Tenshin Nasukawa: Kickboxing Messiah

The Japanese star is very much the real deal.

by Jack Slack
May 22 2018, 9:15pm

Screen capture via YouTube

In Tenshin Nasukawa, Japan has found a star. That much is obvious from the beautiful robes to the spectacular entrances to the avant-garde designs of his shorts, ankle straps, and hair. Thousands of dollars have been wasted on trimmings and trappings for next-great-fighters the world over who just never panned out, though. All the shimmering gold fabric in the world cannot make a world beater out of a fighter who is just good, and no amount of pyro on the entrance ramp will do anything for a fighter who sucks the joy out of the room once he’s in the ring. But Tenshin Nasukawa is good—very good—and exceptionally entertaining, and to not drape him in ceremony and push him to high heaven would be almost criminal mismanagement at this point.

By the time that he was 18 years old Nasukawa had already built up a 16-0 record as a professional kickboxer. In December of 2016, Nasukawa found himself in the ring with Lumpinee Stadium champion, Wanchalong. The bout was brief and is remembered for the spectacular back kick which Nasukawa landed flush on Wanchalong’s face to score the knockout. In the two minutes prior to that, Wanchalong had low kicked the cocky young teen straight off the glove touch and Nasukawa had torn into him in response. The brief fight was all Tenshin and, though the unorthodox kick cut short what was shaping up to be a masterclass, it propelled Tenshin to new heights as the finish went viral.

Nasukawa is now twenty years old and while his face has rounded out only to appear more boyish still, he has grown into his frame and put on some muscle and is fighting sharper than ever. By dividing his time between RISE, KNOCK OUT, and Rizin, Nasukawa keeps a busy schedule but still hasn’t met with defeat. The MMA fan will be familiar with Nasukawa’s matches in Rizin: wherein he has been fed a junk food diet of kickboxing matches against MMA fighters, and a one night tournament wherein Nasukawa ended up beating a fighter with a .500 record, and another who had made his professional debut earlier that night. Rizin is the spectacle, Rizin has the money and Rizin is the show, but it is KNOCK OUT that you must study to see the real Tenshin Nasukawa.

The Tools of Tenshin

Tenshin Nasukawa fulfils the first requirement of making people care about his fights: he has knockout power and regularly puts it to good use. As a southpaw, Nasukawa presents the usual problems of the southpaw double attack—a great left straight and left round kick. The quickness of Nasukawa is a part of his success, but his eye is responsible for a bigger share. Nasukawa likes to sharp shoot high and low, straight and around, with his left hand while his fast left leg keeps his opponents honest. A lower-paced fight seems to give Nasukawa even more chance to set his feet in his stance and dart in, picking and choosing his shots. This seems to be what has given trouble to a couple of the very experienced but slower Thai fighters that Nasukawa has met, rather than an effort to simply overwhelm them with frantic activity.

His left hand is the money punch but Nasukawa’s jab has looked pretty crisp as a sniping tool. Dropping it below the opponent’s line of sight in order to bring it up from underneath, Nasukawa avoids the "crossed swords" of the southpaw vs. orthodox lead hand tangle. Against Visanlek’s palms-out-and-ready-to-parry guard this jab was a constant nuisance.

What marks Nasukawa out more than his speed is his anticipation. He has the sense for it: that understanding of psychology and expectation that makes a great offensive sharpshooter. He seems to have a grasp on when his opponent is bothered by a look and when to change it up and throw something else to cause the most chaos he can. Here he has Wanchalong biting on a feinted jab and instead steps in deep to hit him with an elbow. An elbow! The weapon that—according to Muay Thai fans back to the old K-1 Max tourneys—Japanese kickboxing organizations are supposed to be protecting their golden boys from.

Nasukawa is much better at building off his left hand than off the jab. When used as a counter his left straight keeps his opponent honest. Mess up your range on a kick and Nasukawa might take a few of your teeth home in his glove after blasting you on one leg. On offense, though, Nasukawa uses the left to the body to draw responses and build off them. Both the wide left and the left straight sneak through to the body—the liver or solar plexus—and either bring the opponent’s arms down, or see the opponent lock them up in position even more stoically. When Visanlek attempted to grit his teeth and not adjust, Nasukawa performed a heavy bag session on his midriff with combinations hinging around the body shot.

Your best chance to get a glimpse into the fighter beneath the surface level technique will always be when their A game is complicated or stifled by natural attributes or tactical decisions. The fight which teaches us more about Tenshin Nasukawa than any other is his most recent KNOCK OUT performance against Suakim in February 2018. Suakim, a former Lumpinee champion was coming down in weight to fight Nasukawa and through both his style and stature shone a light on Nasukawa in moments of discomfort. For the first three rounds of their five round bout, Nasukawa did strong work, becoming far more aggressive at points in the second and third. The fourth and fifth rounds, however, saw Nasukawa slow and become panicked as Suakim routinely feinted him to the ropes before engaging.

It is very hard to land jumping kicks on opponents who don’t simply move in when they are expected to.

Suakim’s effective use of his lead leg as a push kick, a side kick, a feint, and just an all around annoyance bothered Nasukawa. Suakim would pick the foot up and glide in behind it and Nasukawa would be at the ropes again. Suakim also had a decent lead hand and jabbed with Nasukawa well. Nasukawa, giving up some height and range, could not place that flicking upjab that he leaned on against Visanlek and often found himself struggling to control the "crossed swords" of the southpaw vs. orthodox handfight. Without control of the jabbing battle, Nasukawa went to leaning back, wide-swinging check hooks each time Suakim jabbed in along the ropes. Nasukawa was able to use these to pivot out on many occasions but as Luke Rockhold’s career will attest: a deep, committed check hook which can be predictably triggered can be exploited in some nasty ways.

