By Elias Cepeda
I got off the Oedo subway line from Shinjuku station at the Kiyosumi Shirakawa stop and waited for a few minutes to meet up with my guide for the night, Stewart Fulton. Stewart is a Scottish ex-pat who has lived in Tokyo for over a decade. He’s also a professional fighter and has bled and sweated with some of the best fighters in all of Japan.
On this Friday night, Stewart is taking me to the gym of the man UFC president Dana White has said is the best fighter to have ever come out of Japan — Yushin Okami. Uncle Dana may very well be right about that.
It’s an interesting time to visit with “Thunder” because, despite White’s lauding of him, the UFC released Okami last fall. Now, the former middleweight title challenger is signed with the World Series of Fighting (WSOF) and is expected to make his promotional debut in March against a yet-to-be-determined opponent.
Stewart has told me that I can train with the group of select professional fighters that Okami will lead tonight but also warned me that it is a sparring day and that they go hard. After three straight days of hard grappling at other schools in Tokyo, I’m fine with sitting through tonight’s session as a spectator and leaving with my head still attached to my body.
I wonder out loud to Stewart what kind of mood Okami will be in tonight. He hasn’t done many interviews since being cut by the UFC. Okami’s release shocked some observers since he is still clearly a top middleweight. Surely, it shocked Okami as well. Who knows how eager he’ll be to talk about the topic.
Luckily, there are plenty others to discuss. Namely, training.
Stewart tells me that over the years he’s been amazed that Yushin has never appeared to be injured during training. Injuries happen constantly in training and fighters are almost always nursing several of them that vary in severity.
“I’ve never noticed him favoring an injury during practice,” Stewart tells me.
“Either he doesn’t get hurt or he’s very good at not showing it.”
Yushin is dressed in spats and a long-sleeved rash guard but doesn’t mix it up with the other fighters tonight. Tonight, he is Coach Okami and, stop-watch in hand, he leads two straight hours of drilling and sparring for the other five pros in the room.
Stewart wasn’t lying — they go hard in sparring. A number of times, fighters clearly get their bells rung but don’t back down. Afterwards, the training partners still smile and joke with one another as well.
Yushin is stern when giving instructions but seems happily engaged in this role. He tells us that he’s held that position of group leader for about five years.
All of the fighters are around Okami’s age but it’s clear they have respect for the top-ranked middleweight.
After practice, with Stewart as our interpreter, I ask Okami about coaching, what he’s got next and how prepares for fights. First off, is it true that he doesn’t really get injured?
Okami laughs and says that luckily, right now he doesn’t have any major injuries.
“I get injured just as much as anyone,” he says.
“But, no, I don’t have any big injuries now at all. There’s no secret to staying healthy. I make sure I get taken care of. If it’s a small injury, you just work around it and keep getting stronger in other ways.”
When pressed, Yushin does allow that a lot of effort goes into staying in shape. For Okami, as is the case for boxing great Bernard Hopkins and UFC hall of famer Randy Couture, not having an off-season is key.
“I do take care of what I eat all year round,” he says. “Even if I’m not fighting in the near future, if it’s quite a ways away, I don’t take any time off. There’s no off-season. It’s pretty much consistent training.”
That approach has served the 32-year-old well throughout his career and is likely his best chance at getting back on the winning track in this uncertain time for him. Okami has won three out of his last four UFC fights but was still cut after losing last September to Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza.
Now, Yushin waits to see who and where he’ll fight next in the WSOF. His UFC release is clearly not a topic he enjoys talking about as he looks towards the future, but he does admit to being shocked by the move.
“At the time I was shocked,” he says. “But the only way is to move forward…All that matters are my actions from here on out.”
Okami has trained a bit in recent years in America with the likes of former opponent Chael Sonnen. As he talks about fight preparation in his own Tokyo gym, Yushin says that his goal is to combine the best elements of America-style training with Japanese methods for himself and the teammates he leads here.
“In Japan, training is a daily thing,” he says. “What you do in a day is important. But, in the States it seems like what matters most is what you can do in a week. That’s one of the main things I’ve brought over here – how to plan your training out over a week, rather than just think about what you’re doing that day.”
Here in his Tokyo gym, Okami is trying to create a new, hybrid way of training. “Basically, I want to take the good points of what I’ve learned in America and the best parts of what I learned here in Japan and mix them,” he says.
“It’s an amalgam of what I’ve learned in both countries.”
Okami also says that, though he wants to himself return to the U.S. for more training camps, whether he does for his next one will depend on who he fights next. Also, the ultimate goal is to eventually re-create the well-rounded training environments he’s experienced in America, here in Tokyo.
“I have been helped a lot by training in America and I do want to return there,” he says.
“It depends on the opponent but I do want to train there again with people who have helped me a lot. I also want to bring more of that atmosphere to Japan so I can have camps like that here in Tokyo.”
After seeing the hard sparring he facilitated, it isn’t a surprise to learn that Okami believes what makes Japanese training special and unique has a lot to do with a simply love for going hard.
“The strong point for Japanese fighters and training comes from a long time ago,” he explains.
“The Japanese are crazy about training. We just go at it. It’s always been there. Having said that, having to train at different gyms for different skills — I’d rather it be in one place like it is in the States.”
Yushin Okami the fighter may have years yet left on his accomplished competitive career. However, one can’t help but look forward a bit and be excited at the prospect of his leading the next generation of Japanese MMA coaches.
Like all career fighters, “Thunder” Okami has learned a lot about fighting over the decades. Unlike most of them, however, he’s already eager to share that knowledge with others to help create new champions.