After flirting with fights of various natures against Khabib Nurmagomedov, Manny Pacquiao (again), and Conor McGregor (again), world-class asshole Floyd Mayweather Jr. has come out of retirement for either the third or fourth time and booked his next fight, which will take place on New Year’s Eve in Tokyo. Mayweather will fight undefeated Japanese kickboxing sensation Tenshin Nasukawa, who is less than half his age. The fight will be promoted and staged by Rizin Federation, which is run by disgraced Japanese promoter Nobuyuki Sakakibara. Crucially, nobody has announced what type of fight the bout will be. This is all so much weirder than any other possible Mayweather fight.
Let’s start with Rizin, a three-year-old organization that sprouted up following the unceremonious deaths of legendary Japanese promotion PRIDE in 2007 and middling Japanese promotion DREAM in 2012. Rizin has some stars on its roster, like Mirko Cro Cop, Fedor Emelianenko (occasionally), and Kyoji Horiguchi, but they’ve carved out a decidedly smaller chunk of the MMA landscape than PRIDE did.
That’s to be expected, since PRIDE was the only game in town in its day. Rizin carries with it the strange promotional flair and underworld ties that defined PRIDE, thanks largely to Sakakibara. The promoter founded PRIDE alongside the mobbed-up Hiromichi Momose and Naoto Morishita, who died under mysterious circumstances in 2003. Their organization was instrumental in the rise of big-time pro MMA. Some of the sports’ first stars came through PRIDE, though it all fell apart in 2006 after a spat with Fedor over him fighting for another promotion led to the exposure of PRIDE’s deep ties to the yakuza and the subsequent cancelation of its TV deal. The end came swiftly. At least we’ll always have the Nick Diaz gogoplata submission.
Accounts from the glory days and end times of PRIDE paint a picture of a fighting promotion inextricably tied to organized crime. As such, many former fighters have since admitted that tons of fights were fixed, which makes sense, since the origins of professional MMA are linked with the pro wrestling world. The spectacle was always the point. Steroids were specifically not tested for.
The UFC bought PRIDE in 2007, initially boasting about launching a two-continent new golden age of MMA before shutting it down shortly after the sale and suing the former owners over their refusal to comply with any basic background checks. Dana White called it “the worst deal ever done in the history of business.” A due diligence report on Sakakibara ruled that he was “not a person of suitable character.” He refused to speak to the UFC’s investigators, and the report noted that “all of his financials are questionable.” Sakakibara tried running a soccer team, though his club was reportedly denied entry into the J-League over his alleged mob ties. All of which led to the founding of Rizin.
This is maybe the best MMA promotion for someone like Floyd Mayweather. Rizin is no stranger to spectacle, once booking a title fight between Cro Cop and 400-pound Estonian sumo wrestler Baruto Kaido. They will very clearly bend whatever rules they have to to put on a good show, and someone like Mayweather easily has the clout to stipulate whatever ruleset he wants for the fight. Given how careful Mayweather has been in the recent past about picking opponents he’s sure he can beat, there’s no way he fights Nasukawa in a full-on MMA or even kickboxing fight, at least not one that’s above the level. This is to say nothing of Mayweather’s, let’s say, affectionate relationship with gambling and long-rumored habit of losing shitloads of money. This will be the first time he’s fought outside of Las Vegas in 13 years. The fact that he hasn’t bragged about how much money he’s making is weird. Occam’s razor says this is a sham fight cooked up to cover for something.
Given that something as drastic as turning over full ownership of Rizin to Mayweather wouldn’t generate nearly enough money to make this worth his while, one can only wonder what that something is. Is this a pro-wrestling match where Mayweather can pick up a few cheap million? Is it a legitimate match where Mayweather can make an enormous amount of money by being on one or the other end of a dive? Who knows!
All of this is all the more mysterious because Nasukawa is one of the hottest prospects around, with a 4-0 record in MMA and a 27-0 record as a professional kickboxer. He beat Horiguchi in a kickboxing bout in September, and even though he’s only 20, he’s already scored some famous knockouts. He flattened champion Muay Thai fighter Wanchalong Senchaigym within a round with a huge spinning back kick while he was still in high school.
Look at the power on this body shot that ended former IBF world champion Amnat Ruenroeng.
Given the power gradient in play here, there’s basically no way anyone is agreeing to lose here; both fighters have too much invested in their undefeated gimmicks. There’s also no way Mayweather agrees to this fight if it’s a full-on MMA contest; Nasukawa would kick the shit out of him immediately. That means the odds are that this will be a straight-up boxing match. “As far as the weight class and the rules, we’ll talk about that,” Mayweather said at his press conference last night. I would love to see Mayweather get humiliated in a legit MMA fight, but there’s not much here to indicate that the Nasukawa fight is either legit or MMA.
That leaves the most logical explanation for what the hell is going on here as a straight-up boxing match being promoted by promoters who aren’t within an order of magnitude of having enough money to pay Floyd Mayweather Jr. to box for them. Two people who have no reason to and can’t afford to lose will be fighting New Year’s Eve, with, as far as one can tell, not nearly enough on the line to make it worth their while. What exactly is going on here?