|Gunning For Respect|
Of the myriad fighters sweating it out at J-Rock Workout Studio on this Tuesday afternoon, only one was wearing the UFC insignia on his gloves. Top UFC middleweight contender Yushin Okami stood out for more than just this reason, as he seemed a cut above his colleagues in terms of size and lean muscle mass.
Wayne Phillips and Luke Rockhold both fight at 185, so they got a small charge out of seeing one of the division’s top fighters in action. Unlike the rest of the J-Rock fighters, Okami -- who faces Nate Marquardt in an important middleweight tilt at UFC 122 on Nov. 13 -- didn’t spar much. He focused mostly on jiu-jitsu, working submission attempts, transitions, and chokes from top and back mounts on hapless partners.
Phillips got a chance to roll with Okami briefly and took note of his strength and leverage. He didn’t get a good sense of what Okami is truly capable of, though; Phillips said he felt as if the Octagon veteran was going at about 50 percent. These things don’t need to put into words to be clear to MMA fighters. There’s a nonverbal communication that goes on when fighters feel each other out in the room, one that transcends language barriers.
“I don’t know what they’re saying, but we’re on the same page,” Phillips explained.
Part of this communication is the ostensible way one shows respect to a visiting gym: always let the home turf guys lead. No matter where the gym, it’s important as a guest trainee to spar and practice at the pace the native fighters set, not to try to outwork them to prove some point or to ensure you get the maximum benefit. It’s a delicate balance, Rockhold explained.
“You have to judge how they bring (the intensity level) up,” Rockhold said. “You always have to follow. If you don’t let them lead, you get no respect. They start gunning for you.”
It’s shortly after noon at the J-Rock Workout Studio in Tokyo, and several of Japan’s notables are deep in training.
Maximo Blanco -- the Sengoku lightweight whose victories sometimes resemble homicidal mania -- hits several handspring back flips after a madcap sparring session with 205-pounder Tatsuya Mizuno, who is looking sharp despite a sound loss to Gegard Mousasi two weeks ago.
The mats at J-Rock are bright white, in the fashion of the rings of Pride Fighting Championships and Dream. White lights beam overhead as a steady diet of American pop hits animates the room: Rihanna, The-Dream, Usher. The gym is located on the second floor of a densely-packed neighborhood, steps from the Togoshi-Ginza train station in the Shinagawa ward. A hallway space the size of a small American bathroom is covered in Nikes shed by fighters before stepping onto the mat. Three heavy bags hang from the far left wall, but man-to-man sparring and no-gi grappling is the focus.
Wayne Phillips and Luke Rockhold enter the fray, not drawing the skeptical glances you might expect from others in the intimate setting. Dojo overseer and Pride veteran Kazuhiro Nakamura has let everyone know the Americans would be coming. Most carry on, uninterested.
Phillips pulls on a sparring helmet with a cage in the front to protect his nose, which Herschel Walker fractured with a kick during a recent sparring session at American Kickboxing Academy back in San Jose. Phillips engages with Mizuno, who finds an overhand right quite consistently as the Californian lags a bit behind in speed.
“Maybe he work on combinations, throw more combinations,” Mizuno says of Phillips through a translator after the sparring. “It’s pretty predictable because (Mizuno) knows what’s coming next.”
The scene frustrates mentor Luke Rockhold to see. Phillips’ AKA teammate stresses that speed is something that’s developed and harnessed, not something you need to be born with to use effectively in mixed martial arts.
“He’s coming off slow,” Rockhold said. “He’s double-jabbing and he’s waiting too long to turn the left over and he’s getting countered. The looping shots can be there, but you have to throw straight punches. I want his straight punches to set up his lopping punches.”
Mizuno gestures to an interviewer that the right hook and overhand right seemed to land consistently on his American sparring partner.
Phillips is feeling slow, the jet lag literally seeping out of body as he gets a sweat going in the stuffy workout space.
“I’m finally feeling it today, I feel sluggish,” he said. “I can feel that pancake bouncing around.”
Rockhold thinks it might be time to rein in Phillips’ eating habits, suggesting on the walk back from the gym that Phillips might need a steadier intake of fruit and greens. Phillips doesn’t really respond. He doesn’t eat much, but when he does, he knows what he likes. He announces a plan to instead eat an orange before the next round of training.
“I think as the days go on my body will adapt to better to my environment,” Phillips said.
|Training in Japan|
The urge to train creeps in as soon as Strikeforce middleweight Luke Rockhold steps into J-Rock Workout Studio in Tokyo. It’s almost like the angel and devil on each shoulder, the devil being on top of his left shoulder -- specifically, his left acromioclavicular joint, which he separated while executing a throw in training at American Kickboxing Academy. The injury forced Rockhold, who turns 26 on Sunday, to pull out of a fight against Matt Lindland which promised to separate him from the pack in Strikeforce’s middleweight class.
Rolling was surely out of the question during his visit to J-Rock, and it killed him to miss the chance to feel out one of the best in his division, Yushin Okami. But if he held his left arm like it were in a sling, he could get some bag work in, right?
Of course, the injured shoulder would be tossed, turned and aggravated during any kind of rigorous activity. But, this is the way fighters’ brains work: they get addicted to the burn of training, and create this myth wherein they can somehow train around injured body parts in a sport that requires 100 percent full-body coordination.
“It’s the fighter in you,” Rockhold said. “You just want to hit something.”
Hit something he did, kicking the daylights out of the three heavy bags hanging off to the left of the compact gym in Tokyo’s Shinagawa ward. He started off by uncorking only high kicks and spin kicks, but soon was digging into his bag for one of his MMA gloves so he could punch with his right hand. Soon enough, his training partner Wayne Phillips was holding kick pads for him, which smacked profusely upon impact.
