Uyenoyama has fought in Dream, Strikeforce and Shooto during a career that began in 2002. | Photo: Taro Irei
“They gave me an offer where I had to make the decision by the end of the bus ride whether to fight [Tomoya] Miyashita in two more weeks and whether I was going back to the states [and] then coming back to Japan or not. I don’t know if they counted on the fact that they knew how eager I was to fight there that I couldn’t say no,” says Uyenoyama.
Although once again offered a fight under less-than-ideal circumstances, it was by that point closing in on two years since Uyenoyama had fought in Japan and almost a year and a half since his last bout on a Strikeforce undercard. Desperate for action, Uyenoyama took the Deep 47 bout against Miyashita. As far as he was told, a win would put him back into Dream, but, again, it was not meant to be, as he was submitted by Miyashita via guillotine in the second round.
Though always in the back of his mind, the question of whether pursuing an MMA career in Japan was worth the time and frustration came to forefront at this point. Certainly, most international fighters had by then either flocked to or targeted the UFC, while some Japanese competitors began following suit. For better or worse, however, an intangible force kept Uyenoyama committed to an MMA industry that did not seem to have room for him.
Growing up as one of the rare kids of Japanese descent in San Francisco’s Mission district, Uyenoyama felt a kind of appropriateness to plying a trade like prizefighting in his ancestral homeland. He admits that it has been something with which he has tried to reconnect since the passing of his grandmother, whose heart was always in Japan and the Japanese way of life.
“When I was growing up, I had a strained relationship with my grandmother, who used to criticize me for being ‘too American.’ For example, she’d say stuff like, ‘You know, Darren, students in Japan with grades like yours would commit suicide.’ And I’d think, ‘I don’t know whether you’re suggesting that I commit suicide or that I should pick up my grades,’” he says with a fond laugh.
“She lived in Japan for a long while, so when she came to live with us, we kinda clashed heads. Our relationship got better before she passed away, but since then, I’ve always tried to do things that I hoped would make her proud,” Uyenoyama continues. “I’ve been blessed with talents that allow me to pursue fighting in Japan as best as I can, and I hope something like that would’ve made her proud. To this day, when I speak to my mom, I ask her if she thinks she would be proud. If she were alive, she might not say so directly, but she probably would be.”
Thus, despite the setbacks, Uyenoyama gave fighting in Japan one more chance. While the path to Dream appeared closed after the Miyashita loss, his connection with Abe allowed him another opportunity, this time against Shooto 132-pound world champion Shuichiro Katsumura. Naturally, there was a catch: since it was Uyenoyama’s first Shooto fight, it would have to be a non-title bout. Already at his limits, “Bone Crusher” focused years’ worth of frustration toward training. Title or not, he vowed to make a statement by demolishing the Shooto champion in such a way that onlookers could not help but see him as the uncrowned 132-pound king.
Come fight night, Uyenoyama did exactly that with a berserker-like performance that would have made Hansen proud. In a little less than nine minutes, Uyenoyama relentlessly clubbed Katsumura with ground-and-pound, scrambling his senses before referee Taro Wakabayashi showed the hapless champion mercy. With the round-and-a-half drubbing of Katsumura in the books, Uyenoyama had not only vindicated himself for the Miyashita loss but also guaranteed himself an immediate rematch for the title, as per the terms in his contract with Sustain.
Or so he thought. It seemed fate had another surprise up its sleeve.
Serendipity Strikes Back
History will attest to the fact that rather than Uyenoyama, it was Koetsu Okazaki who received the next crack at Katsumura. Like Uyenoyama, the Osaka, Japan, native finished Katsumura in about a round and a half’s time. Unlike the American, however, Okazaki took the belt home after the win.
While Uyenoyama remains unsure how Sustain came to its decision to give Okazaki the title shot over him, given the terms of his contract, he chose not to pursue the matter since Dream was once again knocking on his door. In the wake of the Great Tohoku Earthquake and tsunami on March 11, Uyenoyama was invited to be the sole non-Japanese fighter to compete in Dream’s first “Fight for Japan” event, along with its inaugural Japan bantamweight grand prix.
However, Uyenoyama’s long sought-after return to Dream once again was marred by bad luck. The shellacking he gave Katsumura two months prior had resulted in a fractured metacarpal in his right hand that had not healed completely, and during his training for the Dream tournament, the injury worsened.
“When you’re a fighter, it’s kinda rare to be 100 percent healthy, but even I knew that something wasn’t right with the hand. It already hurt a bit in training, which I kinda ignored, but it eventually got to the point that I couldn’t even use chopsticks [when I ate]. So I thought, ‘Maybe I should see a doctor about this.’ I was told three months recovery time max, but either way, I couldn’t fight twice in one night [in the tournament] with that hand. Just my luck, I guess,” recalls Uyenoyama.
Already accustomed to jinxed, show-stopping circumstances, a resigned Uyenoyama withdrew from the tournament and hoped to somehow get his career back on track once he recovered, either back in Japan in Shooto or Dream’s eventual world bantamweight tournament or in the United States in Strikeforce. Refocusing his energies on recovering, being a full-time father and directing the training of his fighters at FTCC allowed him to keep his mind off of this latest career setback.
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. Given Zuffa’s purchase of Strikeforce in March and Uyenoyama’s brief history there, he had apparently come to the attention of matchmaker Sean Shelby, who soon invited him to the Octagon.
Though Sustain would likely not have objected to Uyenoyama’s inclusion in Dream or the UFC, Zuffa’s policy of contractual propriety kept it from signing him during the last months of his Shooto contract. Although finally getting his big break after years of false starts in Japan, a return to action against Assuncao at UFC 134 was indeed too good to be true.
It would be difficult to frame Uyenoyama’s hand injury here as a blessing in disguise, but that is how he looks upon it. Without it, he would likely have been committed to Dream, and should he have made it as far as the semifinals of its Japan tournament, he would be obligated to do its world bantamweight tournament, too. With the help of the Sucker Punch management group, Uyenoyama was free to negotiate a release from his Sustain contract, making himself free for the UFC should it ever need his services again. As it turns out, it did, and when Uyenoyama was offered the bout against Yamamoto, he was able to sign immediately.
“It’s weird how things turned out because, in the end, my hand kinda saved me for the UFC,” he says. “Honestly, I wouldn’t know whether it would have been fully healed for the Brazil show, either, so maybe it was good that I didn’t get in then, too. Now, everything seems almost perfect. I’m healed, I actually have time to put together a full training camp and I get to do it in my backyard, where my friends and family can support me and see me fight in the biggest show in the world. Also, I get to face Kid, who I’ve been wanting to face since Tokoro.”