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Bellator, Rizin FF announce historic cross-promotional lineup for New Year's Eve in Japan

The two companies will host a five Bellator vs. Rizin contest at Rizin FF 40 at Saitama Super Arena.
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While mixed martial arts promotions have long been quite territorial in terms of operations, two major players have agreed to unite for at least one blockbuster co-promoted event.

Bellator and Rizin FF officials recently announced the two companies will work together for a special New Year's Eve event in Japan, which will feature five high-level matchups between champions and top contenders from both organizations.

Bellator president Scott Coker and Rizin FF president Nobuyuki Sakakibara worked together during the heyday of the kickboxing promotion K-1 and have maintained a friendly working relationship since. The two had been teasing a potential collaboration on social media in recent weeks but formally announced the plans at a press conference in Tokyo.

"Japan is one of my favorite places to visit," Coker said. "I learned the fight business here for many years. I got to see all the great fights in PRIDE, K-1. I had a chance to work with Sakakibara back then; we were sharing fighters as early as 2006. When we started working together, we did some fighter exchange, but around 2018, I'll never forget this interview I did with ESPN. They said: 'What do you think about RIZIN?' I said look, 'Give them a couple of years, and they're going to have some great fighters there.'

"Fast-forward seven years later from the beginning of Rizin, now they're ready. Now they're ready to move forward and be on the worldwide stage."

"Rizin FF 40: Rizin vs. Bellator" takes place December 31 at Saitama Super Arena in Saitama, Japan. The card will air in the U.S. on Showtime.

In the night's main event, former Bellator featherweight champion A.J. McKee (19-1) faces reigning Rizin lightweight champion Roberto de Souza (14-1). Meanwhile, the co-main event sees reigning Bellator featherweight titleholder Patricio "Pitbull" Freire (34-5) taking on Rizin featherweight champ Kleber Koike (30-5-1).

Additional featured matchups include former Bellator bantamweight champion Juan Archuleta (26-4) facing South Korea's Soo Chul Kim (18-6-1), while Kyoji Horiguchi (30-5), who holds both the Bellator and Rizin titles, will represent the American promotion in his trilogy fight with Rizin's Hiromasa Ougikubo (25-6-2).

One additional matchup has yet to be revealed.

"As Scott Coker mentioned earlier, Bellator has committed to bringing the best fighters Bellator has, so we have committed to bringing our all-star team to face the best of Bellator," Rizin Fighting Federation President Nobuyuki Sakakibara stated. "This will be the first time in the history of MMA that two promotions will fully go at it with their best guys, and for the spectators and for the fans, you get to choose who to root for.

"MMA is an individual sport, but if you want to support Team Rizin or if you want to support Team Bellator, we want to introduce a new way of enjoying mixed martial arts."

Mixed martial arts promotions have largely refused to work together to promote events in favor of protecting their own businesses, but with Rizin dominating the Japanese market while Bellator has concentrated its efforts in the U.S. and Europe, Coker believes the special event will prove beneficial for both promotions and could be a precursor of further such events down the line.

"I feel like their fighters have been known in Japan but not outside in the world," Coker said. "We're going to put on some amazing matchups, matchups that the fans really want to see, and I feel like it's going to be an all-star team. It's the Bellator all-star Team vs. the Rizin all-star Team. This is something that the world wants to see.

"(Sakakibara) said, 'I want you to bring your best fighters in these weight classes. I want the best fighters you have,' So that's what we did. Every fighter we're bringing is either a world champion in Bellator or a former world champion in Bellator, and we're ready to fight the Rizin all-star team on December 31."

This story first published at SI.com.