Horiguchi thinks he'll become top 135-pounder with Bellator title win

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Kyoji Horiguchi considers himself one of the most underrated athletes in mixed martial arts. But if he wins the Bellator bantamweight title Friday, he believes fans will start to recognize him as the best 135-pound fighter on the planet.

The former Bellator bantamweight champion and ex-UFC flyweight contender will attempt to recapture his belt against champ Sergio Pettis in the Bellator 272 main event.

When theScore asked Horiguchi on Tuesday if he'll be considered the world's top bantamweight with a victory over Pettis, he responded, "Yeah, that's true."

The Japan native became Bellator champ in 2019, but he relinquished the title later that year after suffering a torn ACL that led to him sitting out until the end of 2020.

Horiguchi, 31, returned to Rizin FF, the most popular MMA promotion in Japan, and recaptured its bantamweight title with a first-round knockout of Kai Asakura. But he's been out of action since that bout, largely because of COVID-19 restrictions in his home country. Horiguchi, who resides in Florida to train at the famed American Top Team gym, has spent all of 2021 in the United States, and he recently signed a long-term deal with Bellator.

"I keep training always, so it's OK," Horiguchi said of being sidelined over the past year.

Bellator's bantamweight division moved on without Horiguchi; Juan Archuleta won the vacant title in 2020, and then Pettis dethroned him earlier in 2021. But Horiguchi said he knew he would eventually make it back to the promotion and fight for the title again.

"Of course," Horiguchi said. "I'm always thinking about the belt and that when I get healthy, I would try to get the belt back."

Pettis has said ahead of his first title defense that he needs to beat Horiguchi to feel like the real champion, since Horiguchi never lost the belt inside the cage. Horiguchi agrees with that stance, calling Pettis a "fake" champion, and he appreciates that Pettis feels that way.

"He's respectful to me," Horiguchi said. "So of course I have respect for him. He's a nice guy."

Horiguchi fought in the UFC from 2013-17, when he departed as a free agent. His only loss during that stretch came in a title fight with flyweight great Demetrious Johnson. Pettis also spent time as a top contender in the UFC flyweight division, so Horiguchi is particularly familiar with his next opponent. He also thought a fight between the two of them could have materialized long ago.

"Back in the day, I watched his fights a lot," Horiguchi said. "I know him."

Horiguchi said his biggest advantage over Pettis will be his well-rounded skill set.

"I can (fight) everywhere, because that's MMA," Horiguchi said. "I will decide (whether I strike or grapple with him) inside the cage."

Horiguchi never got a chance to defend the Bellator title during his first reign, but he promised to do so if he dethrones Pettis. While Horiguchi is still technically the Rizin FF champ, he plans to focus on Bellator in 2022 because he remains unsure if fighting in Japan will be a viable option in wake of the ongoing restrictions.

The American Top Team product isn't often mentioned alongside UFC champion Aljamain Sterling, UFC interim champ Petr Yan, TJ Dillashaw, and Cory Sandhagen as the best of the best at 135 pounds. He believes that's because he's mostly competed in Rizin FF since 2017 and not as many people watch those events. But he expects that to change with a victory over Pettis in Bellator's final main event of 2021.

"I will finish him," Horiguchi said of how the fight with Pettis will end. "KO, submission. I want that."

Horiguchi thinks he'll become top 135-pounder with Bellator title win
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