Kana Watanabe has arrived as a player at the height of Bellator’s 125-pound weight class.
A successful December 2019 debut in the promotion saw the Judo-sensation TKO Ilara Joanne in the third round. She’d go a full year and some change before stepping foot back inside the cage – this time as a member of the roster.
“Much time has passed and I’m looking at it very calmly, non-emotionally, and I still feel the same,” Watanabe told MyMMANews regarding her recent win over Alejandra Lara. “I know that there’s a lot more I could have done. In hindsight, there’s a lot of things that I could have done at a certain point, and it just showed my lack of skillsets. Digesting that and accepting that is very disappointing.
“I’ve always been sort of a slow starter. The combination of that fight being after such a long layoff, I think it made me be even a slower starter. I usually start to take over once I figure out that my opponent is fatigued. That’s when I start to step on the gas to overwhelm my opponent. So during that fight, I felt that she was getting tired and I kind of knew when I needed to step on the gas and take the fight to the next step so that’s just kind of how I fight usually and I think it just kicked in naturally.”
Watanabe found her rhythm and that grappling flow after a tumultuous first round that saw her take some damage on the feet. In the end, she got the job done and remains undefeated at 10-0-1.
Having spent the entirety of her career as part of Japan-based promotions in RIZIN and DEEP JEWELS, the 32-year old quickly found her options of opposition wearing thin. In Bellator, she has a lengthy list of potential names to test herself against – and a title to pursue.
With that all understood, Watanabe feels fortunate that she can just get back to her prior active ways. Because without actual fights, the reason to practice is lacking, in a way.
Becoming a superstar caliber athlete in a nation with as respectful of a culture like Japan isn’t too difficult. Of course, it always depends on certain traits an individual may have. Ultimately, it’s easier to break through and connect on a grander scale than let’s say in America.
By the time I first discovered the Tokyo native, she had already had her professional debut. Being touted as the next big thing in her division due to an excellent Judo background, she’s done nothing but grow as a star and prove that since.
With the change of scenery by joining Bellator, however, things have burst to a bit of a newer level as her worldwide exposure has increased significantly.
In April 2019, Watanabe took on Justyna Haba at RIZIN 15. On weigh-in day Watanabe took to the scale but first had her way with a poor frying pan that she bent from end to end. In anticipation of her return vs. Lara, I made a gif of the moment to share on Twitter – much to the disdain of my notification box.
The tweet has peaked at over half of a million views and drew attention from several fans worldwide reaching as far as Germany and Brazil. For comparison’s sake, that’s more than double the view count that her 11-second highlight-reel knockout of Shizuka Sugiyama in 2018 has on YouTube – but maybe not for long.
“I haven’t really personally felt that my popularity is raising, I haven’t directly felt it,” Watanabe said. “But I have seen your posts and I continue to see that post over and over so I kind of got the idea that maybe this is a really crazy gif or maybe people are looking at me, I’m not sure. But I kind of got that idea after your post.”
— Drake Riggs (@DrakeRiggs_) March 29, 2021
While her notoriety continues to grow outside of combat, it does within as well.
Defeating Lara placed the Fighter’s Flow affiliate at No. 3 in the Bellator ranks and now sets her up for the biggest fight of her still-developing career. On June 25 at Bellator 261, it’s Watanabe vs. two-time UFC title challenger Liz Carmouche in the co-main event.
“For me, it was an honor to get this offer,” she said. “I just want to compete against higher-profile people. I want to compete against people with a significant status. So for me, getting that Liz Carmouche offer was an honor, and me personally, I was very happy about it.
“I think obviously, it’s a fight between ranked No. 2 and No.3, so I think the winner might get a potential title shot, and for me to receive that spot, I couldn’t help but think maybe the Bellator brass has some hopes in me or I couldn’t help but to think that in a very positive way.
“Basically, I would love to grapple with her just to see what I can do against such a tough grappler,” Watanabe continued. “But I have been working on my striking so there’s a part of me where I want to challenge and see what I can do in a striking battle.
Kana Watanabe doesn’t care about the status of the fight at the end of the day. She just wants to do her best to perform at her best. Against a seasoned MMA competitor like Carmouche, she knows she’ll have to.
But lastly, and undeniably most importantly, we all need to rally together to get this frying pan gimmick truly off the ground.
“I think the best way is to lobby against the Bellator operations staff and the commission so that they will allow me to walk down with a frying pan and not take it away before I walk out [to the fight],” she said.
“I’m counting on you!”
Drake is an MMA writer based out of Brush Prairie, Washington, USA who specializes in feature pieces, the women’s fight scene, lists, news coverage, and rankings. He has been a passionate fan of MMA ever since 2009. Drake has most notably written for BJPenn.com, FanSided, The Body Lock, South China Morning Post, MyMMANews, WhatCulture, Cageside Press, Sherdog, The Scrap, and MMA Today. He has also written for and created video content for RT Sport. As for other sports, Drake is a longtime fan of the NFL’s Green Bay Packers and Jacksonville Jaguars.
You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram: @DrakeRiggs_ . Also check out all of his video content on YouTube at YouTube.com/DrakeRiggs where he uploads fighter interviews, podshows, and various other types of content.