SAITAMA, JAPAN — MANNY PACQUIAO, flanked by family and security, came out of an elevator and passed through a holding area for MMA fighters before they made their ring walk.
To the boxing legend’s right, former UFC champion Quinton “Rampage” Jackson was on a knee, trying to help Bellator’s AJ McKee put on an elaborate, expensive samurai costume for his entrance. To Pacquiao’s left, Patricio “Pitbull” Freire, one of the best featherweight fighters in the world, was warming up with his brother, Patricky, for a champion versus champion battle in the night’s co-main event. On a nearby television screen, one could see all-time MMA great Khabib Nurmagomedov sitting in the front row.
It was the kind of surreal scene emblematic of an ambitious New Year’s Eve combat sports event Saturday at Saitama Super Arena that featured a co-promotion between Japan’s Rizin Fighting Federation and Bellator MMA of the U.S. Rizin 40, which continued the country’s tradition of combat sports on the holiday for a 22nd straight year, featured eye-popping walkouts, a major Pacquiao announcement, rivals having to mend fences (at least temporarily) and lots of knockouts.
In the end, Bellator swept Rizin, with its fighters going 5-0 against their Japanese counterparts. But that was beside the point. A crowd of 23,661 filled the iconic venue that was the home to some of MMA’s biggest fights in the aughts, showing the sport in Japan is still alive and well 15 years after the revered Pride FC promotion was sold to Zuffa, the parent company of the UFC (and soon shut down). The PA system even played the Pride theme during an extravagant main-card opening ceremony filled with laser lights and loud pyro.
The only real hang-up might have been the process of putting on McKee’s outfit: a $100,000, 55-pound black armor patterned after the garb of ancient Japanese warriors. It took more than a half hour, with the help of Jackson and McKee’s father, Antonio, and it couldn’t have been done without the man who designed the outfit, Takayuki Kato of Japan’s Marutake Industry, a manufacturer of traditional armor.
“I mean, do you know how to put on a samurai suit?” Bellator matchmaker Mike Kogan said, explaining the need for Kato’s presence.
JAPAN’S COMBAT COUNTDOWN to the new year started around noon Saturday local time, as fans filed into the building. A plump, furry mascot with pointed ears named Battle Cat waddled sideways through a narrow doorway to come outside and greet fight enthusiasts. The facility’s sub-arena was already brimming with people for an expo as a secondary attraction to the fisticuffs. A ring was set up in the corner and featured everything from jiu-jitsu competitions to rap battles to talk shows to concerts throughout the afternoon and evening. Merchandise lines extended for yards. Fans entering were given complementary Rizin 40 bags that featured a samurai design and the words “On this day, the holy ground will be covered with blood” in English.
Fans entering into Saitama Super Arena tonight are getting one of these pic.twitter.com/QO5Uo7MLrU
— Marc Raimondi (@marcraimondi) December 31, 2022
Just after 1 p.m., in a private room in the back of Rizin’s production office inside the venue, Rizin president Nobuyuki Sakakibara was putting on a tuxedo. Those who wanted to see him in a different state of dress could have in the sub-arena, where a banner for a kaarage (Japanese fried chicken) stand was adorned with a shirtless Sakakibara wearing Rizin gloves. Rizin exec Shingo Kashiwagi said it was initially made as a joke for Japan’s version of April Fool’s Day.
The Rizin production office featured seven televisions, six tuned to the biggest broadcast networks in Japan, and the seventh, on the upper right, airing the Rizin event. This year, Rizin vs. Bellator was a pay-per-view offering on the Japanese streaming platform U-Next. But in past years, when Rizin was on network TV, producers would constantly watch what was on the other stations during the event and make bout-order changes based on commercials and lulls on rival networks, Kashiwagi said.
