Ben Duffy/Sherdog.com illustration
Headquartered in scenic Woodloch, Texas, the Mixed Martial Arts Hall of [email protected]#$%&g Awesome (HOFA for short) commemorates the achievements of those fighters who, while they might not be first-ballot selections for a traditional hall of fame, nonetheless did remarkable things in the cage or ring, and deserve to be remembered. The HOFA enshrines pioneers, one-trick ponies and charming oddballs, and celebrates them in all their imperfect glory. While the HOFA selection committee’s criteria are mysterious and ever-evolving, the final test is whether the members can say, unanimously and with enthusiasm, “____________ was [email protected]#$%&g awesome!”
THE PITCH: It is worth noting that Fujii delivered the quote above immediately after a 20-second win over Serin Murray in which she broke her opponent’s leg with a toe hold. As an example of just how kinetic, dynamic—and, yes, sometimes damaging—the grappling arts can be, it would be difficult to top the body of work left by the diminutive wrecking machine.
A judoka from early childhood who later branched out into sambo, Brazilian jiu-jitsu and catch wrestling, Fujii debuted in MMA in 2004 under the Smackgirl (now known as Jewels) banner and made short work of Yumi Matsumoto, tapping her with a rear-naked choke in just 40 seconds. It was to become something of a pattern, as Fujii went on to win her first 22 fights, 18 of them by submission and 16 of those in the first round. She pulled off this feat—one that is unlikely ever to be equaled—despite being visibly undersized, even in her “natural” strawweight class, and in spite of making early-career forays into the flyweight and even bantamweight divisions in search of opponents.
While it may be tempting to look at Fujii’s body of work and compare her to Kazushi Sakuraba, another Japanese legend who used a crafty ground game to prevail over larger opponents, they are similar only in the broadest strokes. Underneath the surface, the differences are stark. Where Sakuraba’s style was free-wheeling, showman-like and creative to the point of slapstick at times—a perfect match for his professional wrestling-influenced persona and humorous spirit—Fujii was all business. Her approach was methodical, practical and ruthless. It is impossible to win 22 straight fights in a sport as unpredictable as MMA without at least a modicum of luck, but what was remarkable in watching Fujii is how little she left to chance.
Fight after fight, Fujii seemed to never make a mistake or let herself be put in any more danger than necessary. She simply used her arsenal of shots, trips and throws—and the occasional Imanari roll—to get the fight to the ground, whereupon she passed to a dominant position, softened her opponent with punches if necessary and then locked up an armbar or choke. All of this was accomplished as quickly as possible, and any “wow” factor would have to come from the cleanliness of her technique and her sheer speed and physical prowess. It was enough; at her best, Fujii resembled something like a cross between a Powerpuff Girl and the T-1000 of “Terminator 2” fame.
In the end, Fujii was hampered by being born a decade too soon. Already 30 by the time of her MMA debut, she witnessed the lighter women’s divisions come into their own as she closed in on 40. For much of her career, those divisions were ephemeral at best; though she could have made Jewels’ 48-kilogram (105.8 pound) atomweight limit with ease, the division was so thin that it barely existed. While Fujii fought virtually every top strawweight of her era and racked up dominant wins over some notable women, including future Jewels champions Seo Hee Ham and Mei Yamaguchi and inaugural Ultimate Fighting Championship 115-pound champ Carla Esparza, she ultimately lacked a true foil, an opponent who might push her to her limit and highlight her greatness in the process.
Fujii was 36 by the time there was a North American promotion with an actual strawweight division and the wherewithal to sign her to a multi-fight contract. She was the odds-on favorite to win Bellator MMA’s inaugural 115-pound tournament and made short work of her opponents in the first three rounds before running into Zoila Frausto in the final. After five bruising rounds that left both women black-and-blue, Frausto emerged with a split decision victory and the belt. MMA’s greatest streak was over.
Fujii fought on for another three years after that first loss and remained at the highest level, picking up quality wins over such women as Yamaguchi and Emi Fujino, interspersed with two controversial losses to Jessica Aguilar. After the second of those defeats—a technical majority decision loss at Vale Tudo Japan after Fujii was rendered unable to continue by multiple eye pokes—“Mega Megu” hung up the gloves for good in October 2013. She was 39 years old, 26-3 and had been a top pound-for-pound fighter for most of her career.
SIGNATURE MOMENTS: It is an interesting exercise to try and pick a single highlight, or a few, out of Fujii’s career: There are a whole lot of submissions. Many of them are armbars, most of them are dazzling in setup and execution and almost all of them feel as inevitable as the sunrise. However, there is beauty in some of the distinctions. The leg-breaking toe hold win over Murray is impressive as well as startling—impressive for the way Fujii sets up her leglock entry with a high front kick and no telegraphing of her intentions and startling when Murray crawls off after the stoppage, dragging her maimed limb like an animal struck by a car. Years later, it still crops up on lists of the nastiest injuries in MMA history.
As for a competitive high-water mark, that is more difficult to pinpoint for a woman who may have been the best fighter in the world for three or four years. However, one notable moment is the night she defeated Ham in the second round of the Smackgirl 2008 Grand Prix. The win itself was classic Fujii, as she ducked under an early charge by the hyper-aggressive “Hamderlei Silva,” hustled her to the ground and took her back within seconds. After threatening with a rear-naked choke, she peeled off for a textbook armbar. It was all over in three and a half minutes of grappling dominance.
Image credit: Stephen Martinez/Sherdog.com
However impressive, the win is also notable as another example of the timing that plagued Fujii’s career. The victory punched Fujii’s ticket to the final—or would have, except that Smackgirl went out of business almost immediately afterward. A new investor bought the company within months and rechristened it Jewels. While Fujii was brought on board and fought in the first Jewels event, the new promotion neither continued the grand prix nor started a new one, and in fact, it would not even crown a strawweight champion for another two years. In effect, Fujii spent those years as the consensus best strawweight in the world when there was literally no title for her to win.
As a final footnote on Fujii’s tantalizing bridging of eras, Ham—the woman she defeated so easily that night—is the Rizin Fighting Federation 108-pound champion and Sherdog’s No. 1-ranked fighter in her weight class at the time of this induction.
THE HOFA COMMITTEE SAYS: The only real question facing the committee when it comes to “Mega Megu” is whether she was too accomplished to qualify for the hall. After all, any conventional hall of fame worth the name—assuming we ever get one—would induct her on the first ballot. In the end, a truly remarkable career that took place largely out of the view of Western fans tipped the decision in her favor, especially in light of the twists of fate that conspired to keep her from ever winning a title. For as long as the HOFA claims to welcome pioneers, there must be a place for a fighter like Fujii—even if she is an all-time great, as well.
It is with great pleasure that we say: Megumi “Mega Megu” Fujii, you are [email protected]#$%&g awesome.