One round, one punch, lights out, and face down.
There was no reason to believe the rematch would go any differently than the first striker vs. grappler affair did. A redemptive concussive blow said otherwise, snapping a historic 23-fight unbeaten streak.
DEEP 25 Impact on Aug. 4, 2006, in Tokyo, Japan left a lasting impression, highlighting one of the biggest knockouts ever seen in a true pioneer clash between atomweight stars Satoko Shinashi and Hisae Watanabe. Five years after the promotion’s incarnation, the bout still stands as a pivotal moment for women in MMA history.
“Without a doubt, the second Shinashi vs. Watanabe 2,” DEEP Founder Shigeru Saeki responded when asked what DEEP’s biggest moment is. “It was a fight where both fighters hated each other and the build-up to the fight was amazing, and the fight itself was amazing, and the result was WOW. When was the last time a women’s knockout left a bigger impression than a men’s knockout? That fight was amazing from the build-up to the end. It’s hard to top that one.”
Like most MMA promotions in 2001, the newly founded DEEP wasn’t interested in having women on the roster. Thankfully for those looking to compete, there was Smackgirl in Japan which started to gain some traction until inevitably folding around the time Saeki opened up to female competitors in 2004.
Names like Shinashi, Watanabe, and Miku Matsumoto were all instant staples for the original crop of talent. DEEP became the first of its kind, holding fights between men and women on the same cards as opposed to women-exclusive events like in Smackgirl or the U.S.’s Hook N’ Shoot. It’s been going on ever since and DEEP is arguably the best promotion worldwide to consistently host all-female events.
“When women’s MMA was happening in Japan, it was a lot of ground game and DEEP Jewels kind of set the bar with standard MMA and it kind of reintroduced what was going on internationally,” Flyweight veteran Shizuka Sugiyama said. “For me, I’ve always felt that Japanese women’s MMA, our industry, we were kind of the ones who started focusing on women’s fighting and feel like we’ve been doing this, putting in all the time. But as time passes, it was very disappointing to see the level of competition and overall concept of women’s MMA has kind of been taken over by the west. That’s when DEEP Jewels came in and they set the bar at the international level for women’s MMA.
“I was there, I’ve seen it all happen. So in that sense, I think DEEP Jewels definitely has an important part in our industry as of right now.”
“Princess” Shinashi is merely 4-foot-10 and solidified herself as one of MMA’s all-time smallest fighters as well as one of the best. Any size difference was never a factor for Shinashi. It was the norm.
The superior grappling prowess led to submission victories in 17 of the former DEEP champion’s first 23 bouts. In 2023, the Tokyo native will re-tie the record for most MMA fights for a woman when returning to action this weekend (Sat., Feb. 11, 2023) at DEEP 112 Impact.
Winning streaks of such degrees are always a sight to behold, especially in a sport like MMA where the unexpected is often expected. Shinashi quickly became a pillar for women in MMA for more reasons than one.
“For me, what was very fun at the time was that I was able to put down my own tracks,” Shinashi said. “I would be the one making the tracks for everybody that follows. And that process was definitely something enjoyable. The reason why — and there was Shooto, Pancrase, DEEP — potentially all these promotions doing women’s fights eventually. But the reason why I picked DEEP was because of Mr. Saeki. His personality was definitely one of the reasons why I decided to fight for DEEP.
“In terms of the importance of DEEP for women’s MMA, they definitely started things out and Pancrase, Shooto, they all followed in putting on women’s fights. So I think it was very important what DEEP did and I think I was able to put down the right tracks for the next generation.”
Saeki saw something in Shinashi that he felt could be found in all female fighters. There was a specific appeal that wasn’t being seen with the men. Could that just have been because women in MMA were rare at the time? To an extent, of course. Ultimately, the perceptions were more black and white, and the DEEP boss may even admit it himself.
“It is easier to get emotionally attached to each fighter,” Saeki said. “But the prejudice towards women’s MMA was still strong. Some fighters didn’t want to fight on the same card as women fighting on. We had to eliminate ground and pound because of the perspective. I’m glad that things are slowly starting to change.”
Strikes on the ground were never an issue for Shinashi. Her opponents either went to sleep or tapped out before getting the opportunity to land or be landed on.
In the case of Watanabe, on the other hand, her fights didn’t often need to go to the mat.