Similarly, when crowded, Nasukawa tends to grit his teeth and rely on a back-stepping or back-sliding left swing. There is no arguing against the fact that if you are a decent banger who is feeling a bit flustered, it’s a great way of getting someone off you. The downside is that all the hurt is in the end of the punch—the fist and the forearm—if a fighter stays inside of it all he gets is a biceps against his guard and he is stood in great position to continue punching.

Here Visanlek catches Nasukawa out with a right straight and draws that same back-up-and-swing reaction.

Between the retreating left swing and the retreating or pivoting almost straight-armed check hook, it is clear that Nasukawa’s response to being flustered is to throw as hard as possible and try to get away. The last minute or two of round four against Suakim made this particularly noticeable as Suakim kept his usual pace and Nasukawa was sprinting around the ring and diving into clinches with much less composure and control over the fight than he had shown in the previous three rounds.

Suakim’s height also seemed to trouble Nasukawa. The Japanese star would step deep and swing his left and still fall just short. Suakim might not have had hands as dangerous as Nasukawa’s but he kept catching Nasukawa out of position as Nasukawa had to reach further to get in and lean back further to get away.

Unfortunately the Suakim-Nasukawa fight was let down by some comical referee work as the official routinely gave Nasukawa lengthy breaks off clinches in the fourth and fifth round, insisted that Nasukawa had been struck to the back of the head when Suakim kneed him in the gut and dumped him, and at one point even dragged the tiring Nasukawa off the mat following a missed jumping kick. This slight gripe aside, the fight was a marvelous showing by both men and is available online and well worth your time.

Takeru versus Tenshin

There’s a lot more going on with the young Nasukawa-kun and every fight (well, almost every fight) gives us a chance to learn a little more about him. Hell, we haven’t even touched on his Kyokushin-influenced kicking game and those hold-the-hip-back low kicks that carry a whiff of Masato’s influence. For now, all you need to know is that Tenshin Nasukawa is bloody good and the fight which has fans salivating is Takeru vs. Tenshin. It is one of those dream fights which is entirely possible but also seems jut too difficult for the moment—Tenshin is KNOCK OUT’s top boy, Takeru is K-1’s. They fight around the same weight in the same country, the fight should come around, but there’s some dancing to do first. Not only is the match up fascinating because it pits two young Japanese stars against each other and would likely determine the best bantamweight kickboxer in the world, the style clash will also work your brain into riddles.

We examined Takeru at length last week. The paradoxical part is that Takeru is an inside fighter who works well in combinations with his hands—particularly to the body—but spends ninety percent of the fight throwing lead leg snap kicks and push kicks from out at range. Takeru’s style is a lot more "honest" than Suakim’s—he doesn’t feint, feint, and then push kick when you’re off balance, he is always needling, nudging and sometimes thudding with a constant output of lead leg work. But many Takeru kicks are kicks to move and annoy the opponent, the kind of kicks that simply get in the way for a man like Tenshin who wants to time his bursts in and out without much resistance.

Moreover that trigger happy left hand swing that we talked about when Nasukawa gets a little crowded and flustered? Some of the best methods to work against it are to step inside it and crack the body with the right hook or counter with a left hook upstairs as he’s recovering his guard.

Drawing out the left straight and countering with the right to the body underneath is also a great way to punish a southpaw sharp shooter. Linares landed this counter very nicely against Lomachenko last weekend.

Wouldn't you know it, Takeru is the most frequent and prolific body puncher on the inside in bantamweight kickboxing. And his money combination? The right hook to the body and the left hook upstairs. If Takeru can feint and nudge and push Tenshin Nasukawa to the ropes, he’s a guy with exactly the weapons to exploit Nasukawa’s habits from there.

But on the other side of that equation, Takeru is hardly a defensive savant. In fact where Nasukawa can take a shower without getting wet, Takeru is pretty well known for his ability—and perhaps overeagerness—to take a punch to the face. With all that stepping up to kick with the lead leg while pursuing opponents around the ring, Takeru sometimes ends up getting blasted with his feet directly underneath him and no ability to roll or lean with the blow. Moreover, Takeru doesn’t set himself up in a perfect range and then nudge with the lead leg as Suakim does, he lunges after fighters, chasing them with lead leg kicks. When shown a little lateral movement Takeru can get into a reckless chase against men who are much less talented than the other top kickboxers he has walked through. In Tenshin vs. Takeru you have an outside sharp shooter with razzle dazzle rolling kicks matched up against a long-range kicker and infighting body puncher: there couldn’t be two fighters whose habits and skills matched up in a more compelling way.

In the meantime this has served as a brief introduction to Tenshin Nasukawa’s style when he fights the best kickboxers in the world and why so many knowledgeable fight fans are so excited by him. Ignore the record padding and the softballs, feel free to laugh off anyone who tries to sell you on them, but know that Nasukawa in his element is very much the real deal.

Jack wrote the hit biography Notorious: The Life and Fights of Conor McGregor and podcasts at The Fight Primer.

This article originally appeared on VICE Sports US.