Downstairs, where the fighters’ locker rooms were situated, Mike Mazzulli, director of the Mohegan Tribe Department of Athletic Regulation in Connecticut, was preparing to conduct drug testing for the athletes on the card. Well-known American MMA referee Jason Herzog was in the same room, raving about the work of the growing Japanese regulatory body, the Japan MMA Officials Committee (JMOC). There were eight doctors on hand for the show Saturday, Mazzulli said, compared with the typical two at U.S.-based events. American judge Bryan Miner was flown in for the event, as well.
The undercard, featuring mostly Rizin talent, started at 2 p.m. Yushi, an MMA fighter and fitness model, had one of the most memorable walkouts of the event, dancing his way down the ramp wearing a flamboyant, dazzling silver coat and transparent-framed sunglasses, with women on either side of him dressed in cyberpunk attire twirling glow sticks. He went on to beat Takuya Nakazawa by unanimous decision.
Seven straight finishes by KO/TKO followed, with only two of those fights getting past the first round. UFC veteran Johnny Case stopped Nobumitsu Tyson, who wore nothing but a bow tie and a silver platter at the ceremonial weigh-ins a day before, with ground-and-pound in just 36 seconds. About 20 minutes after that, at 4 p.m., 43-fight veteran Yuki Motoya devastated Rogerio Bontorin, whose last fight was in the UFC in 2022, with a violent jumping knee for the best knockout of the night.
Six minutes later, irreverent rising Japanese combat sports star Ren Hiramoto awaited a mystery opponent dubbed “X” for an exhibition boxing match. Hiramoto knew who it would be, but the crowd was not. Kickboxer Genji Umeno then entered as the surprise, sung in by female rap duo hy4_4yh, who wore masks inspired by legendary Japanese pro wrestler and UFC Hall of Famer Kazushi Sakuraba.
At 4:32 p.m., an intermission featured a kids’ break dancing performance inside the ring. The Bellator team bus arrived during that pause in the action and the fighters entered their locker rooms. Herzog was waiting outside one of those rooms at 4:42 p.m. for a rules meeting when former Bellator bantamweight champion Juan Archuleta walked over, wearing a green knit suit, no shirt and fedora-like hat, to greet him.
“There are no rules,” Herzog said with a wink.
That was a joke, of course. But the Rizin rule set is a bit more open than the unified rules of MMA maintained by the Association of Boxing Commissions and Combative Sports (ABC) in North America and beyond. In Japan, knees and kicks to the head of grounded opponents are legal. Fights that go to a decision are scored as a whole, not round by round.
At 4:57 p.m., UFC pioneer Royce Gracie and his son Khonry, a Bellator fighter, came backstage from the arena. Khonry looked exasperated. Excited fans had just mobbed his father before reaching the back. Gracie fought most of the latter part of his career in Japan, including a historic, 90-minute contest against Sakuraba in 2000. “It’s impossible to walk around with him here,” Khonry said.
Five minutes after Gracie and Khonry left to track down some Starbucks, Pacquiao quietly arrived through the VIP entrance as a surprise guest. As Pacquiao was escorted to a private area, a television screen showed the entrance of Ninja Turtle-costumed UFC veteran John Dodson, who then promptly knocked out veteran Hideo Tokoro with a body shot and follow-up punches.
Rampage Jackson arrived four minutes later, rolling a cardboard box on a dolly. Inside was McKee’s samurai outfit, which was too heavy to carry around. Still a massive fan favorite in Japan from his time in Pride, Jackson stopped to chat with Antonio and Kogan. They were trying to figure out how to get the cumbersome costume down to McKee’s locker room, a floor below.
Back in front of the fans, Pacquiao made his unexpected appearance around 5:17 p.m., strutting down to the ring to “Eye of the Tiger.” He and Sakakibara announced that Pacquiao had come to an agreement with Rizin to fight for the promotion in 2023. Sources told ESPN that it will likely be an exhibition boxing match, like the ones Floyd Mayweather had with Rizin.
“The date will soon be announced,” Pacquiao said. “I am open and excited to fight a Japanese fighter.”
