Takashi Ito is a man on a mission. For those who don’t know the Japanese kickboxing veteran, he is the man who oversees RISE, Japan’s most successful kickboxing series of the past two decades. He is also a former national kickboxing champion himself.
Rise is the first Japanese organisation that has been able to turn its fighters into genuine competitors on the world stage. And this is exactly where Ito sees his mission carved out for him: “to build the ultimate Japanese fighter who can take on the battle with the Europeans and Americans all over the world. This is mission number one.”
An important step to fulfil this mission is making sure that Japanese fighters are put against international fighters. Either by sending them abroad, something he would like to see his fighters do more. Or, to engage more in cross-organisational match-ups such as Glory 80 last March in the Netherlands. Or more recently Glory Rivals 4 on Christmas day in Tokyo, when Rise worked together with Glory. With Glory Rivals, a fight card is created with fighters from different organisations with the ambition to give champions the opportunity to challenge each other and try and determine who is actually the real champion in a specific weight category. It has been a growing wish for fighters to be able to compete against their peers from other organisations rather than being “stuck” in their own association for years on end. Tiffany van Soest described her last title defence for Glory perhaps somewhat underwhelmingly as ‘a job that I have to do’.
At Rise, with fighters like Kento Haraguchi and Manazo Kobayashi, there is definitely no lack of ambition within the organisation but Ito will be looking at his fighters to step up and take the spotlight in the upcoming title fights. Kobayashi will be the first one to take this test when she faces off against Tessa de Kom in May to defend her RISE featherweight title. Kobayashi lost against de Kom at the end of December as well against reigning Glory champion Tiffany van Soest. So next May will be a moment for Ito to see if his fighter has been able to close the gap with the world’s best and “take her place in the sun”. Haraguchi will be eyeing a rematch against Thai fighter Petchpanomrung Kiatmookao after he narrowly missed out on a victory last Agust, but he may have to wait for his turn.
The importance of fans
Part of Ito’s mission is also to make sure that kickboxing itself continues to win fans in Japan. More participants means a larger talent pool which will benefit the competition but it also means more revenue and more generous price money for fighters. Ito has looked closely at how the UFC have capitalised on their momentum through tv and social media engagement but believes that if kickboxing is able to replicate this model and improve it, it has the potential to surpass MMA as the most popular martial arts sport in Japan.
Ito: “Traditionally, Japanese fighters have relied more on technique and skill rather than 'blunt force' like you see in MMA. I believe this makes for a more engaging sport instead of watching two people beat each other up without a disciplined technique. Another thing that could help elevate the sport in the mind of fans is connecting it to our Samurai roots and showcasing how kickboxing takes its cues from our history.”
Brazil & Europe
Whatever happens, he is confident that kickboxing needs to stick to its course and not be tempted to over dramatise rivalries like perhaps happens in MMA. Ito: “I believe in kickboxing. I was very inspired when I attended events in Brazil and Europe in recent years. I saw fans who were really there for the sport and were able to recognise what good kickboxing is. Rather than being there for the drama, they will applaud the fighter, whoever he or she is, and boo the bad one. It’s brutal but honest and honesty is good for the sport.”
Ito is conscious that his organisation still has some way to go when compared to Glory’s success in Europe, but he believes that by injecting his own flavour into the organisation, for example by focusing more on fan engagement during the live events, Rise is able to carve out its own unique position with the world.