(Over?)Analyzing Omigawa: A Success Story for Japanese MMA

By Jordan Breen May 4, 2009
Four years ago, I was in an MMA pick 'em pool with four acquaintances. UFC and Pride cards, $20 buy-in, points for winner-method-round, and the total points winner took the pot.

It was May 2005, and Pride's Bushido 7 was on the slate. I could already feel the 100 bones making the act of sitting down near impossible, almost Costanza-like. Being a massive MMA nerd and with Dream Stage Entertainment having retooled the Bushido program to heavily feature lightweights and homegrown talents, I figured I had a natural leg-up on my pool contemporaries who didn't feel the need to maniacally obsess over the sport.

Naturally, I lost the Pride Bushido 7 pool. Actually, I didn't "lose" per se; I came in second place, by one point -- a fate infinitely more excruciating.

Within the pick 'em pool, I was the only person who took the debuting Michihiro Omigawa over Aaron Riley. None too surprisingly either. I still consider it one of the worst fight picks I've ever made (maybe this is a column idea in and of itself), not just because of the fact that it robbed me of $100 but because it's as classic an example of overanalysis as you can get.

Here was my idiotic rationale, as best I can recall: Omigawa's debut was coming on the heels of his teammate Makoto Takimoto getting a generous decision over sumo Henry "Sentoryu" Miller on New Year's Eve. As another pupil of Hidehiko Yoshida, one of DSE's few major domestic stars whom they wanted to keep happy, I expected Omigawa to be given considerable latitude for the officials. I anticipated that he would avoid mucking about on the feet with Riley, a battle-hardened brawler, and instead would quickly get some takedowns, at which point he would attempt to smother him with his gi and be given a gift decision by the judges due to the politics of the fight game.

Anyone with a scintilla of common sense would've looked at the fact that Omigawa was a debuting judoka and that Riley was one of the sport's toughest customers, then would’ve commented it was a good thing Omigawa brought his pajamas with him: He was going to be put to bed -- which he was at six minutes even of the first round.

However, with his recent underdog run halfway through Sengoku's featherweight grand prix, Omigawa now strikes different thoughts in my head.

His back-to-back upsets of L.C. Davis and Nam Phan have given me some mixture of relief and justice. Despite his pair of sensational wins, though, his record still stands at 6-7-1, a testament to a myriad of the things wrong with Japanese MMA and its ideology.

Omigawa was forced to begin his career with bashings from Aaron Riley and JZ Cavalcante. After fighting low-level opposition (even by Japanese regional standards) to even out his record, he was sent to the UFC to fight the likes of Matt Wiman and Thiago Tavares. The move could be best understood as his promotional company, J-Rock, feigning importance to a Japanese audience by superficially showcasing their fighters in the oh-so-arcane Octagon way across the ocean.

Despite high-profile connections, nothing was done at any point to ensure that Omigawa was being built for long-term success. This is the unfortunate reality that permeates most of Japanese MMA, where spectacle still stifles sport and where the "Que sera sera" school of matchmaking means that only a select cadre of young fighters will have success early in their careers, should they be fortunate enough to keep their heads above water in a dangerously deep baptismal pool.

Omigawa's recent turnaround isn't just a personal success story; it a success story for Japanese MMA. His improvement can't be attributed to any one single factor but rather a holistic process of fighter development that is normally absent in Japan. For starters, after racking up a 4-7 record as a lightweight, he finally cut down to the featherweight division -- a weight class that actually physically suits him. Typically, Japanese fighters don't realize they're a poor fit in their weight class until about a decade into their career, if at all.

Secondly, he's been wise enough to realize that his determined but unskilled stand-up can't cut it. He has recently started working out at the Watanabe Gym responsible for several Japanese national and Ocean Pacific boxing champions, as well as where K-1 Max star Masato worked on his hands before his 2003 World Grand Prix victory. Omigawa's transformation since beginning to train there earlier this year has been dramatic, with a rich demonstration this weekend as he bobbed, weaved and battered a high-quality fighter in Nam Phan with his boxing.

He hasn't simply fallen in love with his hands -- the pitfall of many grapplers who improve their striking. His upset wins over Davis and Phan required gameplanning, another aspect of Japanese MMA that is sorely lacking in many regards. To talk to many Japanese fighters and trainers about fight preparation simply boggles the mind, especially given the likes of Greg Jackson bringing hyperspecific strategy en vogue in North America. Credit is due to Omigawa's team for helping him transform from a judoka windmilling punches at his own detriment to a fighter who, in his last two fights, has transitioned seamlessly between the feet and the ground and controlled his opponents tactically throughout.

Also in need of due praise is Sengoku big boss Takahiro Kokuho. Kokuho, who handles virtually all of Sengoku's executive duties including matchmaking, is also the founder of J-Rock, therefore functioning as both Omigawa's manager and promoter. Yet, despite this textbook conflict of interest, Kokuho's approach to matchmaking (which I've already dedicated many column inches to) has helped Omigawa enormously. By refusing to give Omigawa an easy tournament draw, Kokuho has forced Omigawa to train intelligently and fight specifically against two difficult but manageable opponents. That is the very essence of good management and prospect development, which has been sorely lacking in MMA on the whole but woefully so in Japan for so long.

And of course, Omigawa deserves much credit for his own self-improvement. What I've found chiefly interesting recently is how he's revealed his inner resolve. Typically I am nauseated by fans and pundits playing armchair psychologist with the sport ("Fighter X looked scared at the weigh-ins; he's going to get knocked out!"), but Omigawa has recently displayed an uncommon and frankly startling level of brashness and brusqueness that seems downright out of place in Japanese MMA.

In a society that richly values the honne-tatemae duality, any "personality" in Japanese MMA is typically contrived or cartoonish. However, there is a stark authenticity to Omigawa telling his doubters after the Davis win to be fruitful and multiply, and likewise for his strikingly terse shutdown of Nam Phan's media friendly quote that he wanted to submit Omigawa with a Kadowaki Special.

At Sunday's news conference, when the three remaining Japanese tournament entrants were playfully asked which would like to volunteer to face remaining foreigner Marlon Sandro, Hatsu Hioki and Masanori Kanehara gave predictably bland stock answers. Omigawa then told the room that he would fight all three of the other semifinalists on the same night, and knock them all out.

Omigawa's comments all show off an ironclad crustiness, the kind that enables a 4-7 afterthought to begin auditioning to be a top-10 featherweight, even if he wears leopard-print scarves.

Or, maybe I'm overanalyzing again.

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