The cheetah-print-wearing warrior was a kickboxer by nature and fought every fight as if it were her last. Fans soon discovered there was just something different about Watanabe. This 105-pound woman packed the power of a bantamweight.
In theory, the lighter the weight class, the less power the fighters will have. There are always outliers, though. Watanabe made sure her opponents knew she was exactly that.
“Shinashi vs. Watanabe 2 was pretty big because it also happened in DEEP,” said former UFC heavyweight champion Josh Barnett. “Big rematch, dramatic knockout, Watanabe had won a tournament called Golden Muscle or something like that. It was a part of this variety show New Year’s Eve thing and she had won a tournament there, a one-night eight-woman tournament. She started to get some real footing in the MMA scene so it was also pretty cool to see that there’s some girls out there — not very many — but some that have actual legitimate one-punch knockout power at 105 or 115 pounds.”
While Watanabe wasn’t on the same kind of crazy streak as her rival, losses were few and far between with only four in 19 outings.
Watanabe was much more signifiable as a face of Smackgirl during her early rise, if not the face. 15 of those first 19 appearances were under the banner, and 10 were knockouts. The action was always imminent with the Kanuma, Tochigi native.
Amongst those first 21 of Shinashi’s wins was Watanabe, who came up short in bout No. 8 as a pro. A failed body kick at distance brought Watanabe within range of her tiny counterpart, allowing Shinashi to grab an arm and work a trip to the mat. From there, Shinashi jumped on the ankle and cranked away, scoring an emotional victory over her talented foe.
It wasn’t Watanabe’s first career loss and it wouldn’t be her last. Something stood out about that one, though. A fire was lit and she won 12 of her next 13 bouts leading up to the Shinashi rematch.
“If that rivalry brought attention, and if that story is the reason why people want to come watch me fight, watch us fight, then I think it worked well,” Watanabe said. “I think I saw on social media or Twitter or something where Mr. Saeki was talking about how we had this huge rivalry, we hated each other, there was just so much bad blood between us … I honestly don’t think that was the case. There was nothing personal between us. There’s no hating each other, it was just a good competitor. That’s how I look at it.
“Obviously, she was definitely a goal of mine when I first started. She was already competing at the highest level when I first started and in our first matchup, I lost. Ever since that, it became one of my goals to rematch her and beat her. Other than that, there’s no personal stuff between us, we didn’t hate each other. It was a good competitor. That’s how I look at it.”
On the surface level as a fan, there was nothing not to like about Shinashi vs. Watanabe. It was as good as two fighters got at their respective crafts. What wasn’t seen or known about were the possible implications.
PRIDE FC was going strong at the time as a legitimate competitor to the UFC. Fighters like Shinashi specifically garnered so much attention that talks were had about bringing women into the organization. According to Shinashi, had she defeated Watanabe in their rematch, she would have been set to debut in the PRIDE ring.
Saeki was all on board with letting his superstar go down that route if possible. However, timing and circumstances prevented anything from ever taking place as PRIDE was bought out by the UFC and ceased to exist in 2007, one year after the rematch.
“If PRIDE had lasted for another two years, it may have been a different story,” Saeki said. “I did think of having women’s MMA during the DREAM days. I suggested [Yuka] Tsuji, Shinashi, Watanabe, and [Megumi] Fujii as a four-woman tournament for DREAM, but it didn’t happen.”
For many women competing before the UFC introduced them to its roster, equality was its own fight. It was always men over women or separating them entirely. This only motivated fighters like Shinashi and Watanabe to leave their marks, so when they met, the expectations were justifiably high.
Headline an event was always one of Shinashi’s goals, or at the very least be on a main card along with men. DEEP 25 Impact checked that box with the big rematch co-main eventing the evening of action.
Since they first fought, the danger element of facing Watanabe became clearer and clearer as her resume grew. From the opening bell, Shinashi wanted nothing to do with the striking as Watanabe sought body kicks and forced her opponent into dropping low in evasion.
An early takedown placed the pair in full guard, right where Shinashi wanted her. The problem was that Watanabe had some tricks up her sleeve this time, threatening with an arm crank from the position. The knockout artist whipped out a triangle armbar attempt, scaring the submission wizard. Scrambled to their feet, a cannonball punch missed from Watanabe, leading to her getting arm-dragged to the mat. Watanabe again attempted an armbar to the surprise of the commentary team.
