|Feast Or Famine|
It’s dinner time, and Hayato Sakurai is a whirlwind of activity. He’s gotten comfortable around the American visitors to his gym in Ibaraki Prefecture, and he’s going to make them feel at home.
He cracks jokes, asks questions, drinks beer, cooks Korean barbeque and eats rice, all seemingly at the same time. He’s fond of blurting out profane phrases he picked up during a training jaunts in America, eliciting belly laughs from all at the table. Among them are “f***ing great!” and “I’m Rick James, bitch.” He’s got a grain of rice stuck in his stubble all the while. It’s something to behold.
Sakurai is infamous for his eating and drinking, prone to losing his figure between training camps despite his disdain for cutting weight. You can see why it would be hard for him, as there seems to be nothing he enjoys more than entertaining company.
It’s not clear to a non-Japanese speaker who ordered dinner or when, but plate after plate of meat and fish suddenly begins to empty out of the kitchen. A translator says Sakurai doesn’t quite order food at a restaurant; he more barks at waiters what he needs as the urge comes to him. Opt for water instead of beer, and you’ll be told “Water is bad.”
Perhaps he’s trying to pack it in while he still can. Sakurai said he will be fighting on the all-important New Year’s Eve “Dynamite!” event here in Japan, though his opponent has yet to be decided. Plus, he plans to begin a five-day fasting next week as suggested by his sensei, who sounds like the equivalent of a spiritual advisor. Sean Frew, a striking coach at Sakurai’s gym, put it best.
“He’s a feast or famine kind of guy.”
Sean Frew has been credited with improving the striking of several of Japan’s notable fighters. In addition to working with veterans Hayato Sakurai and Joachim Hansen, Frew is credited with dramatic improvements in the hands of 2000 wrestling Olympian Kazuyuki Miyata, to the point he made a go in the K-1 kickboxing ring this year. Miyata hasn’t lost a fight since starting up with Frew.
Working now with American Kickboxing Academy up-and-comer Wayne Phillips, Few, an Australian based in Japan, notes the promise of the lanky San Jose fighter’s jabs and the natural way his straight left comes down the middle.
“I like him,” said Frew, who quickly struck up a conversation with Phillips about tattoos shortly after he entered Mach Dojo. “He doubles up and triples up on his jab. He can work things off that.”
It wasn’t all praise and positive reinforcement. Frew said Phillips needs to work on his instinct to drop his head down and cycle backwards after throwing a combination, opening himself to knee strikes. Phillips agrees, saying he, as a southpaw, is always working on circling to the right even though it’s not a natural reaction for him.
Phillips also found utility in an interesting variation of the jab Frew likes to use, where he uses the meat on the edge of his hand to strike the chin in a flicking motion, lifting the chin and leaving it prone to a cross. It’s not going to knock anyone out, but it can penetrate the tightest guard and, Frew said, “gets in 80 percent of the time.”
“It was just cool working with somebody with a different style,” Phillips said. “It kind of keeps you on your toes a little more.”
You get the sense Hayato Sakurai doesn’t like this Yoshida guy.
In Japan, the cover of the “EA Sports MMA” video game features two fighters, just as it does in the United States. However, here Randy Couture is swapped out for Hidehiko Yoshida, the 1992 Olympic gold medalist in judo and a national celebrity who still carries cache here. Yoshida retired from MMA earlier this year after a storied career and returned to judo.
Making his pro debut in 1996, Sakurai takes great pride in being one of the first prominent Japanese fighters to train full-on mixed martial arts from the beginning in a country where many judo players and wrestlers made an immediate transition into the sport. Sakurai is a leading proponent of introducing MMA to Japanese youth early as an alternative to, not a means to make money with, judo and wrestling.
When he sees the cover of the game, he gets animated at the site of Yoshida’s face. Why would a judoka, he asked with sarcasm one could detect even in translation, be on the cover of an MMA game? He asks more than once.
Good thing no one told him Yoshida occupies the cover position of Couture, who Sakurai said is his all-time favorite fighter.
At the Mach Dojo in Ibaraki, the amateurs train at night, which is when American Kickboxing Academy fighters Luke Rockhold and Wayne Phillips paid a visit.
As Phillips rolled with what looked to be the most experienced fighter in the room, Yuki Okano, triangle chokes were attempted several times from both parties. Rockhold began to weigh in, advising Phillips to dig his forearm blade into his opponent’s abdomen to prevent the choke from compressing both sides of his neck.
