It’s easy to forget just how young of a sport Mixed Martial Arts is. That’s until you compare it with the many other most popular athletics that fans around the world enjoy watching. In MMA, we’re only now starting to see generational shifts some 25-plus years into its existence. And for fighters like Kanna Asakura, they’ve grown up with the sport rather than just ending up trying it out after mastering a singular artform.
Regardless, the currently 23-year-old atomweight superstar still began her competitive combat sports journey honing her skillset by building a grappling background.
“I’ve been wrestling since age five until I was 16 and when I quit wrestling, up until then, I spent most of my day just wrestling and training,” Asakura told MyMMANews on BROADENED HORIZIN. “So I didn’t know what to do, I didn’t have anything to do. I decided to start Jiu-Jitsu and that’s when I started going to the gym I’m at currently. And that’s where I met my coach, Mr. [Hiroshi] Tsuruya. After working Jiu-Jitsu with him, he recommended me to take this competition to the next level and started teaching me how to strike and that’s basically how I got into fighting.”
Like many throughout the start of the pandemic caused by COVID-19, Asakura was left unable to train during April and May. Thus leaving the talented wrestler with some concerns and self-doubt regarding her fighting abilities in whatever came next.
With the fears of her ever-crucial progression being slowed, Asakura was able to get back to training in June where she re-assessed where she was at. To start things off, she just worked on the basics.
The Chiba native’s foray into MMA officially kicked off in October 2014 when she was only 17. Typically, most pro fighters average two fights per year, especially at the highest level. For Asakura, she now finds herself boasting an excellent 17-4 record as one of her division’s most elite competitors.
Generally, Asakura has managed to fight three to four times per year at the very least to this point. Unfortunately, that level of activity just wasn’t manageable in 2020.
“Even though I only have two fights this year, I really want people to know and see my progress as a fighter,” she said. “And I don’t think you’ll be able to show a significant difference when you fight often. So I’m going to use this — fighting only twice — I think there’s going to be a significant difference in how much I’ve progressed as a fighter and that’s my motivation to train for this limited amount of fights. It’s to show what I can do and show my progress and what I’ve been working on. So that’s my motivation right now.”
In August, RIZIN returned for their first tandem of events since the world shutdown. And along with them came Asakura for her first outing of the year after a successful debut for Bellator in December.
Asakura would score her quickest and most dominant victory to date against Mizuki Furuse at RIZIN 22. The equally youthful but far less experienced opponent was no match for the Paraestra Matsudo product’s ground game. Asakura sprawled on an early takedown from Furuse and that was that. She would control and dominant her opposition with punches in succession to score her first finish via strikes.
Despite having her feelings about not being able to show as much as she would have liked, Asakura was still quite satisfied with the performance and just wanted to show it was a mismatch and dominate. The result couldn’t have been any more evident.
While looking from the perspective of which victory was the cleanest out of the 17, Asakura can surely point to the Furuse one for that answer. However, in terms of the most significance. It’s hard to match the fateful conclusion to the year that was 2017.
“I really got into the MMA scene without knowing about the sport too much,” Asakura began. “So in terms of me starting the sport being inspired by somebody, I can’t answer that question because I didn’t know anybody. I pretty much had to watch and learn in order to grow. So if I had to say, my inspirations would be the professional fighters that were already there when I joined the gym. To list a few names it would definitely be [Hiromasa] Ougikubo, [Yoshitaka] Naito “Nobita”, and Okada-san would all be the fighters that were already there and fighting. I would go watch them fight and those fighters definitely inspired me.
“There was one fighter who my coach took me to watch before I made my professional debut, that was Rena [Kubota]. So I saw Rena’s fight and I was introduced to a fighter named Rena and that was something that I do remember.”
Most known for her career as a Shootboxer, Rena Kubota would make the transition to MMA a full year after Asakura’s debut. Already a bonafide superstar in Japan, her success in MMA and the RIZIN ring led Kubota to brand new heights.
After winning her first four MMA contests in stellar fashion, Kubota would be chosen to compete as part of RIZIN’s eight-woman super atomweight Grand Prix. Also participating would be an 8-2 Asakura.
For the striking sensation in Kubota, she would cut through Andy Nguyen and Irene Cabello Rivera like butter en route to the finals. Asakura, on the other hand, battled a tough Sylwia Juskiewicz to a unanimous decision victory before submitting Maria de Oliveira Neta with a second-round armbar.
Little did the lifelong wrestler turned MMA fighter know as she went into the finals that her life was about to change forever. As a sizable and still relatively unknown underdog, Asakura pulled off the upset on the grandest stage against the ultimate challenge and biggest name.
The striker vs. grappler affair played out pretty much as expected. Kubota having her way on the feet as Asakura constantly looked to get things to the ground. The only difference was that once Asakura got it there, she made sure that’s where the action would stay.
At the four-minute and 33-second mark of round one, Asakura found her opponent’s back and sunk in a deep rear-naked choke that put Kubota unconscious. The crowd erupted in shock and excitement, Asakura’s family ecstatic and overwhelmed with emotion, they had just witnessed their little girl evolve into a superstar in the blink of an eye.
Six months later and the two would have their big rematch. Once again, Asakura got the better of the iconic Kubota to prove that the first win was no fluke. This time taking the fight the distance to get the decision win.