Jockeying for position, the two got back to their feet and it happened. Another cannonball wound up from the south pole and connected violently with Shinashi’s chin, slumping the unbeaten legend into the ring ropes.
“My most memorable fight was when I lost to Hisae,” Shinashi said. “How I coped with my loss was that I ran away. I left everything behind and I ran away to Sao Paulo, Brazil by myself. I booked everything by myself, my flights, where to stay. I just had my destination where I wanted to train and I just ran away for about two months. There I was able to kind of reset my mind to a point where, ‘Hey, well, I’m still alive. She didn’t kill me, I’m still alive, I’m still here.’
“The environment was great, the people surrounding me were great and I think with that help I was able to refresh and reset my mind to get back into competitive mode. I had a fight lined up to defend my Smackgirl title. So I went back to Japan, did my fight, defended my title, and flew back to Brazil for another month. That’s how I kind of dealt with that whole situation.”
Any bad blood between the two — fabricated or not — had been settled on that night and in dramatic fashion. They each had their signature wins over the other, and that was enough despite being 1-1 in the series.
Shinashi vs. Watanabe 2 acted as one of those rare moments that only made both fighters grow and get even better with both succeeding heavily in the time that followed.
“I went into that rematch with the mentality that I just don’t want to lose,” Watanabe said. “I felt very strongly that I did not want to drop this fight. I do believe there were about six months to prepare for this fight. I re-did everything. I worked as hard as I could, harder than ever. Worked on my grappling, worked on my basics, worked on my strength, and I think that preparing for that rematch itself made me the fighter I am today. It gave me the foundation and a good reason to change myself as a fighter.
“When looking at that fight right now, it’s quite embarrassing to see my grappling is so bad. I’m lacking so much technique but still, that fight was a great turning point for me. It gave me a great reason to train harder and it’s the foundation of who I am right now.
“I have nothing but respect for Shinashi-san,” she continued. “Her professionalism, the fact that she sold tons of tickets to her fights, and I do believe she’s the one who built DEEP and Jewels. I believe she’s the one who built it. With all that being said, I have nothing but respect for her and that’s one of the reasons I did not want to lose this fight.”
MMA was still in its infancy in the 2000s, so not every single fighter was at the level they’d eventually become all the years later. Getting to see two of the most fundamental components collide was crucial to show what direction things were headed. Stylistically, it all lined up magically.
“Everything leading up to that fight was easy to follow and easy to understand,” Former Smackgirl matchmaker Kinya Hashimoto said. “It was a typical striker vs. grappler and if Hisae would keep it on her feet, she would get the win. If Shinashi would take her down, Shinashi would most likely win. Both fighters had that ego like they proudly thought they were the best in that division. They would definitely look at each other and see each other as rivals. They were both legitimately skilled in their respective background. Hisae with the kickboxing and Shinashi with her Sambo.
“The entire process, it wasn’t just random women fighting. These were legitimate competitors who built their way up to this fight. It was definitely the fight that showed the industry how legitimate women’s MMA had become. The entire process, the story behind it, because you could see each fighter’s path that led to this point. I think that was definitely a fight that changed everybody’s perspective towards women’s fights.”
To this day, Watanabe’s knockout is still one of the very best ever performed by a female fighter. As atomweights, she and Shinashi showed that women are just as capable as the men inside the ring or cage.
Even now, both in their 40s, Watanabe and Shinashi feel they have something to prove not just to their peers, but to themselves.
“For me, it is and it is not the biggest accomplishment in my career,” Watanabe said. “That win is definitely a great accomplishment in my career. But I was young and stupid. I couldn’t utilize that big win to make myself better.
“The following process after that win was very disappointing when I look back. I should have utilized that win to make myself better and take myself higher as a fighter. I couldn’t do that. I was young, I got disappointed with very small minor details, I couldn’t motivate myself, and I think that’s one of the reasons why I decided to come back [in 2022]. When I look back, everything happened for a reason and it’s all connected. I still want to continue on this journey, I still want to continue to fight.”
Shinashi faces Reina Kobayashi in her first fight since 2019 on Feb. 11, 2023, at DEEP 112 Impact in Tokyo, Japan. Watanabe has fought six times between MMA and kickboxing since ending a six-year hiatus in 2022.