At 6:02 p.m., a girls pop group was performing inside the sub-arena ring with fans singing and dancing along with them. Saitama Super Arena mascot Tama-rin was nearby, a gray blob with evergreen tree ears wearing a Rizin banner. Meanwhile, in the main ring, top women’s atomweight Seika Izawa was coming down the ramp for her Rizin women’s super atomweight grand prix final against South Korea’s Si Woo Park. Izawa, 25, maintained her undefeated record (9-0) with a tight, split-decision win against Park, winning the Rizin’s women’s super atomweight grand prix title.
FOLLOWING THAT FIGHT, a video package played honoring Antonio Inoki, an iconic figure in Japan who died in October at 79 years old. Inoki, one of the most famous people in the country, was a pro wrestling star and influencer of modern-day MMA with his mixed-rules fights against the likes of Muhammad Ali. After the video package, one of Inoki’s students, Nobuhiko Takada, who headlined Pride 1 against Gracie’s brother Rickson, gave a speech in memory of Inoki.
Nurmagomedov took his seat in the front row around 7 p.m., in time for the Rizin vs. Bellator main card to begin. The opening ceremony included all 10 participating fighters in the ring, along with Sakakibara and Bellator president Scott Coker, a slick video package with the Pride theme music, laser lights and some ear-piercing pyrotechnics.
This is the most epic thing you will ever see. We promise.
𝐑𝐈𝐙𝐈𝐍 𝐕𝐒 𝐁𝐄𝐋𝐋𝐀𝐓𝐎𝐑
OPENING CEREMONY!!! 🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥
— RIZIN FF English (@rizin_English) December 31, 2022
At 7:24 p.m., McKee and Patricio Pitbull were getting ready across from each other in the Bellator locker room. McKee was with his father, and Patricio with his brother, Patricky. The scene was notable because of the heated rivalry between the two camps. McKee took Patricio’s Bellator featherweight title in 2021 and Patricio won it back in April. The two have had several outside-the-cage verbal altercations. But things remained civil Saturday, with Bellator working somewhat as a team.
Gadzhi Rabadanov, who trained under Nurmagomedov’s father, Abdulmanap, won the main-card opener via unanimous decision in a grueling, back-and-forth battle against Rizin’s Koji Takeda. At 7:53 p.m., Nurmagomedov entered the ring to congratulate Rabadanov and he had some words of encouragement for Takeda, as well. Nurmagomedov was blown away by the crowd, which remains so silent during fights you can hear fighters’ cornermen echoing around the arena. Until there is action in the fight, of course, which draws enthusiastic applause.
“It’s one of the best events I’ve ever been to,” said Nurmagomedov, who was visiting Japan for the first time. “The fans were amazing. Bellator and Rizin put on a great show. I’ve never seen fans like this, the way they treat fighters [so well]. It was definitely a new experience and I don’t mind going to Japan every year for this event. I like the Japanese culture and Japanese fans.”
Archuleta, always one to make a fashion statement, walked out accompanied by fire shooting from the stage at 8 p.m. wearing an Aztec-inspired costume, complete with a stuffed jaguar head and traditional conch shell, for his fight with Soo Chul Kim.
“Here for Rizin, I was able to represent my other side of my culture, which is the Mexican side of my family,” Archuleta said. “It was no better honor to do that than to represent not just only samurai, not just [a] Roman soldier. But something that resonates with me and resonates with my culture and pay homage to my family, which is the jaguar. Aztec culture.
“They have lost our history and I wanted to bring that back in front of all you guys’ eyes.”
While Archuleta was on his way to a split-decision win to put Bellator ahead in the competition 2-0, McKee was already in the process of getting on his samurai costume for the main event in a holding area as Pacquiao sauntered by on his way out of Saitama Super Arena. McKee would not fight for nearly two more hours.
Antonio, McKee’s father, said the team had thought about the issue boxing star Deontay Wilder had in 2020, wearing a 40-pound entrance costume before a loss to Tyson Fury. Wilder blamed walking out wearing the heavy costume for the defeat. But that did not deter McKee from acquiring an even heavier getup.