If you succeed and work hard enough, it just goes to show that your idols truly can become your rivals.
“Looking back, for me, that entire process of winning the tournament was so long,” Asakura reflected. “It started from the selections, I had to fight [Saori] Ishioka-san to solidify myself in the tournament. Then I had to fight the first round, the semifinals, then the finals. So for me, it was such a long process.
“My immediate thought after winning was, ‘It’s finally over.’ And on the other hand, Rena has been definitely a goal of mine. Being able to face her and being able to win against a goal was definitely something very special to me. And everything included, the crowd’s reaction, my reaction, like everything at that moment was something memorable and I think that’s something that will stick with me for the rest of my life. It was a very special moment.”
Not even 25-years old yet and Asakura has amassed plenty of experience and become a perennial elite of her division. The pace she’s been able to set, especially for 105-108 pounds has been unlike anything we often see in the sport.
At this rate, it’s safe to assume that Asakura has only just scratched the surface of her potential. Which is a scary thought for the rest of her potential opponents.
It’s indeed too soon to say she’s a “legend” or anything of the sort. But if this current trajectory continues the way it has, she could go down as atomweight’s best.
“I have never considered myself becoming a legend,” Asakura expressed. “I’m not even in a position to be thinking like that. There are so many things that I still have to work on and there are still so many fighters that I need to beat… Like [Ayaka] Hamasaki-san, [Miyuu] Yamamoto-san, those are the fighters who should be considered legends. Those fighters are my goals as of now, and I need to overcome them and I don’t think I deserve to be thinking anything like that until I’m able to overcome those fighters.
“I may have a lot of fights under my belt, but I don’t consider myself at the skills or level of being considered a legend or whatnot. I just have so much to work on and there are certain goals that I have set that I need to meet in order to even think of that.”
From tournaments to facing off with big names to competing for titles, Asakura has really already been in just about every high-pressure situation imaginable. Coincidentally enough, all of those types of occasions have also been magnified by the platform they took place on.
New Year’s Eve in MMA is a special day as RIZIN FF puts on the biggest and best show every year. They’ve genuinely created an atmosphere of their own that’s entirely unfindable anywhere else. The fans know it and the fighters feel it. This year, Asakura competes as part of the spectacle for the fourth time.
Standing in her way in what Asakura is treating as a No. 1 contender bout will be a fellow wrestler in the undefeated 5-0 Ai Shimizu.
“The New Year’s Eve show is definitely something different,” Asakura stated. “If you’re a fighter who fights in Japan, it’s an event that you want to participate in as a professional fighter. I can’t really describe it but I do feel the atmosphere — it’s different. When you’re fighting on New Year’s Eve, you just feel that it’s a different vibe. Since it’s such a special ring, you feel obligated to perform in a special fashion as well. When I first fought on the end of the year show, I fought on the 29th and lost. That was the start of my career in RIZIN. Every time I’ve fought on New Year’s Eve after that, it just feels so special and you’re obligated to go that extra mile.
“Ai is a very strong wrestler, and she has a similar style as me. So style-wise, it’s definitely not my favorite type of style for my opponent. But this is a fight that I can’t lose and I shouldn’t be able to lose. Because when you look at just wrestling, she’s got way more experience and tons of achievements, more than I have in wrestling. In MMA, I have much more experience and I’ve been doing this a lot longer than she has. So I have a lot more tricks hidden up my sleeve and I think that should be enough for me to win this fight. So it’s a fight that might not fit my style but it’s a fight that I shouldn’t be able to lose.”
Riding high on an excellent three-fight winning streak, Asakura is 12-2 in her last 14 and was arguably deserving of her second crack at the title on this New Year’s Eve at RIZIN 26. Instead, the last two fighters to have defeated her, Ayaka Hamasaki and Miyuu Yamamoto, will be getting to lay claim to that championship label.
Following her second win over Kubota, the budding superstar had gotten the rightful opportunity to try and become the inaugural RIZIN super atomweight queen. That chance coming against the division’s all-time greatest in Hamasaki.
Having successfully captured a title in every promotion she’d ever fought in, Hamasaki continued that trend upon her arrival in RIZIN at the expense of the inexperienced Asakura. The legend was just one step ahead of the rising star in every area and eventually, Asakura was forced to tap to an armbar late in the second round.
Clearly grown as a fighter since the loss as well as her fight with Yamamoto which she’s three fights removed from, Asakura has a great perspective on how the title bout could go. And if she has her way, she’ll make sure that she’s the first one awaiting whoever walks away with the belt.
To become one of the legends, you have to beat the legends.
“I’m not really one who does predictions,” Asakura shared. “Like I said, I’m not even at the level to break down fights. I fought both of them before but I don’t really feel comfortable making predictions. But if I were to say my personal thoughts, I would like to challenge Hamasaki-san for the belt again. That would be my personal opinion; it’s not a prediction, but you know, my hopes are that I would like to challenge Hamasaki again.”
RIZIN 26 starts at 9:00 PM PST on December 30 and will be broadcast live in English here at the: link.
BROADENED HORIZIN EP. 6 AUDIO ONLY BELOW:
以下の日本語版 (JAPANESE VERSION BELOW):
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.