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Beware the Bowing, Humble Man: 5 Things We Learned Over 5 Days in Japan

By Elias Cepeda 

I spent last week in Tokyo, Japan, to cover the Glory year-end championship kickboxing event and interview and train with luminaries of Japanese MMA. I’m only now beginning to process everything I experienced and saw but here are five immediate take aways.

1. Japanese Fans are No Longer Silent During Fights, But They are Still Hella Observant

Watching Pride events on television years ago, I used to marvel at how attentive and respectful the Japanese fans in live attendance seemed. During most of the action, it seemed as though you’d be able to hear a pin drop in even the largest of super arenas because the fans watched in almost complete silence.

Then, a fighter might make a minor adjustment towards a submission that most American fans would not be able to recognize as the offense it was, and the previously silent Japanese crowd would “ooohh,” and “ahhh.” In my American fight world of boorish booing, louder t-shirts and indifference to any aspect of fighting that wasn’t a competitor being knocked unconscious, Japan seemed like a magical place where people watched fights live with the understanding and respect they deserved.

This past Saturday, I watched a Glory kickboxing event live inside the Ariake Coliesum in Tokyo, Japan. It wasn’t MMA, but I was still excited to not only watch the great strikers on the card, but to experience a Japanese crowd in person for the first time.

Well, they are no longer silent during fights. Apparently that part of fight-viewing culture in Japan has changed in the past ten years or so.

Fans shouted throughout bouts and hooted and hollered. Still, they seemed to know what was going on much more so than American crowds I’ve been a part of or witnessed. Little bits of the fight were still appreciated by the crowd and they showed tremendous support to anyone who showed perseverance and heart in a fight, even if it wasn’t the crowd favorite.

It would have been cool to experience that observant silence that I’d noticed through television years ago, sure. The Tokyo crowd did not disappoint me, however. They were just a bit different.

2. Kickboxers Seem to be Much Bigger Stars Than MMA fighters

I remember reading and hearing years ago that, although Pride would fill large arenas and many of its fighters enjoyed fame, K-1 fighters were far more popular. I can’t speak to all of that but I will say that kickboxing, even in this slightly scaled-down and new, post-K1 incarnation, seems to be very popular in Tokyo.

The stadium looked nearly filled to me and the crowd clearly had old favorites like Remy Bojansky and Peter Aerts, as well as popular new champs like welterweight Nieky Holzken.

Point is, the fans knew what and who they were watching. Peter Aerts had fans crowd around him at his hotel before the fight.

In contrast, I was on a subway train for a few minutes with one of the very best MMA fighters Japan has ever produced, former UFC title challenger Yushin Okami and no one batted an eye at him. Okami is sponsored by Under Armour and, I believe, was also sponsored by Nike. He’s fought on MMA’s largest stage for years. Still, he was just a big Japanese dude to those around him on a subway train on a Friday night. I’m betting Okami would get a lot more attention around the hotel lobbies in Vegas than he does in his home city.

3. The Glory Rules May Suck, But Hot Damn are the Fights Still Fun to Watch

Before this past Glory event, I spoke with the former star fighter and current top coach who does color commentary for their telecasts, Duke Roufus, and pretty much asked him to admit that Glory rules (and K-1 ones before them) basically stunk. I kinda gave the same opportunity last fall to Tyrone Spong as well.

I don’t know much about kickboxing but here’s my beef: most of these top kick boxers have trained Muay Thai, the most complete striking art the world has ever known — with all it’s clinching, take downs, elbows, shoulder strikes, etc — for years and indeed even fought under those rules many times. However, once they get to the big leagues, they are not allowed to use many of the devastating weapons they’ve honed because the promotion has either severely limited those rules (clinching) or made them illegal (elbows).

