Kids today don’t know how good they’ve got it. Yes, the closer I get to 30 the more of a grumpy curmudgeon I become, but in this instance I am one hundred percent correct. Fight master, Ultimate fighter, UFC on Fox, UFC on Fuel, FS1, UFC Unleashed, World Series of Fighting, Bellator, Inside MMA and if you’re really desperate you can always tune to the Spanish station and watch gladitorius del UFC – there’s almost too much MMA these days. Watching elite fighters put their skills on display is an everyday occurrence. However, once upon a time UFC events were pay per view only and often months apart. If you wanted to satiate your MMA desire you had to befriend a Direct TV subscriber and wait for the US broadcast of Pride Fighting Championships. In high school I would have been best friends with Charles Manson if it meant I could watch Kazushi Sakuraba fight Renzo Gracie.
Japanese MMA was special. Pride, Pancrase, K1 and Shooto all had a special flair. They were contested in pristine rings with over the top pageantry and showmanship. Mysterious international talent was coupled with wild rules, scoring and mixed weight super-fights. The silent crowd that appreciated submissions as much as striking was also a welcome alternative to the inebriated “just bleed” crowd that populated American MMA events.
Fighting in Japan was a dream of mine. During my MMA career I scratched off plenty of bucket list items. I fought for Zuffa, made it to the Ultimate Fighter and won a few oversized MMA belts – but I never made it to the Land of the Rising Sun.
Fortune smiled on me though after sparring at the AMA Fight Club on day when my friend Andy Main shared some exciting news. “I’m fighting in Japan” Andy said with his trademark calm demeanor. Without hesitation I told him, “If you fight, I’m there”. Finally, the opportunity to experience Japanese MMA first hand had arrived and in Pancrase no less. Anyone with an appreciation for MMA history knows the esteem place Pancrase holds in the mixed martial arts world – an event that pre-dates the UFC and launched the careers of pioneers like Bas Rutten, the Shamrock brothers, Yuki Kondo and Matt Hume.
Andy Main was slated to take on Hiroki “AB” Aoki as part of Team Nam Phan vs Team Pancrase. Originally a number of fighters were slated to represent Nam Phan, but through a process of attrition Andy became the sole representative for Nam. Andy and Nam knew each other as teammates on season 12 of The Ultimate Fighter. Andy has been the best kept secret in northeast MMA for the past few years. A slick fighter giving top UFC fighters fits in training who ran into a bad streak of illness and injuries. Andy would prep for a fight when shingles, mono, flu or vitamin deficiencies would strike – if there was an illness Andy had it. I used to joke that I knew cancer patients healthier than him. Lately though, it seemed like he had turned a corner. He climbed back into the cage for CFFC and put on a clinic en route to a first round submission victory. His striking had caught up to his jiu-jitsu and he was looking dangerous in all areas.
His opponent was tricky. Aside from having to travel behind enemy lines, the fight was also going to be contested at 155, one weight class above Andy’s normal fighting weight. For the first time he wasn’t going to have the height advantage either as his opponent was long and lean. Experience also played into AB’s favor with him having more than twice as many fights as Andy. If any of this bothered Andy you’d never know it. He put his nose to the grind stone and whenever the topic of Pancrase came up he spoke with an assertive confidence that let me know he expected to walk away with his hand raised.
The only stumbling block seemed to be the fact that the fight would be contested inside a boxing ring as opposed to a cage. Most of our training at AMA Fight Club prepares us for walls and cages rather than ropes. Fortunately, my Hudson Valley MMA gym Precision Mixed Martial Arts has a full sized boxing ring. Andy made weekly trips up to Poughkeepsie, NY to familiarize himself with the ring and pick up some coaching tips from me at the same time. As a student Andy is ideal. He’s receptive to feedback and constructive criticism and makes better mid-round adjustments than almost any fighter I’ve worked with. While coaching him at times I almost felt like I was playing a video game and he was my character.
