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INTERVIEW | MMA Star Kana Watanabe Discusses Goal of Becoming a Global Success Story

Kana Watanabe started out as a judo prodigy before switching to MMA. She spoke to SportsLook about food, fighting in the PFL and her quest to be the best.

In the dynamic realm of mixed martial arts, a rising figure has emerged from the Land of the Rising Sun, captivating audiences with her skill set and determination. Meet Kana Watanabe, a judo prodigy turned professional Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) contender.

Watanabe's journey from the tatami to the cage has been nothing short of extraordinary.

With a formidable grappling arsenal and an unwavering competitive spirit, Kana amassed an impressive 9-0 record in Japan before venturing overseas to test her mettle on the global stage.

Now, with her sights set on becoming the premier women's flyweight fighter, she aims to carve her name into the annals of MMA history.

SportsLook caught up with Kana before her Profesional Fighters League debut in the 2024 regular-season tournament. In an interview, Kana, 35, shared insights about her blossoming career.

Excerpts follow:

Kana Watanabe in her international MMA debut with Bellator in 2019. (Courtesy of PFL MMA)

Competing on an International Level

In a post-match interview at the end of the 2019 Rizin event, you stated that you wanted Rizin to create a flyweight division, expressing your desire to dominate it. You also mentioned your interest in fighting overseas to become the world's number one in that weight class.

Since starting my career in MMA, I always wanted to compete against the best in the world. I thought the level of the fighters was higher in the US compared to Japan. So I wanted to test myself against the competition. I was really happy when I received my first contract [Bellator] to fight internationally.

It's just a shoe!

You won your debut match overseas. What did it tell you about the level of competition?

To be honest, I thought that I could win. But compared to Japanese fighters, it was evident there was a difference in body size and physicality, so I felt how strong they [international fighters] are.

Before your first fight in a PFL regular-season tournament (on April 4 in San Antonio, Texas), what did you think of the season and other fighters on the roster?

Since it's a league format and a long season, it'll be important for me to be conscious about maintaining my body weight, and how to win and fight while minimizing injuries.

There are many top fighters, including former champions and fighters from the UFC, so I'm very honored to be able to challenge them and be part of the roster.

In the near future, I think more big names will join [the roster] because of the prize money.

Your fight is on April 4 and your opponent, Shanna Young, missed weight. What do you think about competing in a catchweight match?

When I saw her in person she was a lot bigger than I thought. It made me think that I have to put in a good effort in our fight.

My strategy doesn't change, I just have to perform and do the best with my abilities.

Editor's note: Kana Watanabe defeated Shanna Young by unanimous decision (30-27x3), earning 3 points in the PFL women’s flyweight division.

Kana Watanabe faces off with Shanna Young in a women's flyweight division match. (Courtesy of PFL MMA)

On the Road to Number One

Considering your background in judo, was there anyone who inspired you to become an MMA fighter or to be the best in the world?

When it comes to someone I want to emulate, no one really comes to mind. I retired from [competitive] judo but still had a strong desire to become a world champion. That's when I considered becoming an MMA fighter.

At first, I didn't know much at all but wanted to aim for the top. And the closest person with a similar [skill set] would probably be Ronda Rousey because of her background in judo.

I want to be known as "the only one" and original.

Looking into the future and your career, what are some accomplishments you want to achieve?

If I become the PFL [women's flyweight] champion, my goal won't change: I want to fight at the top and be at the top. From the very beginning, this has always been my goal.

In judo, my goal was to compete at the Olympic level. So I don't want to set any goal lower than that. That's why I want to be number one in the world.

Can you remember a moment in your life when you decided to become number one?

I began practicing judo at a young age, and while I can't say that it's because judo is an Olympic sport, I've always had a strong desire to be the best since I started training in judo.

Kana Watanabe poses with Fedor Emelianenko (left) for a photo prior to her weigh-in. (Courtesy of Kana Watanabe)

Some Trivia

Recently you posted a photo with the Russian legend Fedor Emelianenko on social media. Tell us about your meeting with him.

I asked to take a photo [with him] and he accepted. Unfortunately, I can't speak English at all so we couldn't have a conversation.

Back in 2019 when Bellator was in Japan, I was in the same event as Fedor. I wanted to say that to him but couldn't express it in English.

Choosing from Two Options.

Do you prefer to rest or be active and do something on your days off?

I usually don't make time to rest.

Morning or night?

I'm a night person. 

Rice or bread?


Meat or fish?


When you want to relax, do you listen to music or watch something?

I watch TV dramas and series instead of listening to music. But [for relaxing] I prefer to listen to podcasts!

Kana Watanabe poses in front of the audience at the PFL ceremonial weigh-ins. (Courtesy of PFL MMA)


Do you have a message to your fans?

Many things happened leading up to this fight, such as my opponent missing weight, and other things.

I want to show the world the strength of the Japanese people. I train in Japan, not in the US, [and] I want to show the world the strength I harnessed in Japan. Please watch me demonstrate that in my next fight.


Author: Galileo Ferrari

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