Ulka Sasaki is one of the best bantamweights to come out of Japan in recent years and his return to action at Rizin 26 is another intriguing subplot on what is a stacked card of fights set for New Year’s Eve.

Sasaki has a strong wrestling background and stormed to an impressive 17-2-1 record in the first four years of his career, a run that included winning the Shooto Pacific Rim title. His obvious prowess caught the attention of the UFC where he spent more than four years and garnered as many victories.

Upon returning to his homeland, the 31-year-old scored a landmark win over the now former champion Manel Kape at Rizin 14. But despite having now extended his record to 22-8-1, his recent results have been indifferent and he is currently riding a two-fight losing streak.

Ulka Sasaki and Manel Kape

Excellent condition 

He suffered a broken jaw against the current bantamweight champion Kai Asakura at Rizin 19. Sasaki has had over a year to recover and reflect on that result and says he is ready for his return this Thursday,

“I am in an excellent condition. I train at various gyms and I am genuinely just very happy to

be able to go back to the ring. Also, really looking forward to showing the fans my fight again.”

In Kenta Takizawa, Sasaki faces an opponent who is capable of the spectacular. The 26-year-old may have seen a two-fight winning streak snapped by Hiromasa Ougikubo at Rizin 25, but he won plenty of admirers with his incredible flying knee finish against Hayato Ishii at Pancrase 310 last year.

It was a stoppage that won him ‘knockout of the year’ at the 2019 Asian MMA awards. Takizawa has a 12-6 record but Sasaki believes it is,

“A good match-up for me.”

Ulka Sasaki and Manel Kape 2

Comeback fight 

This is a comeback fight for Sasaki and he isn’t going to pretend to be too concerned about the performance if it brings him a victory,

“Both are important but for this fight I definitely would like to win so I am going to be persistent on just winning.”

Despite having faced tough spells during his career he has never lost more than two fights in a row. However the says this is not playing on his mind ahead of Rizin 26,

“I am not thinking about that at all. As long as I can get best performance out of myself then I will get back into the winning track. So, I am going to concentrate on my performance.”

Shintaro Ishiwatari and Ulka Sasaki

High profile

With plenty of star names on the bill, including the Asakura brothers and Tenshin Nasukawa, this is the most high-profile Rizin card of the year. But Sasaki is adamant he won’t be overwhelmed by the occasion,

“The NYE show is always special, but this is my comeback fight. So, I am just concentrating on winning. That’s all.”

The show will bring to a close one of the toughest years in the history of the sport, for obvious reasons. The fact that Rizin have been able to welcome fans back into the arenas has been significant.

Sasaki recognises the importance of the work going on behind the second and is conscious of his own role and responsibilities,

“For Japan and Asia, a promotion that can do big shows like Rizin is very important for the sport. And, as a fighter, what I need to do is keep winning in that environment.”