5 Best Japanese UFC Fighters of All Time (Incl Future Stars)

Image by www.slon.pics on Freepik

Are you wondering who the best Japanese UFC fighters of all time are?

In this article, we’ll look at the 5 best Japanese UFC fighters by going through their background, credentials, skills in the octagon, and who they beat and lost to during their UFC career.

Best Japanese UFC Fighters

This list only includes fighters who represent the Japanese flag, meaning Lyoto Machida who has one Japanese parent but was born in Brazil isn’t included.

Without further ado, ranked in order, here are the 5 best Japanese UFC fighters of all time.

1. Kazushi Sakuraba – ‘The Gracie Hunter’ (26-16-1-2NC)

Height: 6’0” | Reach: 73” | Stance: Southpaw | Weight Class: Middleweight+ | Fighting Style: Catch Wrestling

Despite only competing once in the UFC at the 15.5 tournament Ultimate Japan, Kazushi Sakuraba is a UFC Hall of Famer. Before MMA, Sakuraba competed as a professional wrestler in the Union of Wrestling Forces International.

He became the first Japanese UFC champion by winning Ultimate Japan in 1997. Here he faced Marcus Silveira and became the first UFC fighter to submit a Bjj black belt.

Kazushi Sakuraba competed in the UFC, K-1, and Dream, and spent most of his career in PRIDE

During his 20-year career (96-16), Sakuraba defeated 15 MMA champions from various top MMA promotions – a feat no other fighter has achieved.

Mainly during PRIDE, Kazushi Sakuraba’s best skills were:

  • His greatest strength was his wrestling and submissions prowess – scoring 19 submissions in 26 MMA wins
  • He used his catch wrestling style to dominate and suffocate opponents with relentless grappling
  • Granite chin and durability – he was taking punches from the most powerful heavyweights of his era
  • Low single takedowns were his key weapon to get opponents down
  • Powerful grip and technique with submissions – especially the kimura which he has 5 submissions with
  • Brilliant ability to scramble out of disadvantageous positions on the ground
  • Unparalleled composure and an ability to remain emotionless during fights to not give anything away to his opponent
  • Unorthodox striking including powerful leg kicks and jumping stomps into his opponent’s guard

Sakuraba became known as ‘The Gracie Hunter’ because he defeated 4 Gracie fighters: Royler, Renzo, Ryan, and Royce Gracie. The Gracie family was regarded as the pinnacle of Brazilian jiu-jitsu during this time.

During his career, his best wins were against the Gracies, Ken Shamrock, Kevin Randleman, Quinton Jackson, Vitor Belfort, and Carlos Newton – all former UFC champions.

It’s also important to note Sakuraba was a natural welterweight (170 lbs) who weighed between 190 to 210 lbs and spent most of his career fighting heavyweights and fighters 20 to 30 plus lbs heavier than him.

Overall, Sakuraba is considered not only the best Japanese UFC fighter but the most popular and best Japanese MMA fighter of all time.

2. Kyoji Horiguchi (31-5-1NC)

Height: 5’5” | Reach: 66” | Stance: Orthodox | Weight Class: Fly/Bantamweight | Fighting Style: Explosive Striker (Karateka)

Kyoji Horiguchi is a former Bellator, Shooto, and Rizin bantamweight champion who competed in the UFC to a 7-1 record. His only loss came at 24 years old when challenging MMA goat Demetrious Johnson for his flyweight title.

Kyoji Horiguchi started his martial arts journey with karate aged 5, going on to become a regional Japanese champion and a black belt in shotokan karate.

At the age of 16, he became hooked on MMA after watching PRIDE Fighting Championships. His MMA training started at age 18, and two years later he made his professional debut in Shooto (2010).

He’s trained with American Top Team since 2015 and famously with Kid Yamamoto early in his career.

