Budo’s Best: Katsunori Kikuno

A Dynamic Duo’s Origins

By Tony Loiseleur and Taro Irei Jun 5, 2010
Taro Irei/Sherdog.com

Kikuno
Kosaka recalls the differences between the two fighting cultures he observed since his stateside debut back at UFC 16 in March 1998.

“In the U.S., they were very technical and scientific about it,” he says. “In Japan, they already did everything, but they weren’t as thorough in having that overall MMA approach. It’s still one-dimensional and not as scientific as in the U.S.”

However, one trait shared between both MMA cultures in the late 1990s was their thirst for knowledge. In Kosaka’s case, it united him with fellow UFC veterans Maurice Smith and Frank Shamrock. Together, they created the Alliance, a team dedicated to sharing each member’s specialized techniques in an effort to make each other more complete fighters. This, in turn, led years later to Kosaka creating Alliance-Square, which keeps the spirit of the original Alliance alive today.

“The goal hasn’t changed,” Kosaka says. “It’s to provide an assembling place for people with different backgrounds to mix their techniques and ideas in order to become better MMA fighters, because MMA is about mixing.”

As an already decorated high school judoka and budding Kyokushin karate practitioner, Kikuno’s skills were enhanced by Kosaka’s guidance. Many trainers might have tried to demolish and rebuild them in the conventional mold of modern fighters.

“I described Kosaka-sensei’s style of teaching as American feeling because he accepts each student’s individuality and style,” Kikuno says. “That especially works well with me. Other coaches would be inclined to tell me, ‘Raise your guard. Tuck your chin. Do this. Do that.’ Kosaka-sensei however would let me do what works for me and then suggest additions and improvements.”

Kosaka reiterates this philosophy.

“I approached his karate background by telling him that he needn’t change what he already knows and what already works,” he says. “For instance, his stance isn’t typical compared to boxing stances where you tuck your chin. In his case, he doesn’t, since his stance helps him to do his specific techniques and movements.”

Fighting for Dream, the spiritual successor to Pride, was the realization of a momentous life goal for Kikuno. However, he claims that this overpowering joy derailed his focus, resulting in his submission loss to Eddie Alvarez at Dream 12.

“By the time of the Hironaka fight, I learned my lesson,” Kikuno says. “Before, I used to vaguely imagine winning, telling myself, ‘I’m going to win.’ Then I’d spend lots of time thinking about what I would say on the microphone after the fight, and that was it.”

In an attempt to remedy this, Kikuno resorted to the image training lessons of Dr. Fumio Nishida, whose book, “Number One Theory,” he credits for the Hironaka victory.

“[Nishida’s book] basically claims that what you imagine, you can better realize in reality, so I persistently imagined knocking [Hironaka] out with my liver kick or punches, over and over again,” Kikuno says. “And then in the fight, it happened exactly as I imagined it.

“I’m still working on my stance,” he adds. “When I say that, I also mean that I’m working on the perfect union of the stance of my body and the stance of my mind.”

A New MMA Hero for Japan?

It’s no secret that Japanese MMA is currently slumping, while Western MMA is thriving. Although this trend clearly distresses insiders like Shinya Aoki and promotions like Dream, most of Japan could not seem to care less.

Kosaka sees the problem stemming from lack of awareness.

“In my estimation, the UFC is already quite complete in terms of promotion and their roster of fighters,” he says. “In Japan however, whether Dream or Sengoku, MMA is still developing. We still need to raise greater public awareness of the sport and of the fighters themselves. A lot of people in Japan still don’t know what MMA is and why fighters do the things they do in the ring. We’re still at a stage where we need to explain things to everyone.”

Besides being a pioneer for Japanese in the Octagon, Kosaka is one of Japanese MMA’s greatest domestic resources. Serving as guest commentator for Dream and UFC broadcasts in Japan, Kosaka is also an ambassador to fans and laypersons alike by conducting public video seminars where he meticulously dissects major MMA events.

Japanese isolation from the rest of the MMA world is a complex dilemma. On the one hand, Japanese promotions do little to appeal to or acknowledge the international audience, which then diminishes the impetus for homegrown fighters to learn about international MMA and venture abroad. On the other hand, while Japanese promotions doggedly work to revive a domestic market, they are currently promoting MMA to an audience that simply is not interested in the sport.

There are no indications that this narrow focus will ever change. Historically speaking, what Japanese MMA seems to need now is what buoyed K-1 Max and Pride’s success -- omnipresent, charismatic stars that capture the imagination of everyday Japanese people and not just fight fans.

Though Kikuno claims an interest in fighting abroad, he diplomatically states a wish “to fight the best, regardless of what promotion it happens in,” and can only name two prominent non-Japanese lightweights: B.J. Penn and Gilbert Melendez.

As the avatar of traditional martial arts, Kikuno’s stereotypical qualities are charming in a way that can find appeal with the fickle Japanese public. After all, Kikuno is a fighter who walks out to “We Are the World” because, as he claims, the martial arts are about helping others. Prizefighting fame and wealth are merely means to the ultimate end of realizing his humanitarian dreams of starting his own charity.

As with most of Japan’s biggest stars in K-1 or Pride, fighting ability has always been secondary to stardom. Whether it’s the boyish good looks of Masato Kobayashi, the caricatured ferocity of Bob Sapp or the spectacle of crossover celebrities and athletes like Hidehiko Yoshida, Kikuno’s incongruous combination of utopian dreams and budo flag-waving make him yet another kakutogi character.

As an added bonus, however, he’s a character that can actually fight and win, and he could potentially reinvigorate the Japanese imagination about the possibilities and nobility of karate.

It may be too early to call Kikuno Japan’s MMA savior, but it seems safe to say that he has wholesome, endearing qualities that fans can get behind. Kikuno’s visually unique style and self-deprecating nature fits the popular image of the traditional martial artist. As a winning but earnest and devout karateka, Kikuno has proven an idyllic representation of Japanese cultural identity in which Japanese audiences can invest.

Though Kikuno humbly rejects distinguishing himself as representative of Japanese MMA at the moment, he still hopes to earn the title someday, if only for the purposes of the charity mentioned above. For the moment, being identified as a Japanese fighter is enough.

“[Becoming a star in Japan] would certainly be my goal, and I would be honored if it happened,” Kikuno says. “I grew up with martial arts, and I would like to progress to a major level in it and one day give back to the martial arts community. That is something that would make me very happy.”

Interpreted by Shohei Dio Uesugi
More » Check Out Taro Irei’s Photo Gallery of Kikuno & Kosaka

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