Before there was the Ultimate Fighting Championship, before anyone even knew the term mixed martial arts in the United States, Japan was a haven for adrift fighters looking to display their craft. Otherwise, anonymity was their companion. MMA was not even considered a sport in the U.S. in the early 1990s, treated more with a dubious cringe as a kind of sports speakeasy where combat nomads could convene before fringe crowds.
That is the nebulous world through which Erik Paulson tread. The Minnesota native fell in love with martial arts at an early age. He sought out the best teachers, explored different styles and was one of the early trumpeters of a sport yet to be discovered by the mainstream. So naturally, he migrated to Japan, where his passion could be admired and where he might even make a buck or two fighting.
Paulson was the first American to fight for Shooto and the first American to win there. Shooto would not arrive to the U.S. until 2006. Paulson was not willing to wait for something to come to him, so he went to Japan. It led to some interesting memories, like grappling drunk in rice patties the night before a major fight and unique ways to weigh-in, along with unique weigh-in experiences.
There is a worldliness to his ways and his words. Paulson, 50, gives off the impression that he has done and seen everything; and you do not question it because, for the most part, he has. He learned at the feet of the Gracies and developed his own training techniques to where stars and legends came to him, from Josh Barnett, Ken Shamrock and Renato Sobral to Cub Swanson, James Wilks, Sean Sherk and Brock Lesnar.
Paulson’s first fight in the U.S. came two years after he debuted in Shooto, under the World Combat Championship banner. Like Jeremy Horn, Pat Miletich, Bas Rutten, Dan Severn, Don Frye, Randy Couture, Ken and Frank Shamrock, Tito Ortiz and Royce Gracie, Paulson is part of that deeply embedded foundation that built MMA in this country.
“I realized you don’t fight for money, you fight for pride and honor,” said Paulson, who runs the CSW Training Center in Fullerton, California. “I had the pleasure of training some greats like Brock and Josh. Brock trained hard; that guy, as far as a physical specimen is concerned, is unbelievable. He’s doing great, and he’s a special man. There is no one like him. If you showed up 15 minutes before practice, he considered you late. Brock has a lot of old-school ethics. He takes care of everyone in his camp, and Josh is the same. With all of my guys, it does go beyond coach or teacher and student. You do consider them family, and you do notice something common about these guys, that the great ones do it because they love it.
“In my years doing this, you need to learn to be humble, you need to learn to listen and you need to run and work hard,” he added. “I tell these guys to do it for themselves, because in the end, it is all about them. Fighting is inbred in you. You take the best knowledge as you can and apply it to your way and how it can help your fighter. I’ve been doing this for over 30 years and been blessed to work with some of the best fighters in the world. I’ve been fortunate to be around the best tutelage in the world. Conditioning, game planning and tactics, that’s it. Above everything, humility is No. 1. I yell at my guys if they swear. They keep their mouth clean, they keep their mind clean to focus on what’s important. I have a strong faith in God, and I try not to include religion in what I do, but the spiritual aspect of things is real important to me because in the end, that’s more important than beating the heck out of people. The last thing you want to do is dream every night about beating people up. You’ll have nice dreams if you don’t.”
Riding the Beer and Pizza Diet
Paulson arrived in Japan in 1993 to compete in Shooto and immediately made an impact. His dazzling style and ability not only won in the ring but won over the fans. By 1995, Paulson had risen to be one of the faces of Shooto. Any arriving newcomers would have to face him. One of them was 1988 Olympic judo bronze medalist Ben Spijkers, from the Netherlands. Spijkers and Paulson would meet at Complete Vale Tudo Access on July 29, 1995 at the Omiya Skating Center in Saitama, Japan.
Paulson had heard some disconcerting things about Spijkers, including the claim that he was a dirty fighter. During his time in Japan, Paulson had met Yori Nakamura, a fabled Japanese shoot wrestler and an instructor who agreed to train him.
“Yori told me that the weight of Shooto was on my back and that I must defend the way of Shooto,” Paulson said. “All my friends in judo asked me if I was fighting Spijkers, and they were all like, ‘Uh, good luck with that. The guy is mean and dirty; he’s a tough guy and he’s strong.’ I walked off the plane in Japan at around 202 pounds. I had to get down to 185. So to drop weight, I’m the first guy up and out every morning. They put us out in the country, not near the city where we would get bothered. I had time to work off the weight.
“I ran through the rice patties every morning with my hoodie on through the countryside,” he added. “It was going well. They really took care of us. The place where we were staying was like a dojo. It gave me time to focus on the fight. Everything went well. I made weight at the weigh-in, and some guy who was around us came up and invited me over to dinner after the weigh-in. I told him I like to rest up the night before a fight and take it easy, but the guy insisted. He told me that we’ll talk over judo and his wife would cook us a nice Japanese dinner after the weigh-ins. I could use a home-cooked meal, so I say OK. Little did I know the guy was trying to sabotage me the whole time.”
Paulson walked the two miles to the man’s home. Once he got there, he quickly noticed something: no wife. Paulson asked where she was, and his new friend told him she was out of town.