Finally, camp came to a close and it was time to fly out. I extended my stay longer so I would get some extra training (put the $1,800 plane ticket to good use). After Andy arrived we met in Shinigawa decided it would be good to get a sweat going after being cooped up in a plane for 14 hours. On way to the local Gold’s Gym we got our first taste of Japanese culture shock. Andy is something of a boy scout. He’s a vegetarian; he grew up doing mission work for his local church and runs a business with his little brother. You’re more likely to find him at a dog park than a bar. However, he is covered in tattoos. His most prominent ones are portraits of his mother and father and an inscription reminding him that he is his brother’s keeper. Not exactly skulls and cross bones. However, once the woman behind the counter saw the slightest bit of ink peeking out from the sleeve of his sweat shirt she treated him like he was in the Hell’s Angels. She insisted we leave immediately. After a series of begging and pleading (90% of which was likely lost in translation) we were allowed to stay. Apparently, every Gold’s Gym in Tokyo comes equipped with a fully stocked MMA gym. We got a good workout in and I could feel that in spite of the arduous journey Andy retained his strength.
The following afternoon was open workouts and media day. We met Nam Phan and headed over to a different Gold’s Gym to get some training in. We reviewed some last minute technical strategies and got after it hard. Andy was feeling stronger today and it showed. Once Andy was finished training I got some good flow rolling in with Nam and was impressed. He even showed me a few tips for landing his signature liver shot. It’s too bad we didn’t have more time to train together. The Japanese media was interesting. They were always looking at things from a pro-wrestling angle, trying to stir the pot and get Andy to say something controversial that would fire up the opposition. We were able to find out that everyone had painted Andy as a pure jiu-jitsu fighter. We were excited since striking was a big part of our game plan, we figured the element of surprise would be on our side.
Weight cutting wasn’t going to be an issue. Andy was walking at 155 despite eating regularly. We knew we would be giving up size, but stereotypically the Japanese aren’t big weight cutters so we weren’t too concerned.
The weigh-ins were supposed to be a non-issue, but became more dramatic during the rules meeting. Going into this fight we were under the impression that it would basically be contested under unified rules sans elbows. We quickly found out that we were mistaken. Each time we spoke to someone the rules changed. By the time we were done asking soccer kicks, stomps and knees to a grounded fighter were all legal – it was like old school Pride rules. Fighting for sport is something of a chaotic endeavor. The one thing I try to do as a coach and athlete to mitigate the chaos is to be aware of all the variables and prepare my athletes accordingly. These last minute revelations did not sit well with me. I started going over new strategies and frantically trying to make sense of the new potential dangers we faced in the fight. Andy shared none of my concerns. He looked at me and said “Whatever, it’s a fight”. I wasn’t sure if his resolve was the result of confidence or insanity, but it let me know he was dialed in and nothing was going to change that.
The weigh-ins also saw drama when fellow US fighter Amber Brown struggled to cut the final pounds in order to make her 105 lbs. weight class. Seeing how lean and dry she appeared I wasn’t certain she could do it. Simply walking up a small hill on way to the scale was a tall order for Amber, but there was a lot of resolve in her small frame and she made the weight.
Following some epic meals, sight-seeing and wandering it was game day. Unlike cards in the US which might have 10 or so bouts, Pancrase had stacked 18 fights on the card with Andy being the main event, which meant a whole lot of waiting. As the bout neared closer I noticed a few things that were different in Japan. No one watched me while I wrapped Andy’s hands, a process that is traditionally very closely scrutinized by US athletic commissions. Also, none of the fighters were drug tested. In the US something as pedestrian as a sleeping pill can result in a failed drug test and hefty fines. There was no pre-fight physical or doctor exam. Finally, no Vaseline was applied prior to fights and there were seemingly no cut men in the corners. Many of these rituals are never noted by the casual observer, but for me the absence of these pre-fight traditions made me feel like I was in the Wild West.
After a quick warmup it we stepped into the on-deck circle. Nam and I peeked our heads around the curtain to watch Amber’s fight. We got to know Amber a little in the days prior and were really rooting for her. Things weren’t looking good, she was eating hard leg kicks and had a cut bleeding right over her eye. She rallied in the second round, but was clearly not going to be winning a decision. Time was ticking away with Amber on her back when she threw up a perfect armbar from guard. She put everything into it and scored the submission. Amber’s victory gave us some positive energy to fuel off and I suddenly felt more at ease as the pre-fight promos played for Andy’s fight. There was a long pro-wrestling-esque montage that set the stage for Andy vs AB. Finally Andy’s entrance music played and it was go time. Andy (and his brother Mikey, a fighter himself) walk out to “Some Nights” by Fun. The song is a light hearted sing along track. It helps break some of the tension and anxiety surrounding the imminent battle. AB destroyed this calm ambiance by walking out to the most abrasive screaming death metal I’ve ever heard in my life. The juxtaposition was borderline comical.
