RIZIN’s Igor Tanabe changed focus from BJJ to MMA because of mid-pandemic fatherhood

Igor Tanabe’s ultimate dream was to win the IBJJF World Championship as a black belt, but that changed during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Based in Japan, “Fat Ninja” realized life wouldn’t be the same for a while during the pandemic as it was nearly impossible to leave the country to compete elsewhere. On top of that, his wife becoming pregnant altered his career perspective.

“It was insane when COVID hit and I had no reason to keep training anymore, there was no [jiu-jitsu] match for me here, so I decided to fight MMA,” Tanabe said on MMA Fighting’s Trocação Franca podcast. “My wife was a bit scared, getting pregnant during COVID. The scenario was hard. The first thing that popped my head when she found out she was pregnant was, ‘Relax, I’ll fight MMA.’ [Laughs.]”

Tanabe made his MMA debut in October 2021, tapping Hiroyuki Shimizu in less than a minute at HEAT 49 in Nagoya, Japan. An offer to grapple with Tommy Langaker at Polaris the next month kept his jiu-jitsu dreams alive, as he submitted a man that was very successful in major jiu-jitsu competitions, but MMA ultimately took over as his focus.

“I had an offer to fight MMA already so I knew the conditions were completely different from the ones in jiu-jitsu,” Tanabe said. “That desire to be the best in the world in jiu-jitsu, now I can say I have this desire in MMA.”

“Fat Ninja” kept competing under the Polaris banner and other Japanese grappling promotions before receiving an offer to face veteran striker Melvin Manhoef in a MMA bout at INOKI BOM-BA-YE in December 2022. Tanabe agreed to it before realizing it was a light heavyweight contest, but it was too late to walk back. Tanabe secured a heel hook to force the tap in under two minutes, then used the same technique to finish Daichi Abe in a 185-pound match seven months later in his RIZIN debut.

Tanabe returns to the ring at RIZIN 45, which goes down Dec. 31 in Saitama, taking on Shinsho Anzai in a welterweight showdown. The Brazilian talent choked out Koji Shikuwa this past October to improve to 4-0 in the sport, and wants to double that record in 2024.

“I wanna fight at least four times next year to extend that record to 9-0, then I’ll be able to go anywhere,” Tanabe said. “[Anzai] has this wrestling style, something I haven’t faced yet, so it’s going to be a great test for me so I know what’s like to fight out there, you know? This style is difficult for jiu-jitsu fighters, they take you down and just lay on top of you, so it’s a good test. Even though he has some striking, that’s what I think he’ll bring to this fight.”

RIZIN has yet to crown a champion at welterweight, and Tanabe feels he has a responsibility to make things interesting enough for the promotion to create a belt.

“I think it’s all over my shoulders, you know?” Tanabe said. “I’m the youngest athlete in this division, and I’ll have to make that happen. They won’t create a tournament out of nowhere, because sadly, this division doesn’t bring much attention yet. I’ll have to go for it and make it happen, create the appeal, so we have a 170-pound title fight.”

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