“Hey, we’re following him,” Antonio said. “When it’s insane, it’s insane. But we didn’t think it was that bad. I was more hurt about the finances. We could have bought a condo for that.”
At 9:05 p.m., former Rizin and Bellator champ Kyoji Horiguchi extended Bellator’s lead to 3-0 with a unanimous decision win over Hiromasa Ougikubo. Twelve minutes later, Patricio Pitbull walked out in his costume, a gladiator, like the one long associated with Bellator’s logo. Bellator in Latin means warrior. Patricky said AJ’s costume “doesn’t make sense,” because he was going against Japan’s Rizin while wearing traditional Japanese military garb. The Pitbull brothers felt Patricio’s entrance gear was far more fitting given the event’s theme.
McKee, in his full outfit, got ready to make his walk at 9:35 p.m. behind the entrance stage while Patricio engaged in a competitive fight against Rizin featherweight champion Kleber Koike Erbst. Patricio won via unanimous decision at 9:47 p.m., going 3-0 in 2022, further establishing himself as Bellator’s most successful fighter ever. Team Bellator went up 4-0 on the night with his victory.
At 10 p.m., McKee finally made his entrance for the main event bout against Rizin lightweight champion Roberto “Satoshi” de Souza, a Brazilian-born fighter with Japanese heritage on one parent’s side like Koike Erbst. McKee walked out in the samurai suit with a horned helmet covering his face. As he made his way down the ramp, cannons shot out money — fake cash with his face on them, specially made by Rizin’s production team for the event. He brandished a sword, too, which he waved around before climbing into the ring.
After all that, McKee almost had to win — and he did. De Souza, a grappling ace, was game, threatening several times with submissions. But McKee did more damage on the feet, survived the ground threats and nearly spiked de Souza’s head with a front roll in the third round with de Souza on his back. Bellator swept the friendly competition and earned a giant trophy for the win, as confetti dropped from the ceiling at 10:41 p.m.
Backstage, half of McKee’s samurai costume was on a dolly and another half was on a desk above the dolly. A Saitama Super Arena event worker was guarding it — it’s worth $100,000, after all — and security was required. A reporter who attempted to touch it was scolded in Japanese.
“It needs an insurance policy,” Antonio said.
At 11:07 p.m., McKee was backstage getting his gloves removed while still wearing the helmet, which he didn’t take off until unwinding back in the locker room. Rampage was chatting nearby with longtime friend Tiki Ghosn, Archuleta’s agent.
“Watch the helmet,” Jackson said with a laugh. “He’ll put your eye out. He already got me.”
McKee, 27, said in the locker room that it took extensive online research to find authentic, handmade samurai garb before finding it at Kato’s store in the Chiyoda neighborhood of Tokyo. It’s made with stainless steel and alligator skin. Initially, he said, he was just going to rent it, but then decided to go all in and buy it. McKee said Kato told him it took him a year and a half to make the costume and he had sold only one like it ever, to a king whom he declined to name.
“If you’re going to be a samurai, you don’t rent armor,” McKee said. “[Samurais] would rather kill themselves than to be captured by their opponents. To me, that speaks in volume.”
Fittingly, as the clock struck midnight and the new year started, McKee was at the news conference podium addressing the Japanese media gathered. A day that started 12 hours earlier had come to an end, as had 2022.
“I think it was the walkout of the year,” McKee said.
It very likely was — in addition to being the most expensive, heaviest and, of course, the final one. But what better way to cap a unique, large-scale crossover event and add yet another memorable chapter to the New Year’s Eve combat sports tradition in Japan?
“Everything I do, I do to the fullest,” McKee said. “Nobody pays tribute to their culture, my culture. I know where I come from. I know my culture. I know the history of it. I know the history of many cultures. And this goes right into mine [as a warrior]. It was an honor to be here and share our cultures together.”