The shoulder limitation did allow Rockhold the chance to do something he typically doesn’t do back in San Jose: watch others train. Observing Phillips’ sparring with J-Rock fighters Tatsuya Mizuno and Tatsunao Nagakura, Rockhold picked up on slowness in Phillips’ hands and holes in his defensive boxing. He called Phillips over to the bags, telling him to throw one-two combinations and then dodge or block a jab. Rockhold wants Phillips to bring his hands back to home base after throwing punches.
By the time the day’s session wrapped, Rockhold had worked up as appreciable a sweat as Phillips, despite the shoulder issue. Rockhold will pay for the workout almost immediately, stopping by a 7-Eleven for an ice pack and some Ibuprofen on the way back to the hotel, and rubbing the shoulder constantly throughout a sightseeing jaunt later in the evening.
|Morning in Japan|
It’s a low-key first morning in Japan for Wayne Phillips. His and Luke Rockhold’s debit cards denied them yen at the 7-Eleven ATM, so they’re trying to work the phones with their credit unions back home to clear the withdrawals and ensure there is no fraud afoot. Phillips can’t believe he’s in Japan. Neither can his bank, apparently.
The team rallies back at Jonathan’s Coffee & Restaurant for the hotel’s complimentary breakfast. Meals are offered in “sets,” or what one might call a platter or combo in the States. There’s the Scrambled Egg Set, the Grilled Fish Set, the Toast Set, the Grated Yam Set. The toast is so massive and thick, you could give someone a black eye if you Frisbee-d it at their face.
Phillips sits down in shorts, flip-flops and a t-shirt, among suited businessmen, young people in casual wear and one man sprawled out on his table, asleep. In Japan, or at least at this place, waiters will not disturb you unless you ring a call button on the table. Spend the night if you’d like.
Phillips orders the Pancake Set: three flapjacks with syrup and butter. He eats one of them. Phillips admits that he hardly ever eats breakfast, and that nutritional eating is far from his strong suit.
With his first training session a few hours away, Phillips has what he considers a solid enough meal under his belt, but that’s about it in that particular region. He forgot his jock strap in California, but has a cup. Without fail, he only gets hit in the groin in training when he isn’t wearing a cup. There is talk of duct tape as a potential remedy.
|Something to Remember|
On the train to the hotel in Tokyo's Shinagawa district, Phillips asks photographer Esther Lin if she knows of any tattoo shops in the area.
“I just want to get something done while I'm out here,” he said. “Something to remember it by.”
He’s got his daughter’s name on his wrist, a demon emerging from his leg, and Spider-Man’s nemesis, Venom, on his right shoulder. There's a Playboy bunny logo, his very first tattoo, on his right shoulder blade.
A former tattoo artist, Phillips inked the demon, as well as a fighter landing punches in the guard, on his calf himself.
“The ones I’ve done myself were probably the most painful ones,” he said.
The Narita Express bullet train cuts through the Tokyo night, flashes of neon urbanity appearing in the window. Wayne Phillips notes how animated the city seems to be -- not just in its bustle, but in the over-acting on video advertisements and the CGI mascots for everything from train lines to restaurants.
“It’s just exiting to be in a new place altogether,” he said.
About an hour earlier, Phillips and his American Kickboxing Academy teammate, Luke Rockhold -- also a first timer in Japan -- are immediately impressed by the rush of passersby upon entering the subway hub attached to the airport. Every train station seems to be inside of, or connected to, a mall, creating foot traffic from all angles.
His training gear stuffed into a red gym bag, Phillips, conspicuous for his goatee and mohawk, struggles to fit into tight turnstiles and elevators. A uniformed train station attendant smirks as Phillips taps his subway pass on a sensor multiple times, seemingly just enough to ensure that the sliding gates will close the second he tries to pass through.
After arriving in Tokyo’s Shinagawa ward, home to the J-Rock Workout Studio, Phillips and company bemusedly note the KFC and 7-Eleven across the street. They file into a hotel and are greeted by uber-friendly translators who will help them communicate with the fighters with whom they’ll be training. They should recognize each other to some extent, as current J-Rock head Kazuhiro Nakamura has previously trained at AKA with Rockhold.
With the translators’ help, Phillips and Rockhold process a food menu in a family-style restaurant called Jonathan’s Coffee & Restaurant near the hotel. It resembles a Denny’s, in part because pancakes are on the menu. Phillips opts for a shrimp and cheese concoction which he thinks was called “rotten shrimp.”
“It was real cheesy. It had, like, a crunchy top,” he said. “I put parmesan cheese and the shrimp was in it, too. It was good, I liked it. I don’t know how exactly Japanese that really was.”
He also shared some sake with Rockhold -- yes, alcohol served at a diner in bottles the size of travel mouthwash -- and notes its sweet undertones. Wayne Phillips is here to try it all.
“I love learning new things,” he said. “Just being able to go somewhere else, especially a different part of the world, and pick their brains about how they train and how they get ready for fights.”
Phillips thinks he can make his largest gains in judo, a particularly important skill at J-Rock, which is an outgrowth of Olympic gold medal-winning judoka Hidehiko Yoshida’s network of dojos. Back in San Jose, Phillips said he tends to stress his wrestling more and get fights to the floor with double legs and high crotch lifts. He’d love to be able whip out a seoi nage if the situation warranted.
“I know I’m not going to be Karo Parisyan by the end of the trip,” he said. “Just as long as I can take two or three things and make them my own, that’s what I’m trying to do.”
Phillips and Rockhold begin their training at noon on Tuesday.