Maximo Blanco is headed for yet another continent. | Photo: Taro Irei/Sherdog.com
TOKYO -- For those that follow international mixed martial arts, Maximo Blanco’s name has become synonymous with violence.
From a fighting perspective, the 27-year-old Venezuelan transplant agrees with the association, since he freely admits that he becomes a different person whenever he puts on the gloves and steps between the ropes; one so overcome with the will to win that he feels he cannot be held responsible for whatever happens when the bell rings. He credits this trait alone for his being such an explosive force and success in MMA. It was what he lacked during his formative years as a freestyle wrestler.
As one can probably guess, Blanco is anything but explosive or violent outside of the ring. An outgoing, care-free and humorous fellow, he smiles contentedly through every moment of life; it is rare to catch him looking or acting otherwise. Fighting just happens to be a day job that has given him enough exposure to become popular, such that hardcore MMA fans hope and pray to see him in the UFC someday. Luckily, he has recently started his path to the Octagon by exiting Sengoku Raiden Championship, signing with American management and netting a four-fight deal with Strikeforce.
Blanco is more than just a fighter. He’s a lover, too, and probably too much of one at that. After losing a comprehensive sponsorship deal with Sengoku, Blanco was forced to look westward, not only to continue his career but to find economic stability and shelter. He only found this avenue to survival through a former sweetheart.
“It’s actually a funny story,” he says with an embarrassed chuckle, one that threatens to grow into a full laugh and derail his telling the rest of the tale. “When I had to leave [my Sengoku-sponsored apartment], I asked an ex-girlfriend to help look for other opportunities. I found Sucker Punch Entertainment with her help through Twitter, but all this time she was helping me, she assumed we were back together. But now that I’ve signed with an American management team and since I’m also relocating from Japan to the States, she’s quite mad at me.”
A suppressed laughter starts spreading throughout room at his admission, but before it overcomes me, I ask whether or not he feels for her, even if just a little bit. He looks sheepish for a moment, shrugs with resignation and says with a shy smile: “Moshiwake nai, ne.” The room erupts at this colloquial rendition of an oft-used Japanese phrase designed to convey the politest and sincerest of apologies. The way Blanco says it is one part act of contrition, one part plea of “Well, what could I do?” It is perhaps the most natural and charming of responses, given the circumstances.
As awful a turn as it may be for Blanco’s former paramour, it is difficult to fault him. On top of his artfully violent and compelling performances, he has an overwhelming amount of charisma outside the ring. It is hard to be angry at someone who, though potentially a cad, just makes one feel happy to be around him. Still, it should come as no surprise that he has likely broken more than his fair share of hearts here.
“Even when I was a kid, I always wanted to go to the States, not to fight but just to live,” he says. “Right now is the right time, I think. My contract with Sengoku is done. I lost my house here, and I think I’ve made enough ex-girlfriends here, so it’s time to move.”
He says this in jest, of course, and punctuates it a boisterous laugh that the room again shares with him. However, it seems an apt outlook for the transitioning Venezuelan dynamo. In a land of Octagons, after parties and post-fight locker room bonuses, Blanco can hardly pick a better place than America to make a new start.
A Lifelong Prospect
Blanco’s entry into wrestling came at age 14, when he traded three years and a green belt in tae kwon do for a singlet and the chance to learn backflips.
“It all started because of a cousin that was doing wrestling,” he says. “One day, I saw him do a backflip, and I was really impressed. He told me: ‘If you want to do backflips, you’re going to have to start doing wrestling, not tae kwon do,’ so I switched.”
His timing was fortuitous. Little did he know then that switching from tae kwon do would do more than teach him some neat acrobatics. A year after enrolling in German Villalobos High School’s wrestling program, Blanco was scouted and recruited as one of four young Venezuelans to form Sendai Ikuei Gakuen High School’s inaugural wrestling team. The coach that discovered him was Hideaki Akutsu, who previously coached the Venezuelan national team and thus had the connections in the country needed to mine talent for his program in Sendai, Japan. Akutsu’s search criteria called for academically proficient Venezuelan wrestlers between the ages of 15 and 16. As a studious and apt wrestling neophyte at the time, Blanco was an ideal candidate.
However, that quickly changed once he arrived in Japan. Adjusting to a new lifestyle, navigating a new language and maintaining a strict training schedule took priority over academics.
“Even if my grades weren’t that good in high school, I still got my scholarship to wrestle at the university level. Normally, high school students don’t compete in a lot of tournaments, but I was one of the few being sent to various national ones,” says Blanco. “It was at one of these [tournaments] that people from Nihon University saw me and asked if I wanted to wrestle for them. That’s how I got scouted a second time.”
However, wrestling life at the university level was vastly different from his experiences in high school. Blanco’s recollection of his first encounter with the institutionalized hierarchical system typically inherent in all aspects of Japanese life remains an unpleasant one, given that he was unprepared for it.
“Every year, seven new members enter into the university wrestling team, and the people in their first year have to yield to those in their second and so on. If someone in a particular year makes a mistake, his whole team pays for it,” he says. “Because my Japanese wasn’t great, I frequently didn’t understand things or made mistakes, so my class ended up having to do various things as punishment. Everyone was often mad at me because of this, and I was basically
ignored or bullied and had to work harder to make
up for everything.”
Deference to one’s seniors is par for the course anywhere in the world, but the hierarchical structure of school clubs in Japan is oftentimes much stricter. Further, bullying is arguably an institutionalized aspect of such rigid hierarchies in Japan; not only is it a pedagogical tool for teaching new recruits the etiquette and procedures of their particular group, but it tempers personalities such that group cohesion and uniformity becomes possible.
As a foreigner, Blanco was understandably unprepared and had a lot of catching up and tempering to do -- particularly since this regimented club life was lacking at Sendai Ikuei Gakuen. The year of his arrival in Japan was the first year the school had a wrestling team. Thus, there was no need for him to learn the protocols of deference to a senior class.
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