“I was like, ‘What?’” Paulson said. “Then the guy offers me a beer, and I tell him, ‘No, water.’ The Japanese are a very kind, polite people. I wanted to be polite, so I drank the beer. He offers me another, and they’re in real tall bottles. It’s dry out and I’m thirsty, and I pounded down another. I thought his wife was going to cook a nice Japanese dinner. He says, ‘No, we order pizza; we eat pizza and drink beer.’ I told him I couldn’t eat pizza the night before my fight, but I’m starved after cutting the weight and needed to get out.
“We ate these two huge pizzas and we polished off eight tall bottles of beer, four each,” he added. “I’m sitting there going nuts, knowing my sensei was sitting back at the place where we were staying and waiting for me. It was getting late and I couldn’t believe what I just did. I didn’t even know the guy. I was drunk, and the guy says he’ll walk me back and we’re talking about judo. I told him my opponent is a pretty strong judo guy, and the guy tells me he knows. That sounded weird to me. ‘How did he know?’ I thought to myself. I asked him what his favorite throw was. He told me he used ippon seoi nage. He puts out two arms out and shows me how he does it, throwing me in the grass. Then he threw me again, and again, and again.”
Before Paulson knew it, he found himself in a drunken grappling match in the wee hours on the morning of a fight.
“I know, crazy, right?” Paulson said. “We’re two drunk guys in a grappling match in the rice patties. It was so stupid, so, so stupid. I get back to the place where we were staying. I had no idea who the guy was and that he was out to get me. I found out later he was a friend of my opponent. I had to sneak back into my room, tip-toeing. I have grass stains all over me, and I’m drunk.”
Paulson woke up the next morning covered in dirt, grass and pizza residue. He had beer breath, which he hid from his team. He cleaned himself up and walked out like nothing happened. Though the outdoor arena felt hot to most, it had double the effect on the hungover Paulson. It pressed him into thinking about luring Spijkers in some way to deceive him. The chance came during warm-ups, where Paulson paired with teammate Ronny Balicki.
“The day of the fight I begin rolling to make sure I have everything down,” Paulson said. “I worked on practicing all of the counters for Spijkers’ throws. That’s when I caught something up in the stands. There’s Spijkers watching me up there with his arms folded and his legs up. I knew he was checking me out. Ronny Balicki was my partner, and I started doing aikido throws and these pro wrestling moves. I could see Spijkers scratching his head, and I could tell what he was thinking, ‘Look at this nitwit. He thinks he’s going to pull this junk off against me?’ No, I was doing it because I really didn’t want him to know what I was going to do and how I was going to fight that night.”
The ring had netting underneath the bottom two ropes, thankfully. It caught Spijkers numerous times. Paulson started timing him, and each time he came forward and tried to shoot with a double-leg, he had his head down.
“That’s the way it’s going to be, so I started pounding,” Paulson said. “I went back to my corner and I don’t remember a word they were saying. Each time I tried hitting him, Spijkers stuck his head outside the ropes and the referee kept warning him. I finally had it. I pushed him and he landed outside on the floor. The fight was back and forth, and there is a great picture of him shoving his bloody chin into my eye socket. I could taste his blood in my mouth. I thought if he was going to do that, I stuck my thumb in his eye to get his chin out of my eye socket.
“I remember seeing a caption that read: ‘Look how dirty Erik Paulson is, sticking a thumb in the eye of Ben Spijkers.’ They missed his bloody chin in my eye socket,” he added. “I literally don’t remember much of anything from that fight. I was in overdrive and I was sweating and sweating. I finally won on a front guillotine choke because I figured him out. He shot with his head down so many times that I kept guillotining him. He kept pushing my face off. If I did a guillotine and pushed his shoulder, he would elongate and I’d get him. He finally tapped.”
Afterward, Paulson remembers going back to his corner and asking questions.
“‘How come you guys weren’t talking to me the whole time? You guys didn’t say a word to me,’” he said. “They were like, ‘What are you talking about?’ I had Burton Richardson, Yori Nakamura and Ron Balicki all in my corner. ‘You guys weren’t talking,’ I told them. They said they were talking the whole fight. I was like, ‘Oh, I don’t remember.’ I won, but my other teammates all lost. Yori was pissed, but he told me, ‘No problem, no problem, you defended the honor of Shooto.’ I drank four beers and ate a whole pizza the night before. I should have won that fight a lot faster than I did. I fought hungover. I think that’s proof right there that if you’re ready for your fight, no matter what you eat or drink the night before, if you’re supposed to win, you’re going to win. It was in my head; I was so pissed. I vowed I’d never do anything that stupid again.”
Tipping the Scales and Lowered Lenses
Paulson has had his share of escapades during Shooto weigh-ins. He is unsure of the fight, but he is sure it was again in Japan. He was having trouble making weight, looking to slim down a half pound just prior to the weigh-in. A 45-minute run did not help. Nothing was coming out. No sweat, no anything. Someone suggested he stick his fingers down his throat to induce vomiting. No go. Dry heaves.
