Ayaka-Hamasaki

PhotoCred: RIZIN FF (Sachiko Hotaka)

Your ignorance doesn’t detract from the greatness of Ayaka Hamasaki

The purpose of rankings in any sport is to create a depiction of merit-based accomplishment from the athletes competing. Unfortunately in MMA, that isn’t quite the same case as it is in let’s say the American football world. If it were, fighters like Ayaka Hamasaki would be getting the respect they’ve unceremoniously earned.

Boasting a 23-3 professional record, the 39-year old Tokyo, Japan native has established herself over the course of the last decade as one of the greatest talents the sport has ever seen. However, location, as well as size, has led to the 11-time world champion being largely overlooked despite her legendary talent – when in fact it should be the opposite.

Ultimately, pound-4-pound rankings in MMA are utterly pointless in the grand scheme as more than anything they’re a promotional tool to the highest degree. There are few high-end sources for such rankings on a global scale, but a few that do exist have the current RIZIN super atomweight champion low to no-where present on their lists.

Fight Matrix, a data-powered rankings system has done its best to remove voter bias with this style of rankings. This has led many in the community to view them as the best source for MMA rankings. Though to play devil’s advocate, the inventors still had to put their opinions into how the data is compiled and which numbers belong where, how they progress, etc.

Essentially, completely removing bias in rankings is a nearly impossible feat. So all we can do is look at the facts as best as we can. As of this writing, Fight Matrix has Hamasaki at No. 7 among female fighters around the world.

The more experienced the better in most cases, which brings us to the Sherdog MMA rankings – a panel consisting of a whopping 11 voters. With each divisional or pound-4-pound list, Sherdog offers up an “other contenders” section below their No. 10s which consists of five fighters to make an unofficial top 15. As of their most recent update, Hamasaki doesn’t even make the cut as she hangs on the outside looking in alongside the likes of Ilima-Lei Macfarlane, Seo Hee Ham, Carla Esparza, and Holly Holm.

One thing every rankings list is going to have in common is a heavy dose of fighters on the UFC roster. That should come as no surprise as the UFC is undeniably the top promotion in MMA. The UFC has yet to adopt a 105-pound atomweight division where Hamasaki resides. Therefore it makes sense that perhaps the love would be lost much more than most outsiders. In theory, the same should be said about a 155-pound women’s lightweight division.

ESPN MMA won MMA Media Source of the year as voted on in the 2021 Fighter’s Only World MMA Awards. In 2019, ESPN became the hosting platform for all things UFC and has had their rankings continue forth ever since.

Five writers compile the rankings for ESPN MMA with all five currently voting in eight UFC fighters to their pound-4-pound top 10. Reigning Bellator featherweight champion Cris “Cyborg” Justino occupies their No. 4 spot while most recent PFL lightweight champion Kayla Harrison sits at No. 8. In each of the PFL’s last two seasons, they – like the UFC – were also broadcasted on ESPN platforms.

Harrison, a two-time Olympic gold medalist in Judo, has quickly risen to prominence as a now 12-0 mixed martial artist. Competing as high as 170-pounds in Judo, it only made sense for Harrison to ease her way into the MMA waters at the heaviest weight possible. To accommodate, the PFL created a lightweight division for her consisting of many fighters who had never competed at a weight that really hasn’t existed anywhere else on Earth.

The talent of Harrison speaks for itself. When looking at the whole picture, however, Harrison has fought just two former UFC fighters in Larissa Pacheco and Cindy Dandois – both of which fought at 135-pounds in the UFC and went a combined 0-3. In two fights with Harrison, Pacheco has been the lone survivor going the distance after six total rounds. Harrison’s opponents’ combined record at the time of facing her accumulates to 90-36 – four of those fighters making up 56 of the wins (Pacheco making up 24 of them).

Siza advantage be damned, it must be mentioned. Prior to facing Harrison, nine of her opponents had a total of 78 out of 112 fights take place south of 155-pounds (28 145-pound featherweight bouts, 32 135-pound bantamweight bouts, and 16 125-pound flyweight bouts).

The bigger you are, the stronger and more powerful. Technique is always valued no matter the division, but less so as physicality is more of an X-factor the heavier the individuals are. It’s the exact reason heavyweight is always going to be a casual fan’s most enticing – anything can change in the blink of an eye. That’s not to say it can’t at any other weight, the chances of a knockout are just much more of a likelihood.

Less weight equals more speed and the higher necessity to possess a flawless skillset – one of the many reasons that Demetrious Johnson’s historic run was so special. Competing below 115-pounds for the prime of her career, Ayaka Hamasaki was forced to become an efficient and calculated striker despite her own strong Judo background. When setting up her offense, Hamasaki utilizes the head and shoulder feint to draw out reactions, always leaving the option to jab open if nothing comes back her way.

