The Man with Two Souls

Two Souls

By Tony Loiseleur May 13, 2009
A rising star in his ethnic home of South Korea -- and at once a celebrated and reviled athlete in Japan -- Yoshihiro Akiyama represents by far the UFC’s greatest East Asian acquisition to date. Though reaction to his signing was subdued in the West, hearing he had opted to sign with the American mixed martial arts juggernaut -- instead of landing with Sengoku or K-1 -- was big news for fans in Japan in South Korea.

“I did consider fighting in Japan, but because of my age and the notion that the major leagues are in the US, I felt that the major leagues of MMA was the UFC,” Akiyama says. “No one can really go to the UFC just because they want to. The chances are very limited. I received the offer, and since it was my dream to fight on a larger stage, everything all came together at the right time, and I decided to go.”

As one of the best talents raised in Japanese MMA, Akiyama seems more than worthy to step into the Octagon. However, pundits view Akiyama’s ancestry and celebrity as an ethnic Korean as the keys to Zuffa’s plans, should the company expand into South Korea. Akiyama’s stardom in that country extends beyond combat sports and borders on that of a bona fide pop star.

Surprisingly, Akiyama does not believe his heritage alone will help the UFC grow in Korea. In fact, he expresses reservations with the idea and voices concern over the pervasive and trite overemphasis on national and ethnic identity.

“I think a lot of people tend to focus too much on nationality, and when they try to assert or put me into either category [Korean or Japanese], I’m saddened by it,” he says. “A lot of ‘Zainichi’ Koreans (ethnic Koreans living in Japan) feel the same way -- where they don’t know if they’re Korean or if they’re Japanese.”

Like many ethnic Koreans born, raised and living in Japan, Akiyama has dealt with the difficulties of fitting into two cultures, under constant scrutiny and with little room for foreign inclusivity; the consequences can be seen in his struggles in judo and MMA over the past eight years. Nevertheless -- unlike his harshest critics and detractors -- he harbors no bitterness; that allows him to reconcile and appreciate both identities.

“I often get this question from fans asking, ‘Which do you like better: Japan or Korea?’ Or if it’s a Korea versus Japan game, ‘Which side do you support?’” Akiyama says. “And it’s an extremely difficult question because it’s like asking, ‘Which parent do you like better, your mother or your father?’

“Nationality doesn’t really matter,” he adds. “I don’t necessarily think that being Korean is a big benefit for me in going to the UFC. I’m a Japanese citizen, but I also have Korean blood. I have love for both Japan and Korea. It’s flattering to me if Koreans support me as their fighter or [if] Japanese support me as their fighter.”

Coming to such conclusions has no doubt resulted in a storied life for Akiyama, both in and out of the media spotlight. Consequently, he has since chronicled these personal events and revelations in his recently released book, “Yoshihiro Akiyama: Two Souls.”

“My book came out on April 2, and in it are recollections of my life and how I felt about the things that happened,” Akiyama says. “A few topics I write about are my change of nationality, the problems I experienced in Korean judo, previous fights, my thoughts on relationships and my love life and my eventual decision to go to the UFC. It’s really a book on my personal feelings and commentary, current up until today.”

Photo by Sherdog.com

Alan Belcher is a nice
test for Yoshihiro Akiyama.
Belcher and Beyond

Akiyama (12-1, 2 NC) will debut against Alan Belcher at UFC 100 on July 11 in Las Vegas, two weeks shy of his 34th birthday. Heavyweight and welterweight title fights will headline the historic show.

“On the one hand, I’m trying not to think about it, because if I start to, I’ll suddenly realize how big of an event it is and become nervous,” he says. “I want to be myself, be natural when I debut. On the other hand, I do want to savor the moment.”

Akiyama expressed excitement over fighting in the cage and having the use of elbows at his disposal.

“It will be my first time fighting in the cage, but I’m training for it in order to make it feel like it won’t be,” he says. “Whether I can use them or not, I’m excited to try elbows because it’s new for me. It’ll be fun. Because the rules are different in the UFC, I’ve begun imagining them while in training.”
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