During his time in the UFC and throughout his career, Horiguchi’s best skills have been:

  • Raw knockout power in his strikes, especially the left hook – 15 knockouts in 31 MMA wins for a flyweight is insane
  • Very aggressive and forward pressure style – often charging at opponents and not allowing them to settle into a rhythm
  • His karate background can be seen in his explosive movement, footwork, wide stance, and ability to evade strikes
  • Great rushing blitzes
  • Powerful, speedy, and accurate ground-and-pound
  • Unpredictable as he frequently changes stances and puts together different combinations
  • Great head movement, especially inside the pocket
  • His power and strength translate into impressive standing grappling and takedowns
  • Solid striking and submission defense – only been knocked out twice and submitted once in nearly 40 MMA fights

In the UFC his best win was against Ali Bagautinov, but outside he’s beaten Ben Nguyen, Manel Kape, Ian McCall, Kai Asakura, and Darrion Caldwell twice.

His notable losses came against Demetrious Johnson and Anthony Pettis in a fight he was comfortably winning. Against DJ, he connected some powerful strikes but was outclassed in the wrestling and cardiovascular department.

Still only 32 years old, Kyoji Horiguchi continues to build his MMA legacy and has cemented his place as one of the best Japanese UFC fighters of all time. 

It’s a shame he left the UFC because they wouldn’t offer him a better deal.

3. Yushin Okami – ‘Thunder’ (36-15)

Height: 6’2” | Reach: 75” | Stance: Southpaw | Weight Class: Middleweight | Fighting Style: Wrestling/Judo

Yushin Okami is a former UFC title challenger and veteran MMA fighter whose career lasted 20 years (02-22). During this time, Okami competed in the UFC, PRIDE, Pancrase, WSOF, M-1 Global, PFL, and most recently ONE Championship.

Yushin Okami is a judo and Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt and competed as a welterweight, middleweight, and light heavyweight throughout his career.

During his 7-year UFC career (06-13) where he earned a 16-7 UFC record, Yushon Okami’s best skills were:

  • Great target versatility with his rear roundhouse kicks
  • Incredibly strong upper body grappling (clinching) which he used to wear down opponents and get trip takedowns
  • Rangy jab which he likes to double and triple or use for a jab-cross combination
  • Excellent shoulder pressure and underhooks in half-guard
  • Exceptional takedown defense because of his strong base and balance – 84% in 23 UFC fights
  • High-level submission defense – only suffered 1 submission loss in his career
  • Strong Muay Thai clinch and knees to the body – knocked out Evan Tanner with a knee to the chin from the clinch
  • Effective collar tie and dirty boxing style
  • Powerful ground-and-pound (doesn’t look for submissions)

After his loss to Chael Sonnen in 2009, Okami trained at Team Quest in Portland, Oregon, with Chael Sonnen. Here his wrestling continued to improve, but after earning a title shot in 2011 he was easily picked apart by Anderson Silva.

His best UFC wins were against Mark Muñoz, Alan Belcher, Mike Swick, Evan Tanner, Jason McDonald, Dean Lister, Nate Marquardt, and Hector Lombard.

He also has a win against Anderson Silva in ROTR, though it was via disqualification (Illegal Kick).

Overall, Yushin Okami was an established top 5 middleweight for 4 years who only lost to some of the best UFC fighters of that generation. They were Rich Franklin, Chael Sonnen, and Anderson Silva.

4. Tatsuro Taira – (15-0)

Height: 5’7” | Reach: 70” | Stance: Orthodox | Weight Class: Flyweight | Fighting Style: Submission Grappler

Tatsuro Taira is an up-and-coming Japanese talent who wants to put Japanese MMA back on the map.

Currently undefeated with a 4-0 UFC record, the Okinawan is a purple belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu (2023) and trains out of The Paraestra Okinawa in Naha.

After lacking passion for baseball, Tatsuro followed his brother and made the transition to MMA at the age of 15.

2 years later, he won the 11th Kyushu Amateur Shooto Championship Tournament, before turning professional in 2018 and winning 10 straight fights, 9 in Shooto and 1 in Vale Tudo Japan.

