Yushin Okami (left): Dave Mandel | Sherdog.com
GRESHAM, Ore. -- There is not a lot of traffic on a Saturday in Oregon. The pavement of I-84 is slick, and fresh rain peppers my foggy windshield. I pull up to the Extended Stay America, a small establishment with three floors and about 50 rooms, one of which currently belongs to UFC middleweight contender Yushin Okami.
To casual fans, Okami remains “the Japanese guy” in the UFC. Hardcores are interested in Okami for the fact that he has been on the precipice of a title shot for what seems like ages. He will meet Nate Marquardt in the UFC 122 main event on Saturday at the Konig Pilsener Arena in Oberhausen, Germany, with a shot at the UFC middleweight crown on the line.
An Unexpected Gift
My knuckles rap against Okami’s hotel room door, and instantaneously there is a high-pitched acknowledgement of my presence from behind the thick slab of wood. When it opens, I’m greeted by two of the biggest brown eyes I’ve ever seen: “Hi, Mike!”
It’s not Okami; it’s his girlfriend, who will act as translator for our interview. A petite Japanese woman, she extends her hands and smiles so intensely I think her face might not be able to bear the strain. Okami stands behind her, smiling gently. His 6-foot-2 frame is clad in black sweats. He appears fatigued from his morning workout.
The room is modest, equipped with a kitchenette and a prehistoric 20-inch television. The couple has made this small room its home for the last two weeks. Each day, Okami’s counterpart makes him breakfast, lunch and dinner in this tiny space, keeping him on weight.
Okami’s girlfriend leads me toward a small table and informs me that it will be my place to sit. She carefully explains that she will sit across from me at the table and that Okami will sit on the bed next to us. Their politeness and formality are so endearing that I have to stifle a chuckle as I take off my coat.
I ask Okami’s girlfriend to spell out her name so I have it straight. She obliges but then shoots me a sideways glance: “You not use my name, OK?” I consent, and her unease vanishes. She produces a digital handheld translator from her purse, as Okami nods in approval.
After being dominated by Chael Sonnen a year ago at UFC 104, Okami decided to come to Team Quest to train with his former foe. It shows a level of humility and insight not often seen in MMA. Okami could have trained at any number of places to address the holes in his game but opted for Oregon. It marks his third consecutive fight camp here, coming off wins over Lucio Linhares and, most recently, Mark Munoz. In August, Okami’s defensive wrestling completely shut down any offense from Munoz, a former NCAA national champion.
My first question: What has Okami learned from losing to Sonnen that will help him against Marquardt?
Sapped from his workout, he battles valiantly to answer, hunched over his knees and staring at the carpet, murmuring. Finally, he unfurls what seems like a long, thoughtful response in Japanese. His girlfriend squints and nods for what seems like ages.
“He can’t say it in one word,” she says. “Many, many feelings.”
I wonder if watered-down translations are the best I’m going to get, so I change subjects to address his most obvious improvement -- wrestling. I probe how training with Sonnen and former Olympic Greco-Roman silver medalist Matt Lindland has affected him.
“Many techniques, many information. He get many … power of wrestling,” his girlfriend responds. She struggles more with her translator, furiously searching for something that will make more semantic sense. However, her broken English becomes an unexpected gift.
Many power of wrestling. One could not invent a more appropriate sentence to describe Okami’s last performance against Munoz. Power is knowledge, control, the ability to dictate where the fight takes place and the accompanying confidence swell that comes with such ability. I can see it in his boxing, his submissions and his takedowns. Many power of wrestling; I know exactly what he means, though it once meant something entirely different to Okami.
Identifying an Idol
The oldest of three boys, Okami was a New Japan Pro Wrestling fanatic as a child. Years later, due to the phonetic similarities of his given name, UFC matchmaker Joe Silva would christen him with the nickname of NJPW superstar Jushin “Thunder” Liger, one of the legends of Japanese puroresu.
The second the word “puroresu” leaves my mouth, something awakens inside Okami. The 29-year-old lights up like a kid in a candy store. Suddenly, we no longer need his girlfriend to translate. His posture straightens, as he moves to the edge of the mattress. I make several guesses at his possible heroes of the squared circle, but the name he produces is unfamiliar to me: Shinya Hashimoto.
A star for New Japan from the 1980s through his departure from the promotion in 2000, Hashimoto died in 2005 from a brain aneurysm at just 40 years of age. Okami holds the deceased Hashimoto in the highest regard. When I inquire a bit more about his hero, Okami diverts from his Japanese in order to make the point crystalline.
“Super famous Japanese wrestler!” he exclaims.
Why Hashimoto? Portly and physically unimpressive, Hashimoto battered his foes with an impressive array of kicks and submissions. Though he was not a “shoot-style” professional wrestler, Hashimoto routinely used head kicks and triangle chokes. Like Okami, he was a high school judoka. It is not hard to surmise how Okami might have gravitated to him, sparking an early interest in MMA before he was aware of it.
Okami tried to follow in Hashimoto’s footsteps, seeking to become a professional wrestler. However, after two failed tryouts with NJPW, he landed at Wajutsu Keishukai Tokyo; he was fighting amateur MMA not long after.
Unlike the exaggerated characters of professional wrestling, Okami remains guarded, reticent to discuss anything resembling fight strategy. I try to wear him down, rephrasing my questions, hoping he will let something important slip. He does not, and his defense proves just as hard to penetrate here as in the cage. Outside of the hotel room, however, the information comes easier.
For two days prior to the interview, I scout Okami at Team Quest. He has been enduring two- and sometimes three-a-days to prepare for Marquardt.
He spends the morning developing his conditioning and technique one-on-one with Lindland. On some evenings, he treks across the river to Team Quest’s second facility to work more on his boxing. In the afternoon, Okami takes part in the fight team workout, a hellish 90-minute practice designed to test a man’s resolve. It looks about as fun as getting dropped in a trash compactor.
Walking into Team Quest for the first time, I am struck by the facility’s size, or lack thereof. The air is hot and sticky. Grappling dummies are stacked haphazardly in the corner of the space. Exposed rafters hang over the heads of roughly a dozen men. Okami is among them, jabbing off an attacking southpaw. Today is a boxing day.
“Hey! Hey!” hollers Sonnen. “Let’s get Yushin with somebody orthodox!”
The men move with the precision of a hockey team changing lines. Fighters are soaked and worn out, but next, they must do their bag work. On command, Okami and the rest of the group rifle one-twos into heavy bags. Sixty seconds in, the pain shows on all of their faces. Okami punches faster, though his body pleads with him to stop. The room becomes an opera of grunts, groans and screams.