As the very best strikers in MMA are capable of doing, Hamasaki switches stances often when moving about the ring. In doing so, Hamasaki is very rhythmic with her in and out movements as she adjusts speeds with fast bounces before slowing down and picking back up – all while constantly stance switching. Hamasaki maintains her solid footwork with one specific stance when under attack which opens allows her to catch opponents off-balance on counters due to her solid base accompanied by a shot.

Hamasaki’s start-and-stop movement often confuses her opponents of just how much distance they have which allows Hamasaki to feed jabs or mix in crosses on opponent retreats. Often following Hamasaki’s jab is her hook – an underutilized combination in MMA… but not for the Abe Ani Combat Club product.

The head and shoulder feint is a great initiator as Hamasaki is provided versatility with several combos that begin with her jab. Whether the aforementioned hook, or uppercuts – all leading to varied types of flurries.

If uncertain of her opponent’s positioning coming in to close the distance, Hamasaki gauges with inside low kicks – a tactic that can also be used as a timed counter or hidden behind jab feints. The feint solidifying the opponent’s base allows for a much more impactful low kick upon connection.

 

As great as all these intricacies have been for Hamasaki resulting in 13 career finishes, they’re just a sliver of her entire arsenal and what crowned her across multiple promotions.

Hamasaki’s defense is her offense in the grappling world and that was on full display in one of 2020’s best performances when she defended her RIZIN title against Miyuu Yamamoto. A quick single-leg attempt from Yamamoto disrupted Hamasaki’s base and posture. With Yamamoto looking to run the pipe, the champion gives up the position to attack for a kimura in counter. Hamasaki eventually finds her leverage after being taken down and was able to apply pressure to the shoulder with her submission. The pressure ultimately forced Yamamoto to readjust which offers up the sweep to Hamasaki all in one foul swoop. On top, Hamasaki immediately secured her posture and base leading to the cranking of the kimura only for Yamamoto to correctly follow through with the pressure.

Unfortunately for Yamamoto, Hamasaki’s ability to maintain connections to herself compromised Yamamoto as she was pinned between a head scissors. Spoiler alert, that was a wrap.

Even when stuck in bad positions, Hamasaki has persevered with smarts and patience rarely seen in MMA. The savvy legend came closer than ever to suffering her first career submission loss when caught in a triangle against her rival Seo Hee Ham in 2019.

Hamasaki was forced to defend a deep triangle choke while being fed a plethora of elbows for a full four minutes of round two. Seemingly simple micro-adjustments came into play for the calm and cool veteran. Hamasaki moved her left arm (the trapped arm) behind Ham’s hip followed by shifting her base toward the lock side. This, along with Hamasaki adjusting her pressure forward into Ham forced the challenger to attempt to readjust her lock from foot deep to shin deep – Hamasaki giving her no time to do so. By keeping her base toward the lock side, Hamasaki pushed her pressure toward the triangle to loosen the connection. These continual little plays kept the champion alive as they went on to trade hands again in the third.

It’s important to highlight these positives within the negatives as Hamasaki is much more often seen in dominant top positions. Nonetheless, these are just some of the techniques and finer details of mixed martial arts that Ayaka Hamasaki has utilized to become the greatest fighter the atomweight division has ever seen, and therefore one of the greatest fighters of all time.

Turning 40 years old in March, she has yet to show any signs of slowing down.

To make further comparisons going back to ESPN’s current top 10, only former or current champions rest ahead of Harrison at No. 8. Only three of those seven are riding winning streaks of three or more wins – Hamasaki being 9-1 in her last 10 having won four straight. Among the names, Hamasaki’s 11 career title wins are only surpassed by Cris Cyborg who holds 14. Directly behind her among those in this particular top 10 are Amanda Nunes (9), Zhang Weili (8), Valentina Shevchenko (7), and Rose Namajunas (4). Hamasaki, a former 115-pound strawweight, and Nunes are the only two to have won titles in multiple weight classes – a feat many generally favor heavily in pound-4-pound discussion.

Quality of competition should always come into question as it was with Harrison earlier. The combined record for all 23 career victories of Ayaka Hamasaki at the time of fighting balances out to 209-82-1. Among those 23, narrowing down the exact number of ranked victories is a lofty task even for the finest of data researchers. However, the former or future champions tally comes in at 12 out of 23.

Despite winning titles in all but one organization fought for, it’s easy to be left out of the conversation when you’re not on the biggest stage possible. Make no mistake, if Ayaka Hamasaki and the atomweights were in the UFC, she’d be touted as what she truly is – a consensus top 3 worldwide talent.

Ayaka Hamasaki returns against Seika Izawa at RIZIN 33 on Dec. 31 in the Saitama Super Arena.

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