Since joining the UFC in 2022, Tatsuro Taira has shown the following skills:

  • Asked what his greatest asset is, Taira claimed it was his mindset
  • Great technique and slick striking – especially with his speedy right cross
  • Long-limbed, rangy, strong, and tall for a flyweight
  • Stinging and speedy leg kicks
  • Impressive wrestling transitions and control on the ground – where he prefers to use elbows over punches for damage
  • Calm, patient, and energy efficient with everything he does
  • Incredible balance allows him to get his hips very high and move upward into full mount
  • Takes risks on the ground to go for submissions – his favorite is the triangle choke
  • Body lock trips are his signature but he also has speedy double-leg takedowns
  • Great footwork for evasion and setting up strikes/takedowns

So far in the UFC, Tatsuro Taira has beaten C.J. Vergara, Jesus Santos Aguilar, Carlos Hernandez, Edgar Chairez, and Carlos Candelario. His slick transition from triangle to armbar against C.J. Vergara was his best finish yet.

Still only 23 years old, Tatsuro Taira has already earned himself the status of one of the best Japanese UFC fighters of all time because his potential is so high.

He’s very well-rounded and as he continues to develop and fight in the UFC, his skills will be updated.

5. Rinya Nakamura – ‘Hybrid’ (8-0)

Height: 5’7” | Reach: 68” | Stance: Southpaw | Weight Class: Bantamweight | Fighting Style: Freestyle

Fighting out of Saitama, Japan, Rinya Nakamura’s martial arts journey began with wrestling at the age of 5. He went on to become a multiple-time Japanese wrestling champion, most notably winning the 2017 U23 World Championships.

Growing up, his father (Kozo) owned a fight club called Shooto Gym in Saitama and was involved in developing Shooto in the early 1990s. This influenced Rinya who always had the dream to become an MMA fighter.

With MMA in the back of his mind, Nakamura transitioned to MMA at 25 years old after the 2020 Summer Olympics were delayed due to COVID-19.

With his wrestling credentials (36-9 freestyle wrestling record), he quickly turned professional in 2021 and entered the UFC in 2022 by becoming the first Road to UFC Bantamweight Tournament Winner.

In winning Road to UFC and cementing his position in the promotion, Rinya Nakamura showed the following skills:

  • In the opponent’s face with relentless pressure and energy
  • Exceptional boxing speed with combinations
  • Dynamite in his hands – 5 knockouts in 7 MMA wins
  • Deep focus and concentration during fights
  • Olympic-level athleticism and speed which translates into great movement plus explosive wrestling and striking
  • Elite wrestling and dominant top control

For the Road to UFC final, Nakamura trained at American Top Team to speed up his MMA development.

In the tournament, he defeated Gugun Gusman, Shohei Nose, and Toshiomi Kazama.

While very early in his MMA and UFC career, Rinya Nakamura made the list because he has the perfect background to become very successful in the UFC bantamweight division, and he’s shown some quality fighting so far.

As he continues to develop and fight in the UFC, specifically his Bjj and striking skills, his profile will be updated.

Japanese UFC Fighters: Honorable Mentions

Here are some Japanese UFC fighters who would’ve made the list had it been longer.

  • Tatsuya Kawajiri – ‘Crusher’ (37-14-2) – UFC Record: 3-3
  • Caol Uno (34-22-5) – UFC Record: 3-5-2
  • Takanori Gomi – ‘The Fireball Kid’ (36-15-1NC) – UFC Record: 4-9
  • Yoshihiro Akiyama – ‘Sexyama’ (16-7-2NC) – UFC Record: 2-5
  • Norifumi Yamamoto – ‘Kid’ (18-6-2) – UFC Record: 0-3

Tatusro Taira and Rinya Nakamura made the list instead of those above because they’ve shown elite skills and huge potential.

They’re both likely to have a positive UFC record, become ranked UFC fighters over the next few years, and potentially challenge for UFC titles in the future.

On the other hand, the honorable mentions have even or negative UFC records and found the step up in competition too high.

If you enjoyed this article, you may also enjoy the:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *