Japan’s kickboxing wunderkind, Tenshin Nasukawa, found himself in the fight of his life on Sunday and escaped with his unbeaten record by the slimmest of margins. From the second round to the fifth, Rodtang Jitmuangnon walked through Nasukawa’s best blows, played to the crowd, and hammered the Japanese star’s body and arms with blows. At the end of five hard, compelling rounds the Japanese judges had it as a draw and the fight was taken to an extra round. After this final round, Nasukawa was awarded the victory but fans were unconvinced.
In Tenshin Nasukawa: Kickboxing Messiah we examined the success that the gangly Thai, Suakim, had in pressuring Nasukawa to the boundary. As Nasukawa’s back foot hits the ropes, his stance squares and he becomes more of a target while losing the retreat which allows him to glide back for so many of his open side counters. From the second round of their RISE 125 fight onwards, Rodtang made a good go of getting in Nasukawa’s face and crowding him.
Where Suakim routinely waltzed Nasukawa to the ropes with feints and ringcraft but did little when he arrived, Rodtang actually got in to do some hurting when he had Nasukawa in a vulnerable position. Rodtang’s flurries along the ropes, particularly his digging body punches, was some of the more effective offense that has been made against Nasukawa, who is as slippery as a greased whippet out at range. Nasukawa’s squarer position opened him up to these head-on, two-handed combinations. Hooking or round kicking to the body along the ropes is always a great decision because linear retreat is cut off by the ropes themselves, lateral movement takes the fighter through the path of the circular strikes, and the body—unlike the head—cannot change levels to get under roundhouse blows effectively.
With that being said, Nasukawa was still able to duck out under or side-step many of Rodtang’s attacks along the ropes. In fact his awareness of what to do in these situations seemed much sharper than when he fought Suakim in February. When Nasukawa found himself in deep water against Suakim he was simply sprinting around the outside of the ring to get away from him in the later going.
When Rodtang entered along the ropes it tended to be behind one of three weapons. The right round kick, the right straight to the body, or a stepping knee. The round kick was an interesting study in this fight because in many of Nasukawa’s fights, his insistence on returning with the left hand every time he absorbs a kick on his guard makes many of his opponents go to it less frequently. Rodtang seemed to adopt the Yodsanklai philosophy of “if I keep kicking him in the arm, it might fall off at some point in the coming rounds and then he won’t be able to punch me.” And to be fair to him it seemed to work. Nasukawa returned on everything thrown in the first and second rounds, but by the fourth and fifth he was absorbing kicks along the ropes either without retaliation or considerably slower to the target when he tried.
The counters were considerably more venomous in round two...
than they were from the third round onwards.
The round kick to the body or arm has always been a great entry technique along the ropes because the opponent only has two options for improving position—circle left or right—fifty percent of those options carry him into the brunt of the kick. More importantly, the kicker may step down and start flurrying with his hands in a way that he isn’t often afforded to off his kicks out in the open.
The right straight to the body is a wonderful and underused punch in all phases of the fight but becomes especially useful along the boundary. As the opponent squares up he presents his solar plexus and sternum in ways that most fighters do not out in their comfortable stance at range. By changing level and shooting straight to the solar plexus the attacking fighter finds a target he doesn’t often hit hard out in the open, but also throws multiple levels into the equation. He might come up with the left hook to the head or stay low and hook to the body, but it is clear that attacking at multiple levels is on the table rather than simply pursuing the cornered man’s head as Yoel Romero did with tunnel vision through his attempts to stop Robert Whittaker last weekend.
What wasn’t ideal from a strategic standpoint was Rodtang’s willingness to take stiff shots, square on his jaw, to get in and give a couple of his own. On the one hand, taking the vaunted Nasukawa left and gooning to the crowd in response did elicit riotous applause, on the other hand it is maddening to watch a fighter get to good positions and then trade punch-for-punch with zero regard for his own safety. But following a tepid first round, Rodtang began trading with Nasukawa in the second and by eating the Japanese superstar’s tremendous counter punches Rodtang was able to work towards tiring Nasukawa.
As we continue to build our profile of Tenshin Nasukawa’s skills and habits, it has to be hoped that there is a middle ground between Suakim’s tentative probing and Rodtang’s Homer Simpson method that can be used to put pressure on Nasukawa and see him tire in the later rounds just the same.
Playing for Time
Just as against Suakim, Nasukawa was not nearly the same fighter in the twilight of the fight. In late round 4 and round 5 he was running, holding, and stalling to find his breath. Something which the referee was more than happy to allow him to do. When Nasukawa had spent a little too much energy at the start of round three he found himself grabbing a kick and running into a double leg takedown. This was a lot more forgivable coming from the career wrestler Nasukawa boxed up at the last Rizin event, but Nasukawa has trained for a couple of MMA bouts, this wasn’t him functioning on instinct. As the referee flaccidly ordered them up to their feet, Nasukawa milked every second he could out of the break in action.
Nasukawa has also hit on something that only a couple of others have. Kickboxing loves the rolling thunder or "kaiten geri," because it produces spectacular knockouts. But the other side of this tumbling axe kick is that it throws the kicker to the mat. Not only does this mean that he is effectively uncounterable, it also means that he can take his sweet time getting up. Nasukawa has scored rolling thunder knockdowns on lesser opponents but against Rodtang and Suakim it was painfully obvious that he was using this and the cartwheel kick to buy time as he was exhausted.
Peculiarly, it was perhaps the least competent striker in the upper echelons of MMA who really shone a light on this trick. On New Year's Eve 2010 the grappling savant, Shinya Aoki, was matched against Yuichiro Nagashima, a decent kickboxer, in a “special rules” match consisting of alternating kickboxing and MMA rounds. Aoki had to find a way to make it through the kickboxing round so that he could turn Nagashima into a pretzel on the ground in the MMA round. So Aoki threw himself through the air, cartwheeling into kicks and slowly pulling himself off the mat while the referee gave him his tenth warning.
Hilariously enough, the moment that the MMA round came, Aoki dove in for a takedown and was knocked out by a flying knee.
Questionable officiating was not in short supply in the Nasukawa-Rodtang bout, as Nasukawa was able to call his own groin shots and time outs, just as he had after being kneed in the chest and dumped from the clinch by Suakim. This, combined with the home town draw and extra round (a purely Japanese gimmick, most famously used in PRIDE to offer a lifeline to Kazushi Sakuraba after Guy Mezger made him look bad), are not a great look for RISE. Nasukawa is a great enough fighter on his own to not warrant such use of the finger on the scale.
Tenshin Nasukawa was awarded the decision, keeping his undefeated record, but it was a hard sell and it came at the expense of the judges’ credibility. But to focus on the politics is never rewarding in combat sports, what is important to think about is that between Saukim and Rodtang we have seen Nasukawa tested in new ways by stiffer competition. And while this fight was a rough one, he did show growth since the Suakim fight where he had no answers to getting trapped along the ropes but a wild swinging check hook and a 40 yard dash. Talent and knockout power are great things to have, but if a fighter can’t learn and adapt he will struggle to truly become great. And even for the fighter who is humble and patient enough to learn from his mistakes, a lot of the time it takes an ass-kicking or a near loss to drive the lesson home. Tenshin Nasukawa didn’t look bad, but he did look worried, and there’s a great chance that brings out something better in the 19-year-old phenom as he goes forward.
This article originally appeared on VICE Sports US.