BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. – Back in the day, American mixed martial artists often had to travel to Japan in order to face quality opponents and make real money. The sport thrived on the other side of the Pacific Ocean as it struggled on these shores.
These days, the tide has turned. With the industry troubled in the Land of the Rising Sun, Japanese fighters increasingly opt to seek fame and fortune in the United States.
Such was the case at Saturday night's Strikeforce at the Mansion 2, where a pair of debuting Japanese stars highlighted the card. Former PRIDE Welterweight Grand Prix tournament champion Kazuo Misaki stopped UFC vet Joe "Diesel" Riggs in the second round in a middleweight main event; and lightweight Mitsuhiro Ishida had the night's best submission with an armbar victory over Justin Wilcox.
"It is a big relief, coming over to America and winning in my first Strikeforce match," Misaki (21-8-2) said through an interpreter. "I felt a lot of pressure to perform in front of a new audience and I'm glad I came away with a victory."
Misaki has a reputation as a patient fighter, with nine decisions among his victories, and displayed it early on as Round 1 featured lots of stalking but not much action. The boozed-up Mansion crowd of hipsters and wannabes began to signal its displeasure early in the second round, but Misaki wasn't fazed.
Riggs scored the first big blow of the fight, dropping Misaki with a big right hand. But Misaki got right back up and unleashed a huge left that sent Riggs to the mat. Riggs turtled as Misaki rained down a ground-and-pound assault, and referee Josh Rosenthal stopped the fight at 2:21.
Riggs got up and complained about the stoppage, but he was doing nothing beyond covering up for an extended period of time before the referee called it off.
After the card, Riggs (28-11) still hadn't simmered down. "It was bogus," he said. "I like (Rosenthal) as a person but I'll never let him ref one of my fights again."
"I won't comment (on the stoppage)," said Misaki, who fights for the Sengoku promotion in Japan. "The referee is the one who makes the decision. I was just focused on winning the fight."
Misaki, whose only previous fight in America was a loss to Frank Trigg on a PRIDE card in Las Vegas, said he'd like a shot at middleweight champion Cung Le.
"You always want to go for the guy who has the title," said Misaki, a native of Chiba. "And right now that is Le."
While Misaki took the long road to victory, Ishida wasted little time in dispensing Wilcox, the former Ultimate Fighter contestant from Cincinnati. Wilcox went for a single-leg takedown, but an unfazed Ishida, still standing turned the position into an armbar. Wilcox tapped to the perfectly executed move at 1:21 of the first round.
"I was not expecting the fight to finish that quick," said Ishida (17-4-1), who is also a PRIDE veteran. "I was expecting a good long fight from him, but when such an opportunity comes up, you have to take it. ... That is the first time I finished a fight like that."
Ishida, whose nickname is "The Endless Fighter," says he hopes his first experience in the United States isn't his last.
"This was a different experience, but it was a good experience," said Ishida, a native of Tsujuba. "I hope to come back and fight whoever Strikeforce will have me fight."
Among notable undercard matches, Saturday night offered redemption for veteran Chicago slugger Terry Martin. The heavy-handed middleweight was on the wrong end of one of the year's worst knockouts in July at the hands of Vitor Belfort at Affliction in Anaheim, Calif. But he bounced right back with a third-round TKO of up-and-coming Cory Devela.
"When you lose like that, man, you just want to get right back into it," said Martin (18-5). "Don't get me wrong, Vitor beat me and I'd like to get another chance to fight him again some day. But when you lose like that you've got to pick yourself back up and start over."
Martin admitted he didn't know much about his Bonney Lake, Wash.-based opponent, and it showed in the first couple rounds, as Devela (9-3) kept his distance and wouldn't let Martin get into his groove.
"He was frustrating me a little," Martin said. "It's OK that I don't know too much about him, because when I study too much tape I think too much. But by the time I came out for the third I was beginning to feel comfortable."
Martin finally found his opening and dropped Devela with a monster left hook, then landed one more shot to the grounded fighter before referee Herb Dean stopped it at 2:08.
In other results:
Strikeforce lightweight champion Josh "The Punk" Thomson stopped overmatched Ashe Bowman (9-5) by TKO at 1:14 of the first round in a non-title match. Thomson (16-2) landed a big right, followed with a series of hammer fists, leading to the stoppage.
South African light heavyweight Trevor Prangley (18-5) scored a methodical unanimous decision victory over Anthony Ruiz (21-12). The scores were 29-28, 30-27, 30-26; Y! Sports had it 30-27.
Jesse Juarez (6-5) couldn't hang on until the bell as he submitted to an armbar with five seconds left in the first round of his middleweight match with Luke Stewart. Stewart, who trains at the Ralph Gracie Academy in Northern California, improved to 6-1.
Concord, Calif., middleweight Eric Lawson (6-2) handed Kenneth Seegrist his first career loss after 3:07 of frenetic action. Lawson used a pair of big slams to set up a rear naked choke. Seegrist dropped to 5-1.
Welterweight Brandon Magana (6-1) handed Denver's Brandon Thatch (5-1) his first pro loss with a split decision (29-28, 29-28 Magana; 29-28 Thatch). Y! Sports had it 29-28 Magana.
In the middleweight opener, Jesse Gillespie (2-2) scored a split decision win over Dave Martin (0-2). Judges' scores were 30-27 Martin and a pair of 29-28s for Gillespie; Y! Sports scored it 29-28 Martin.