The Stylistic Subtleties of Rizin's Karate Boys

Kyoji Horiguchi and Daron Cruickshank punch and kick faces. Both go about it in interesting ways, and they make Rizin the must-watch event of the weekend.

by Jack Slack
May 4 2018, 7:19pm

Photos by Bob DeChiara, Per Haljestam-USA TODAY Sports

Rizin returns this weekend to provide another night of beautiful pageantry and bizarre spectacle, with more than a little mixed martial arts action in between. Japan’s big money promotion, Rizin, occupies an interesting place in the MMA landscape: it lacks the depth of quality talent that the UFC or even Bellator has, but by only running a handful of shows a year they can stack out their cards with their top talent and make each feel like a real event. The UFC and Bellator have the responsibility of putting on televised shows sometimes for weeks back-to-back and as a fan some of them do feel more like an obligation. Yet with Rizin every event feels like the best that they can do, and it has that atmosphere of something special that the UFC often lacks for months at a time now.

There’s a little of the usual nonsense on the card, of course. Rizin has procured the services of the great Tenshin Nasukawa once again, and rather than advertize him as a great kickboxer by hiring another good kickboxer to fight him as RISE and KNOCK OUT do—a move that would ultimately help kickboxing and not just pad his highlight reel—Rizin have placed him into a kickboxing match against an MMA fighter with no kickboxing record. However there is also Yusuke Yachi taking on Diego Nunes, Kai Asakura vs. Manel Kape, and plenty of real match-making, bolstered by a conspicuous absence of women’s heavyweight, Gabi Garcia taking on a Japanese grandmother.

Kyoji Horiguchi is in the handful of truly great fighters outside of the UFC. He had a decent run in the UFC’s flyweight division, but was thrown in with Demetrious Johnson far too early on. Now working with American Top Team, the vastly improved Horiguchi is Rizin’s superstar. Due to a lack of flyweight talent, Horiguchi went up in weight to bantamweight to enter, and subsequently win, a two-night tournament at Rizin’s last event. On this weekend’s card he meets fellow UFC veteran, Ian McCall. That is, at the time of writing. There is still plenty of time for Ian McCall to suffer something in line with one of the many, many bizarre accidents which have riddled his recent career. Horiguchi is notable for his slick point-fighting karate style which he has combined with some nice boxing looks to make himself less vulnerable in the aftermath of his bursts into range.

Another karate-boy on Rizin’s card is the ever-entertaining Daron Cruickshank. "Karate" is a hold-all term here: Cruickshank grew up in Taekwondo and American-style kickboxing, both of which grew out of various karate styles, which in turn came from Chinese styles, which in turn came—if you believe the most extravagant myths—from Bodhidharma himself. For our purposes today, the terminology doesn’t really matter, what we are interested in is the stylistic quirks of each man. Both men punch and kick faces; both go about it in interesting ways.

The Baddest Man in Japan

Traditional karate competition teaches two things: getting across the floor fast, and timing intercepting counters. Kyoji is masterful at both. The intercepting counter or sen-no-sen is the act of attacking-the-attack. Rather than slipping or blocking and then retaliating, the fighter explodes in at the same time as his foe, creating a car crash. Sen-no-sen makes hitters out of even the most pillow-fisted fighters. The classic Lyoto Machida method is to circle and run until the opponent over commits and charges you, but Horiguchi has been pretty good at maintaining a nice distance and drawing a kick. Horiguchi dropped opponents with both reverse punches and jabs as they kicked during the Grand Prix.

But the easiest way to score intercepting counters is still Machida’s tactic: drawing the opponent into an offensive mindset and refusing to engage a few times. As soon as the opponent is convinced the fighter will step back, and is taking that "extra step" in anticipation, he is ripe to be countered with a good straight punch down the pipe. Horiguchi’s knockout victory in the final of Rizin’s tournament is a textbook example of that.

Competition karate’s focus on the perfect reverse punch has led to plenty of problems for those who try to apply it in combat sports environments. The old ikken hissatsu or "one hit, certain death" mindset just can’t be relied upon. The fight doesn’t end with the first good punch and the referee won’t stop the action when you score. Many competition karateka train to pose after they reckon they should be awarded a point.

When we examined Karate Combat a couple of weeks ago, this was one of the biggest issues each high-level competition karateka faced as soon as they got into a continuous, free fight. Both fighters would throw themselves into a powerful reverse punch, then—because they never train past that part of the exchange—they were freely chinned by short left hands in the aftermath.

Even the great Lyoto Machida still suffered most of his significant losses by getting caught after he landed a nice counter. Kyoji Horiguchi stands out among traditionalists as he has managed to do a decent job of making himself elusive after his big hits. He will weave out after landing his right hand (good basic boxing) or he will shove his opponent away (also good, but illegal, basic boxing). Horiguchi will also add a counter left hook as he weaves out, this was responsible for many of his best connections in the UFC and it serves as an interesting dynamic shift. Horiguchi is an outside fighter, hard to get a hold of, but suddenly he is on the inside and through this simple double action he is a threat there too. UFC fans will also recall that this was the punch which did Renan Barao in during his second fight with T.J. Dillashaw.