Okano was taking in the advice just as intently, if not more. One got the sense jiu-jitsu instruction of this type is hard to find here, and there was clearly an appetite for it. Other fighters in the room began to gather around the ring as Rockhold held court.
Sensing the interest, Rockhold showed off a few of his favorite submission variations, including a multi-step triangle from underneath an opponent’s side mount. Onlookers labored to replicate it among themselves the rest of the night.
A 90-minute train ride from Toyko is the Japanese prefecture of Ibaraki, home city to some of the country’s elite mixed martial arts fighters. On a quiet coastline block, marked by a sign featuring playful illustrations of fighters executing suplexes and armbars, is Mach Dojo, home gym of tenured UFC, Pride, Dream and Shooto veteran Hayato “Mach” Sakurai.
Built on land his parents own, the gym is a bit of a shrine to Sakurai’s 14 years of accomplishments in the sport. On the walls are photos of his proudest conquests, including a prominent shot of him blitzing brash lightweight Shinya Aoki in an April 2009 grudge match, Sakurai’s last victory before hitting a three-fight losing skid. He proudly points the photo out to visitors, trying to explain that Aoki was “stuck up” and deserved it.
There’s a weight room to the left, where a group of amateur fighters work before moving to the east wing and working their striking in a ring featuring an original canvas, blood stains and all, from a Dream event (no one is sure which installment). There’s Styrofoam on the walls instead of mats, and tears in a blue floor mat are patched with black duct tape. Heavy bags, including one filled with water, hang in front of a set of mirrors.
The environs suit Wayne Phillips nicely, who up until this point has trained in the cramped J-Rock Workout studio in Tokyo, no bigger than a mid-sized American living room.
“When you’re surrounded by people, it’s hard to get your spacing,” he said. “It’s like fighting in a phone booth. Here you’ve got more space to work with.”
|Day And Night|
It’s hard for a five-year-old girl to understand. If I’m going to school for the day, why is daddy going to bed for the night?
Wayne Phillips has been in regular touch with his daughter Ava during his Tokyo training stint, doggedly pursuing a phone card as soon as he arrived and ducking out to use a phone booth in front of the hotel. The time difference from San Jose – California is 16 hours behind Japan – is tough even for adults to get straight. But to children, the idea that it’s already tomorrow in Japan is mystifying.
During a recent call involving talk of the time difference, Phillips wished his daughter good night, but she sounded distant in reply.
“I could tell she ran off to tell her mother it’s night time here,” he said.
|A Peaceful Place|
The Meiji Shrine in Toyko’s Shibuya section is a magnificent piece of nature in the middle of Tokyo’s one-of-a-kind urban bustle. The 175-acre expanse, dedicated to 19th century Japanese Emperor Meiji, contains some 120,000 trees.
Wayne Phillips kneels at a well and marvels at how long it must have flowed, and how the water seems to simply appear from the ground. He snapped pictures with his cell, phone, as he did a traditional Shinto wedding in progress and a pond teeming with large fish and turtles.
A perfect refuge from the busy streets and the sweaty gym.
“It’s very peaceful,” Phillips said. “Thinking of how long all this stuff has been here, it’s kind of like the roots of Japan. It’s just nice to see the other side.”
J-Rock Workout Studio overseer Kazuhiro Nakamura has a lot of questions about Luke Rockhold. Though he briefly trained with the Strikeforce middleweight during a visit to the United States, he has trouble placing who he is and for which promotion he fights.
Nakamura clearly understands “AKA” (American Kickboxing Academy) and what Strikeforce is. He understands Rockhold competes at 185 pounds and was supposed to fight Matt Lindland before hurting his shoulder.
It’s the name he’s having trouble with. After Rockhold and understudy Wayne Phillips made several visits to J-Rock, there still wasn’t clarity. Then it occurred to Rockhold that a promotional flyer for the “EA Sports MMA” video game was taped to the gym wall, including a full roster in Japanese lettering.
Rockhold, completely lost trying to read kanji, tried his best to sound out his name as Nakamura ran his index finger down the roster list. Finally, a knowing grin came across Nakamura’s face, who up this point couldn’t repeat the pronunciation of Rockhold’s name to save his life. Sounding out the kanji, Nakamura read out a very respectable “Lu-ku Rock-Hol.”
There was rejoicing, and Nakamura, as if he’d suddenly realized a video game celebrity was in his presence, called over several members of his camp to read it themselves.