By Alistair Hendrie

By running through Kai Asakura at Rizin 20 on New Year’s Eve, Manel Kape shook up the 135lbs division, scuppered an all-Japanese rematch between Asakura and Kyoji Horiguchi and also scooped the vacant Rizin bantamweight title. The Angolan celebrated his round two TKO by dashing towards the injured Horiguchi, who was working as a ringside commentator, and planting a kiss on his former vanquisher’s temple. He’d announced himself as a major player and sealed it with a kiss.

Kape, 27, is now slated to defend against Hiromasa Ogikubo, who edged a slugfest against Shintaro Ishiwatari earlier in the event to add further intrigue at 135lbs. At the same weight Patrick Mix, visiting Japan as part of the Bellator roster, looked outstanding in taking out Yuki Motoya inside a round with a vicious guillotine choke from a mounted position. Bearing in mind those victorious fighters – not to mention Asakura and Horiguchi – fans of Rizin can now anticipate a series of thrilling rivalries in the promotion’s marquee division.

Kape walks the walk and talks the talk, after all. He gave himself the moniker “Mr Mother******* Champion” during his post-fight interview and also added that he now feels Japanese, having built a 6-3 record in The Land of the Rising Sun while competing on Rizin cards. Not a bad way to endear yourself to a packed-out Saitama Super Arena.

During his post-fight press conference, he reiterated that he knew Asakura was scared. Although the 26-year-old Japanese star earned the judges’ nod in their first meeting at Rizin 10 in 2018, Kape had the conviction that he could hurt his rival – and he turned out to be correct.

The African, honing his skills at AKA Thailand alongside Mike Swick, detonated a short, right hand counter on the point of Asakura’s jaw as the favourite opened up with a combination. Kape never let up, punishing his man with hammer fists until Jason Herzog, the referee, flew in to save Asakura.

Credit to him, he’d already gauged the distance in round one, moving slickly and parrying punches on his arms and shoulders. He slipped out of range and let his own staccato flurries go at the right moments. Round two, of course, was a formality as stunned Asakuru and avoided butterfly guards to seal the finishing blows.

Kape, cocky as ever, reckons he’s a level about his next challenger, Ogikubo. “It was an ugly fight,” the champion said, discussing his rival’s victory over Ishiwatari. “They don’t have any cardio. If they want to fight me, they need to be training three, four, five times a day. They need to wake up early and sleep later, because they can’t follow me. In the first round, maybe. In the second round? Never. If they’d get to the third round with me, it would be a miracle of God… These guys need to be careful what they wish for.”

That said, Kape could never discredit Ogikubo’s heart. The 32-year-old pushed a relentless pace, setting up his takedowns with winging two-three punch combinations that rocked Ishiwitari. Both men traded in the pocket, Ishiwitari getting through with a wicked spinning back fist in the decider, but Ogikubo’s drives to the mat and aggressive boxing gave him the decision.

That sets up a mouthwatering confrontation between Kape and Ogikubo in the first half of 2020. While Kape dismissed Ogikubo as a battle-hardened brawler without a gas tank, he could be wrong. The Japanese fighter is the latest Shooto bantamweight king and also counts the likes of Motoya and Danny Martinez on his list of victims. He also went the distance with Horiguchi in 2018 at Rizin 11, so he’s no slouch, improving on a submission defeat to Kyoji in 2013.

Indeed, write off Ogikubo at your peril. While his arcing, long, wailing punches may look crude, note how he keeps his head out of danger. Additionally, while setting up his shoots, he speeds up his handiwork, therefore befuddling his opponent and allowing him to pick the legs. He’d pose the beltholder problems, for sure.

Kape would have a size advantage, though, as Ogikubo has competed at around 125lbs for a lot of his career. Kape’s timing is also excellent and his fight IQ perhaps exceeds his foe’s. What would happen if Kape managed to score counters? How would things go if Kape knocked Ogikubo down? We’ve seen how Kape refuses to let an opponent off the hook, so it would be exciting to see if he could catch Ogikubo coming in.

Mix is also in with a shout in the Rizin 135lbs scene if Nobuyuki Sakakibara’s stable continue its relationship with Scott Coker’s Bellator brand. Mix boasts fearsome jiu-jitsu and the way he scrambled with the transitions, clinging onto his guillotine against Motoya, displayed the savvy of a veteran. Asakura, too, always provides fireworks while Horiguchi stands as one of the greatest mixed martial artists ever to come out of Japan. So Kape may have the gold for now, but he has plenty of competition in this latest game of bantamweight snakes and ladders.


Check out Alistair Hendrie’s Kindle book, Fight Game: The Untold Story of Women’s MMA in Britain, featuring insight from Rosi Sexton, Joanne Calderwood and more