Darren Uyenoyama’s journey to the UFC was long and eventful. | Photo: Taro Irei
Fate has not often given Darren Uyenoyama the easiest of paths where the fight game is concerned. As one of the last foreign nationals trying to make a career in Japanese mixed martial arts, the miscommunications and misconnections have outweighed what few in-ring breakthroughs he has enjoyed in the Land of the Rising Sun. Although a veteran of nine years, Uyenoyama’s record stands at a thin 6-3 -- not particularly noteworthy or flattering numbers, given his tenure or his participation in some of the more notable MMA promotions outside of the UFC.
Perhaps fate has had a long-term plan of testing his commitment to MMA. If so, then Uyenoyama’s last great trial was probably his planned promotional debut at UFC 134 in August. The San Francisco native was originally tabbed to face Raphael Assuncao in Rio de Janeiro. Coming off a hand injury that kept him out of Dream’s Japan bantamweight grand prix in February, an enthusiastic Uyenoyama was eager to break an almost one-year layoff by participating in the Octagon’s triumphant return to Brazil. In the end, however, a persisting contractual obligation to major Shooto promoter Sustain prevented it.
Though his contract issues were soon resolved, it seemed too little too late for his shot in the UFC. None would have faulted Uyenoyama for thinking he had just missed his boat into the king of MMA shows until, one day, fate finally smiled upon him.
“I was driving to an amateur event [to support] one of my guys, and I got an email saying, ‘Hey, this [Norifumi] ‘Kid’ Yamamoto fight came up. It’s on Nov. 12. Would you be willing to fight him?’ Of course, I said yes,” says Uyenoyama, who will face Yamamoto as part of the historic UFC on Fox 1 event at the Honda Center in Anaheim, Calif.
Being offered a second chance at a UFC debut against the former Japanese superstar was an interesting twist, considering Uyenoyama’s last bout in Japan would have been against Kid’s understudy, Atsushi Yamamoto, if injury had not taken him out of the Dream tournament.
“Several things went through my mind then,” says Uyenoyama. “Kid and I have been pretty friendly, especially since we always tended to bump into each other at events and since he sent one of his fighters to the U.S. to train with us. Atsushi picked me during the Dream tournament draw, too, probably because his team was familiar with me. On the same weekend I was supposed to fight Atsushi, Kid was supposed to fight my teammate, Chris Cariaso, in the UFC, but Kid got injured and pulled out. It just seemed that our two universes were always hovering around each other and maybe it was just a matter of time until they collided.”
Coincidentally, Uyenoyama was originally promised a fight with Yamamoto should he win his 2008 Dream debut against Hideo Tokoro. Yamamoto’s prospective opponent was a hot topic at the time, given then-WEC featherweight champion Urijah Faber’s vocal campaigning to face him, as well as the popular consensus that Dream unofficially based an entire tournament on Kid the following year, creating a weight class between featherweight and bantamweight to suit potential opponents. Though Uyenoyama came out on the wrong end of a decision in the bout with Tokoro at Dream 4 and Yamamoto faltered in the first round of the Dream tournament against current Bellator Fighting Championships featherweight titleholder Joe Warren, neither fighter could have guessed that they would still meet in the cage anyway, albeit several years later.
Foreign Fighter in Japan: Bone Crusher Edition
“You know, I’d say that most of my fight experiences in Japan haven’t really been under ideal circumstances,” notes Uyenoyama with a chuckle.
It is a fair assessment, given his history as either a late replacement or late addition to Japanese cards. Uyenoyama’s 2002 debut came at Deep 5th Impact, where he replaced an injured Robson Moura and faced future 114-pound Shooto world champion Rambaa Somdet. Uyenoyama, then a Brazilian jiu-jitsu blue belt with only two years of training, had some big shoes to fill, given Moura’s stature in the BJJ community and the fact that Deep was billing the fight as a clash between the martial arts worlds of jiu-jitsu and muay Thai.
Poor and in need of the $3,000 purse offered by Deep to help cover the cost his upcoming wedding, Uyenoyama accepted. With two weeks of striking training, courtesy of late ISKA muay Thai champion Alex Gong, Uyenoyama received just enough preparation to take a decision over Somdet. While the fight paid his matrimonial bills, Uyenoyama’s friendship with Gong led him to focus more on helping the Fairtex fighter manage his gym, rather than on continuing his MMA career. It was not until sometime after Gong’s passing that Uyenoyama found himself back in MMA, five years after his debut, and eventually back in Japan, as well.
After working his way through local Cage Combat and Strikeforce shows, Uyenoyama received an urgent call to be a last-minute addition to Dream’s fourth event, where he would face Tokoro.
“I got about two weeks’ notice. I was literally sitting on a barstool with a cigarette in my hand and was drinking a beer when the call came in, just on a whim, saying, ‘Oh, would you like to fight in two weeks against Tokoro?’ And, so, I pretty much finished my cigarette and started training for the fight right after,” recalls Uyenoyama.
Although he was not in the best shape and did not have the optimal time to prepare, he took Tokoro to task, resulting a high-energy back-and-forth battle that was a “Fight of the Year” candidate in 2008 and an identifying, standout performance by Uyenyoyama for Japanese MMA fans. Despite agreements with Dream for a quick turnaround, Uyenoyama was unable to ride the momentum of the Tokoro fight into another bout with the promotion, as his name repeatedly fell through the matchmaking cracks.
“I was back out there in August and December, and they kept saying they’d talk to me about a fight, but every time I got out there, they weren't able to put me on a card or were just too busy to meet. It was rough, because it was like $1,000 per trip,” says Uyenoyama, still wincing at the superfluous costs. Not all was lost, however, as during these trips, the Californian serendipitously connected with Hiroyuki Abe, who introduced Uyenoyama to his extensive network. Uyenoyama has since dubbed his training facility the Faito Tamashii Combat Club, in reference and homage to Abe and his gym, the Abe Ani Combat Club.
“I’d started my own gym and was getting a lot of help from Abe-san, getting to meet and train with all the good people in his network, like Rumina Sato, picking up a lot of techniques from them. Through AACC, I also met Joachim [Hansen] and [Antonio Carvalho]. We hung out together and we all kinda bonded out there -- just us three foreigners in Japan -- and we’ve since stayed in contact,” a reminiscent Uyenoyama says.
Uyenoyama’s connections with “Hellboy” and “Pato” paid dividends, particularly in regards to the advances made in his fight style. “Bone Crusher” credits Hansen for giving him his ground-and-pound ability and offensive skills from his back, while Carvalho has offered his tactical knowledge and experienced perspective on competing in Japan.
“There’s not much I think I can offer those guys in return because they’re so experienced, but they’ve helped me out so much. I’m just so grateful,” says a humble Uyenoyama. “In all my travels, I don’t think I’d ever found any two guys in the sport as genuine, generous and experienced as them. I wouldn’t be the fighter I am today or fight the way I do without them.”
Doing the Family Proud
Uyenoyama’s next appearance at Dream would not be in the ring but rather just outside of it as one of Hansen’s cornerman at Dream 13. Though Uyenoyama accompanied the Norwegian to Tokyo for his March 2010 featherweight debut against Bibiano Fernandes, he was given more than just his friend’s performance to think about, as he was offered a fight while en route to the Yokohama Arena.
Finish Reading » What jolted Uyenoyama back into the game was an unexpected call from the UFC, which was an option he had not anticipated but nonetheless still coveted