When a fighter fires his right hand he is at his most vulnerable, because the only time he will throw it is when he is close enough to also be hit by his opponent. This is the governing principle of many classical styles of counter-fighting, for instance the shoulder roll: the moment that you take a right hand on your lead shoulder, you should already be coming back with a right hand of your own because you know the opponent is in range and squared up, presenting a target.

The secret to good fighting generally is to make the assumption that the opponent will be throwing back at you the moment you initiate an engagement. Horiguchi weaves and shoves are small movements but they mitigate the enormous weakness of the burst-into-right-hand, competition-karate style. Cus D’amato used to say that as long as the fighter is thinking about being elusive he should be okay, so many well trained karateka burst in and, with their job apparently done, immediately forget about their own safety.

Rizin Superstar

Daron Cruickshank is a traditional martial artist of a different build. Rather than straight line bursts and rapier straight punches, Cruickshank works in side kicks and running flurries. With that being said, he demonstrates an interesting follow up on that points-style collision of rear hands, slipping to the outside of Anthony Njokuani’s lead foot and picking up a high crotch takedown.

For an orthodox fighter, Cruickshank lands a surprisingly high number of right leg side kicks and this is worth further scrutiny. Most people kick hardest with their right leg but the only way to line up the side kick off that leg seems to be standing in a bladed, southpaw stance—that’s a long way from the more square on, orthodox stance most will rely on for the rest of their game. Stephen Thompson and Justin Scoggins will switch between orthodox and southpaw stance, going noticeably more side on when southpaw with the intention of lining up the side kick from their lead leg.

Instead of switching stances in preparation for his right leg side kick, Cruickshank throws out a right straight and darts off to his left side, cutting a nice angle and leaving his right leg closest to his opponent. As the opponent turns to follow him, they almost always walk themselves straight onto the side kick to the gut. Stephen Thompson also used this set up against Rory MacDonald and Jorge Masvidal.

Paul Felder was so keen to keep plodding forward after him that Cruickshank was able to double up the kick and score a Shawn Michaels style Sweet Chin Music. A right side kick to the head is very rare in MMA , especially from a fighter who spends most of his time in an orthodox stance.

"The Detroit Superstar" also makes use of the side kick in a defensive capacity. The defensive side kick, or "D-side," isn’t a damage dealing blow, it is a stopper. The goal is simply to get the stiff leg into the opponent’s midsection and brace against his forward momentum as he steps in. This is used in point fighting competitions to jump into back kicks (see Raymond Daniels in action for more of that) or to set up counter straight punches on the open side. Here Cruickshank gives ground, switching stances as he does so, then lands a flailing backhand off the D-side against Satoru Kitaoka.

Another application of the side kick is seen in Cruickshank’s willingness to miss a kick and kick again from his new position. Cruickshank will miss a bog standard round kick, then immediately bring the same leg back to side kick or mule kick out behind him—a back kick without a turn. Here, Cruickshank goes berserk and button-mashes: notice the missed kick into back kick, the back hand mid-combination, and how much fun Cruickshank is to watch under rules that allow kicks to an opponent on his knees.

Cruickshank also likes to put in extended flurries of frenetic work designed to overwhelm the opponent. This can befuddle many of his opponents as a change of dynamic. Cruickshank likes to march with his kicks—immediately kicking through with his other leg when one kick has been landed and placed down in front of him. This is a good deal more reckless than the kick-and-get-back-on-guard style that most are using in MMA. It can lead to some surprising strikes sneaking through as with his over-the-shoulder high kick against Eric Koch.

But Cruickshank’s running flurries can often leave him open to a counter as he commits his body and mind to the attack, disregarding the reasons that most skilled boxers and kickboxers won’t simply run in on a line flailing both hands and feet. Against rising Japanese prospect Yusuke Yachi, Cruickshank fought a good, competitive bout, but threw it all away with a telegraphed rush which saw him dive chin first onto Yachi’s counter right hook.

Daron Cruickshank’s name is a seal of approval, seldom attached to a boring fight. His style makes him both a hassle for even the great fighters he loses to and a joy to watch for the fans. The UFC cut him from their roster off three back-to-back losses to very good fighters, but he could have drawn eyes to their Fight Night cards for years to come and no one would have minded his record.

Cruickshank undoubtedly provides plenty of bang for the promoter’s buck. Unfortunately after four memorable appearances in Rizin he still finds himself at 2-2. Cruickshank’s opponent this weekend is no slouch either—Koshi Matsumoto, the Shooto Lightweight champion. If Cruickshank is going to start putting it together and fighting smarter, the time is now, but if he doesn’t you’re still in for the usual treat whether he ends the fight over his opponent or flat on his face.

Kyoji Horiguchi’s headline spot is good to see, and Ian McCall is easily the most accomplished opponent that Rizin could find for him right now. Spare a clash of heads against Manel Kape, no one in Rizin has looked anywhere close to giving Horiguchi trouble, but an Ian McCall turnaround at this stage in his career would be something of a Mark Hunt-esque fairy tale. If you like fist fights and actual fireworks, Rizin is the must watch event this weekend.