Japanese fighters not named Yushin Okami have not fared particularly well in stateside cages lately, leading many Western fans to question Japan’s relevance in today’s mixed martial arts world.
Long viewed as the preeminent force in the lighter weight divisions, Japan put its reputation to the test when World Extreme Cagefighting became the premier proving ground for bantamweights and featherweights. As history will attest, however, it has not gone swimmingly for team Japan.
Enter Takeya Mizugaki, the latest in a long line of Japanese fighters inspired to pursue MMA by Shooto legend Rumina Sato.
Enduring a rough patch of two losses and two draws after being crowned Shooto’s 2005 rookie MVP, Mizugaki (11-2-2) resurfaced and captured the Cage Force bantamweight championship in December. Having come into his own with wins in five straight fights, he now has his eyes set on stateside competition.
“I think the world’s strongest fighters are stateside now,” Mizugaki said. “The Cage Force championship is a good title. However, it’s not the top of the world, and that’s where I want to be.”
To the 25-year-old bantamweight, that pinnacle is the WEC. Though he has yet to sign with the Zuffa promotion, it is the only place Mizugaki wants to be, despite peers and handlers who expect to see him in Dream. Rumored to be opening a bantamweight class in 2009 -- it will be categorized as a featherweight division -- the glitz and glamour of Dream’s featherweight grand prix seems like a perfect introduction to the big time for the newly crowned Cage Force champion.
Mizugaki begs to differ.
“I respect the Japanese entertainment culture, but for me, I personally prefer the pure athletic image of MMA that’s practiced in America,” he said. “Comparatively, I prefer the WEC. First of all, the weight limit of Dream’s featherweight class is still undecided. Second, they treat MMA like a sport in America. Fighters are considered athletes, and I want to fight as an athlete. To me, the major leagues are the WEC.”
Despite bold personal feelings, Mizugaki acknowledges he will be challenged on either side of the Pacific. Consideration of the top bantamweight in both promotions has also weighed heavily into his decision to pick stateside competition over continuing in Japan.
“The WEC champion, Miguel Torres, is definitely at the top and someone I’m aiming for, no doubt,” Mizugaki said. “If I were to think of another top fighter in the weight class, it would be [Norifumi] ‘Kid’ Yamamoto, but, because he hasn’t fought in a while, to me, Torres is the best in the world and the man to beat.”
The specter of recent Japanese losses in the UFC and WEC still stands as an impediment to the young prospect’s potential WEC debut. Because of his 2006-07 slump in Shooto, Mizugaki does not own the kind of pristine record that has become a prerequisite for entry into a Zuffa promotion. He even lost to Kenji Osawa -- a fighter who went 0-1-1 in two WEC appearances -- earlier in his career.
“I lost to Osawa, so it’s a difficult reality to face,” Mizugaki said. “But thinking of it another way, it’s kind of a motivating factor for me to challenge myself in the WEC now. I’m completely different now. I was mainly a striker then, but I’ve worked intensively on my takedowns and wrestling defense. Now that I don’t fear being taken down, I can strike as hard as I want. Before, I always had the power to drop guys, but now I’m able to actually use it.”
Mizugaki claims the ability to defend, once a missing link in his arsenal, has become a strength.
“Defensively, I think I can hold my own with western wrestlers,” he said. “I’ve been working to make it competitive in MMA, working off walls to simulate the cage and such. Last summer, I also participated in the Kokushikan University wrestling camp, where I regularly trained with national level wrestlers at my weight. They all participated in the same wrestling tourneys as Kid Yamamoto.”
As a fighter who cuts down to 135 pounds from a walk-around weight of 155, Mizugaki seems on par physically with many of the stateside wrestlers in MMA. However, he has worked on more than just improving his wrestling skills.
“One thing in particular I’ve also been working on is striking distance,” Mizugaki said. “In Japan, striking often happens in close, but abroad it seems that most Japanese fighters get knocked out from a distance, in particular with the straight punch. I’ve worked to adapt myself to that distance.”
For anyone who has watched recently, Japanese fighters have more problems than just those associated with striking distance. If Hiroyuki Takaya’s quick loss to featherweight contender Leonard Garcia at WEC 32 was any indication, they have a difficult time handling the pace of their western counterparts. Mizugaki seems keenly aware of this issue.
“I haven’t seen much of American training, but noticing that many of them go hard from the first round, I imagine there must be something different,” he said. “I prefer fighters who do that, though. I think it’s more fun, because I like to bang.”
It’s an accurate description of his in-ring character. Even in his most notable loss to Osawa, Mizugaki put a crowd-rousing shellacking on his opponent before being caught by a second-round knee. For many fighters, the choice between focusing on winning fights and entertaining the crowd can be agonizing. Not so for Mizugaki.
“I think that if I just go for the win, my fights will be entertaining. It’s part of my character,” he said. “I like clear-cut results, not decisions. In a word, I’m aggressive.”
Having sharpened the tools necessary to survive in the cage, it looks as if Mizugaki may make his desired stateside transition soon. Though he has the fighting style and hardware around his waist that seem to make him a perfect fit, it remains to be seen whether or not he can make a significant impact. He feels the pressure of carrying the torch for Japan, too.
“I don’t know what a lot of other people think, but because a lot of Japanese fighters have been losing abroad, I do feel kind of like a representative of Japan,” Mizugaki said. “I’m doing it for respect, and to make a little money, as well. The WEC is the world’s number one cage for my weight class, so expect me to win and become the champ there. I’m coming up, and I think from now on, people will be seeing a lot more of me in the headlines.”