-takedown worked a treat as he was able to get Yachi to the ground and work his way to the back. Yachi managed to survive the first round with a cautiously well-executed defensive grappling game that denied Satoshi the rear-naked choke.
In round two, Satoshi forced a clinch that led to a trip takedown and more dominance on the canvas. This time, despite his improved defensive nous, Yachi would not survive to see another round.
Satoshi's leg dexterity allows him to reverse Yachi's top-control with a triangle while he gathered the arm of his opponent. The masterful sweep culminated in a beautiful triangle armbar that definitely still looks like something snapped.
The Brazilian ended 2021 with three triangle submissions and three massive wins making him one of the fighters of the year across all MMA promotions.
Revenge on the Menu?
This Saturday at Rizin 35, with Japan's travel restrictions lifted, Satoshi has the opportunity to avenge his sole career loss against Case. The American has been boxing professionally (and winning) since losing in the Grand Prix to Musayev three years ago. He has not competed in MMA since.
It's hard to quantify whether Case's game has regressed or not in the last three years but one has to imagine that not grappling competitively since 2019 is not good news for the former UFC fighter.
Refined striking defence and a more nuanced way of getting fights to the ground are among the chief improvements in Satoshi's game. He no longer wildly shoots for the double leg in the middle of the ring which should reduce his susceptibility to getting clipped with something up the middle as in their first fight.
Whether or not Satoshi has the mental fortitude to fight smartly against the only man to beat him in MMA is an interesting thought. In all of his wins since, Satoshi has faced very little adversity. Musayev aside, he's also not fought guys known for fight-ending power on the feet.
Though their first fight didn't last very long, Satoshi can take positives from the fact that he did manage to get Case down early and almost set up his trademark triangle. With his renewed confidence, stardom, and defensive improvements, it's hard to imagine anything other than a Satoshi victory on the weekend.
If he gets the job done, expect Rizin to explore their partnership with Bellator to have their star man fight Patricky Pitbull for the Bellator Lightweight belt at some point in 2022.
Irrespective of Saturday's result, Satoshi has been instrumental in keeping Rizin interesting and competitive during the pandemic. He's headlined events, delivered spectacular highlights and vindicated their homegrown approach by keeping the Lightweight belt in Japan. It's hard to think of another fighter that has had more of an impact than the Brazilian over the last two years.
International fans can purchase the Rizin 35 PPV here: https://www.live-now.com/en-int/page/sign-up?origin=playerpage&id=1311356