I don’t like those limitations for similar reasons that I don’t like forced stand ups or forced clinch breaks in MMA (or that very useful and realistic moves like knees to the head of opponents on the ground are not allowed). I stand by my stance that the fights would be more interesting, realistic and even safer if allowed to be more pure versions of themselves but having that stance didn’t diminish my enjoyment of the Glory fights one iota on Saturday night. Perhaps I just got lucky because it was an exceptional card that combined hungry young local fighters, new champions and old legends, all fighting their hearts out with the refs not making themselves known too often.

This was the first full Glory card I’d ever watched and it delivered amazing fights. Since Saturday, I’ve gone back and watched the past few events. Those were quality all-around as well. Basically, it is easy to get hooked on Glory kick boxing fights. I’ll always prefer MMA to everything else (because it’s the most complete, realistic fight sport) and I’ll always push for it to be its most complete, real self, but now I also know I won’t be missing many Glory cards from here on out.

4. You Can’t Judge a Gym By it’s Size

In major cities in the states, many of us are used to fight gyms that are literally the size of warehouses and factories. LA and Vegas have scores of these. Even in land-short New York, giant gyms like those of Renzo Gracie exist.

And you know what, those gyms are cool as hell. That said, many of the gyms in gigantic Tokyo are tiny. Like, really small. Doesn’t matter. There’s great instruction, hard training and skilled champions being produced in these gyms. In just five days, this writer visited three different ones and trained at two. Yuki Nakai’s Paraestra gym was maybe twice the size of my hotel gym and I can’t say enough good things about how quality it is.

The former Shooto champion Nakai produces his own excellent students, like Shinya Aoki, and his gym also attracts the best pro fighters and Jiu Jitsu champions to its open sparring days. There’s good reason. The training is respectful but hard and competitive.

And, it goes on for hours and hours. Nakai loves teaching and the fight so much, the clock and the schedule on the wall have no bearing on how long the actual training session goes. Training stops when everyone has either left or is exhausted on the side of the mat.

The Abe Ani Combat Club (AACC) is where former UFC champ Josh Barnett trains and teaches when he’s in Tokyo, and brothers Hiroyuki and Masatoshi Abe have produced some of the best Japanese champions in MMA, both male and female. Their space, in a Gold’s Gym, is bigger than the mat space I have at my home gym but it would still look small compared to the mega gyms of Vegas.

Pro fighter, Scottish ex-pat and Cagepotato vet Stewart Fulton took me to the gym that Yushin Okami runs in Tokyo. Again, it was more than spacious to me, but tiny compared to the McDojos that are popping up in U.S. metro areas of late. Funny enough, neither Okami, nor the other high level professionals training that night under his direction needed more space to become as good as they have. None of the gyms I visited had rings or full cages to work with. Cages are hard to come by in Tokyo gyms, Fulton tells me.

For certain, ring and cage training is useful during training camps to get practice cutting off distance. That said, just a few days in Tokyo can teach even “more is more” American martial artists that you can’t judge a gym by its size.

5. Beware the Bowing, Humble Man

All too often, arrogance is seen as confidence. Chest-puffing as strength. In fact, there are few better indicators of insecurity and weakness.

Training at a gym in Tokyo — a city where literally every person I encountered during my week there at least acted overly polite — is a good way to learn that humble-acting, smiling, and bowing guys can be warriors. The cultures of the gyms I trained at were such that when someone wanted to spar with you, they came over smiling, shrugging, bowing, with hands clasped together, humbly asking if you would train with them. Then, they’d train hard as fuck.

I’m not talking about cheap shots, because I didn’t experience any of that at Yuki Nakai’s gym or at AACC. I’m just saying that these meek-acting, bowing, almost cowering dudes turned into twirling, smashing, submission-hunting machines once it was time to flip the switch.

You can’t judge a gym or opponent by their size, you also shouldn’t be fooled, one way or the other, by how they act before the fight happens. Bowing just may mean that they know they’re bad enough mofos to pull it off. Like the guy wearing rainbow colored grappling tights.

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