Immediately prior to the walkout a new wrinkle immerged when officials told Nam and I that the fight would feature “open scoring”. Meaning that judges would indicate who was winning at the conclusion of each round. I decided not to tell Andy about this new discovery since I didn’t want to break his concentration just prior to fighting.
At long last, the bell sounded and round 1 began. Andy began executing the game plan to a “t”. He marched out, controlled the center and began lacing AB with lightning quick jabs and crosses. Each punch was snapping AB’s head back. Andy was being mindful of his defense keeping his head moving the whole time, being aggressive by not wreck less. AB decided to abandon the striking exchange and moved into the clinch. I could tell he was strong here, but Andy was controlling well with his wizzer. AB made a quick move to Andy’s back and secured hooks for a brief moment, but Andy countered with a Sakuraba like Kimura and turned into the guard. Now ontop Andy worked some ground and pound and looked to pass after thwarting a few upkicks. Taking side control Andy landed some knees to the body before the round closed.
The fight was going perfect, Andy had rocked AB who was now cut and clearly won the round. I told Andy to use and underhook rather than a wizzer to stop AB from coming behind him and to mix some uppercuts into his combinations since AB was looking down to avoid the 1-2’s.
Round 2 began and Andy once again dominated the boxing. He mixed in the uppercuts perfectly and followed them up with huge knees. AB clinched in desperation and Andy pummeled to an underhook and hit a flawless Uchi Mata sending his opponent head over heels crashing to the mat. I thought Andy might just finish the fight here, but AB showed this would be no easy victory by attacking off his back. AB locked in a triangle that had me heart skip a beat, Andy defended well by posturing but found himself in a kimura quickly thereafter. I was confident that the submission wouldn’t be finished, but worried that if the round ended this way they would award it to AB. Andy solved the riddle though and escaped to side control and then immediately mounted. With 15 seconds we told him to pull the trigger and he finished the round raining down strong punches. We were now up 2 rounds to 0.
Going into the 3rd I just wanted Andy to stay out of the clinch. We knew he could knock AB out if he made it a striking battle. I could tell Andy was fatigued, but far from gassed. The third round began much like the prior two with Andy landing clean strikes almost at will. Right as a knockout seemed imminent the ref called a halt to the action to check AB’s cut. Initially I thought this would benefit us since Andy could catch his breath, but the break was so long that it really allowed AB to recover and get back in the fight. AB pushed forward and secured a body lock. He hit a bear hug and landed on top of Andy. As Andy went to shrimp AB took his back and locked in a tight body triangle. Andy defended well, but wasn’t able to move his hips out to escape. Time was on our side though, if we could simply survive the next 2 minutes we would take home a victory. At one point AB had him completely flattened out and things looked bad, but Andy showed his heart and gutted out an escape. To his credit AB landed some shots before Andy secured closed guard, but once he did he immediately threw up a tight armbar, AB defended well and the round came to a close. The open scoring allowed us to breathe a sigh of relief during the announcement – Andy earned the decision.
Nam and I went crazy and ran to congratulate Andy, who was on the verge of throwing up. Fortunately, he was able to hold it together, but he told us he had pulled something in his rib which is why the final round was so dramatic. After a few pictures and autographs we headed back to the locker room victorious.
Following the fight Andy posted this:
“Now the thank you’s! HUGE thank you to my coach and training partner Brian McLaughlin for making the trip to Japan with me and preparing me for this fight. Big thanks to Nam Phan for setting it up. Thanks to everyone at Pancrase for giving me the opportunity. Thank you Coach Mike Constantino and all my teammates at AMA Fight Club, I will be back asap to help you all get ready for your next bouts. Also the guys at Precision MMA and my Instructor Yanni Hronakis for helping me prepare. Thank you to my students and family at Pure MMA you guys don’t realize what you all mean to me. Thank you Alex Kennedy and Melvis Figueroa for helping cover classes while I was away. Thank you my Mom and Pop for the ongoing support. Thank you to my amazing supportive girlfriend Maggie Krol. And thank you to my brother Mikey who keeps me honest and keeps me pushing forward whether he knows it or not. I fight for you all and it makes victory that much sweeter”