“I had nothing, I mean nothing, and it was getting desperate,” Paulson said. “Then this Olympic coach, I can’t remember who, comes up to me and tells me to stand on my head for a minute and when I get on the scale, tilt my head off to the side and off the scale to make weight. I did it. I approached the scale, got completely naked, stepped on the scale and titled my head to the side. I made the weight. There were about 20 people in the room, and the guys shooting pictures decided to zoom in on my penis.
“Why? I don’t know, but they did. Anyway, I made weight,” he added. “I always made weight, and I never forgot that little trick. Maybe standing on your head fills it with blood, and titling it makes your body lighter. I really don’t know, but it works. There was a Strikeforce show I was working, and a guy is running around afraid he won’t make weight. He was scared he’d get fined if he didn’t make weight. I suggested that little trick to him, and it worked. He made the weight.”
And he did not have to worry about photographers dipping their lenses low.
A Broken Nose and Black Eyes
Paulson studied certain taboos in the Japanese fighting culture. One, he was told, was a fear of the color red. Another was beards, and yet another was tattoos. These are areas he quickly seized when he went to Japan for his Shooto debut against Kazuhiro Kusayanagi on June 24, 1993 and again in his return visit to fight Naoki Sakurada on November 25, 1993, both times at Korakuen Hall in Tokyo.
Kusayanagi was supposed to be the best ground man in Japan. Paulson showed up with a Fu Manchu mustache, wearing cowboy boots, jeans and a fake Tasmanian devil tattoo on his shoulder -- the kind you get out of a Cracker Jack box.
“When I walked into the weigh-in, I began hearing, ‘Ah big, big.’ We were these big Americans in muscle shirts and cowboy boots and jeans, and Kusayanagi was supposed to be the No. 1 ground guy, but they said he had a chicken heart,” Paulson said. “Oh, I played it up. I didn’t smile. They didn’t realize I was a jokester. I went in there with this long hair in a ponytail and my Cracker Jack box Tasmanian devil tattoo on my shoulder. I looked more like a biker than a fighter. They told me that Kusayanagi would put his knuckles out and that I should put my hand on top of his and yell ‘Yatte mimashou,’ which means, ‘Let’s do it. Let’s get it done.’ I went three rounds and ended up reverse choking him. The only reason why I learned that move was because I worked on defending it.”
Then there was the Sakurada fight, which resulted in a draw and for a very good reason. In training for the fight, Paulson’s sparring partner got a little edgy when they suddenly received visitors to the gym, and he kneed Paulson in the face.
“We were working on practicing shots and the guy’s punching, and all of a sudden he cracked me in the nose with his knee,” Paulson said. “I stood up, and I saw eight of him. The Japanese get scared of red and I had this whole thing set up where I died my beard red. Now I have blood all over the place. Two hours after my nose is broken, I get taken to this place where they told me a doctor could reset it. By then though, my nose calcified. They had to reset my nose. I asked for anesthesia. The doctor says no, [that] I’m a fighter, I’m tough [and] I can take it. Yeah, right.
“He sits me down and shoves what looks like these two chops sticks up my nose and what I felt like through my brain,” he added. “I’m tapping the whole time and these guys are watching this as I’m spitting out mouthfuls of blood. I filled this surgical pan full of blood. By the second pan, he tried to adjust my nose and shoved my nose to the other side of my face. They went to get help from another doctor, and he shoves my nose on the other side of my face. Finally, I had it. I had to run to make weight, and they set it straight.
A compromised Paulson fought anyway, using some deception along the way.
“I show up to this fight against Sakurada with two black eyes and a broken nose that I had fixed,” he said. “I fought this guy and used cover up to hide my black eyes. The first round of the fight I had him in trouble and he hits my nose. Uh, oh! It wound up being a five-round kickboxing match. I thought I won. They called it a draw because it was 52-51 decision for me, and this came after the officials said the winner has to win by two. I was like, ‘What is this, tennis?’ But it turned out to be OK. I met these kids ringside before the fight who were from Hawaii. They said that they brought streamers in and after the ref raised my hand that I won, they said they’d throw the streamers in the octagon. They announced the fight was a draw, the ref lifts both our hands, I duck and the streamers the kids threw hit the ref in the face. He wasn’t too pleased.
“The Japanese said it was disrespectful that I fought with a broken nose,” Paulson added. “I should have let them know beforehand, but there was one good thing: An older guy came up and said my kickboxing skills were at the highest of the highest level. I thought that was very nice. I asked who the guy was and they told me that it was Toshio Fujiwara, a kickboxing legend in Japan. He was doing footwork six hours a day, a real master. I was really surprised to be commended by him. I went to bed that night with the guy who broke my nose lying next to me. I woke up in the middle of the night when my alarm went off, thinking it was a bell for a fight. I jumped into the air and landed on the floor with the bed blanket. I was still thinking I was fighting. They found me sleeping in the tub the next morning. I wasn’t even drunk.”
Joseph Santoliquito is the president of the Boxing Writer's Association of America and a frequent contributor to Sherdog.com's mixed martial arts and boxing coverage. His archive can be found here.