Darren Uyenoyama admits he will be forever linked to the Japanese MMA scene. | Photo: Taro Irei
Darren Uyenoyama, who has spent much of his nine-year career plying his trade in Japan, will make his promotional debut at UFC on Fox 1, when he meets Norifumi “Kid” Yamamoto on Saturday at the Honda Center in Anaheim, Calif.
Despite his love for Japan, Uyenoyama sees major upsides to fighting in the Ultimate Fighting Championship. He is also confident the possibility exists to return to the country for one of the UFC’s future events. Provided he gets past Yamamoto, there is always the chance Uyenoyama could find himself scheduled for the UFC’s return to Japan in February. Such a trip would allow him to reconnect with longtime mentor Hiroyuki Abe and the Abe Ani Combat Club.
“Fighting in Japan in February would be ideal. I’d love to return there and have Abe-san in my corner and all the AACC kids in the audience. It’d be kind of a good way for me to say thank you to all the people that supported me there and that no matter where I go, I’ll still be a part of [Japanese] MMA,” he said. “Plus, nobody knows me here yet, and I used to find comfort in that. That’s slowly changing now because of the Internet and the fact that I just got into the UFC, though.”
Besides becoming a little more known in the West and having the opportunity to fight close to his San Francisco home, the most immediately noticeable change for Uyenoyama has been the clockwork efficiency of being under Zuffa LLC employ. Gone are the last-minute matchups that often greeted him in Japan, allowing him to plan for and have a full training camp. Budgetary restrictions relegating him to last-minute air travel and either one or no accompanying cornermen are also non-existent. Also, interest from sponsors has begun to come his way -- a lucrative opportunity that until now has eluded him.
“It’s the biggest fight of my life, and I’m more prepared for this one than any other I’ve had so far. I feel like, finally, all the stars are aligned. I got a great team working with me, I’m injury free, got good sponsors in SNACnutrition and my family is being very supportive,” Uenoyama said. “Even I myself am really excited and curious to see what I am capable of under these circumstances.”
Despite his turbulent history with Japanese MMA, Uyenoyama still sees himself in some ways as a product of it. Facing off against one of its foremost stars of yesteryear opens up a unique opportunity for him to introduce Western fans to what he feels is a style particular to Japan.
“There’s something about the crowd in Japan. When they cheer for you, it just picks you up and makes you keep fighting, even if you’ve just got a knee to the face or the liver. My heart is still very much in JMMA. Even though they’re going through tough times now, even if I never fought there ever again, I believe I could bring my interpretation of a Japanese MMA style fight wherever I go, which is being really aggressive, going for broke, kill or be killed,” said Uyenoyama. “For me, I think the Kid fight is an opportunity to give [Western fans] this first taste of that style, which is something people aren’t really used to back home. If I could introduce that, it would be an honor for me.”
Of course, much depends on which Yamamoto shows up in the Octagon. After Demetrious Johnson pitched a three-round shutout and dampened Kid’s debut in February, the former Japanese golden child will have to decide whether to fight conservatively in the hopes of evening his record at .500 or to go for broke, like Uyenoyama.
“In his comments after losing to Demetrious, Kid said he might want to start going back to his wrestling. He’s favored his striking a lot recently, but even [in] watching him fight Bibiano [Fernandes] or Rani Yahya, he spent time on top. He wasn’t scared to grapple and didn’t bolt back to his feet to stand the fight up, so, I’m ready if he chooses to grapple,” noted Uyenoyama. “Besides just watching all my opponents’ wins, I like to watch fights where they lose, just to see how they react to adversity. Demetrious is a good wrestler and is really fast, and that gave Kid trouble. I can’t say that I’ll be as fast or as good in the wrestling [department], but without giving too much away, I think the key is to strike when he expects to wrestle and wrestle when he expects to strike.”
Reacting contrary to what his opponent suspects plays a large role in Uyenoyama’s greater strategy, one that not only comes from lessons imparted to him by friends but one he has also experienced firsthand. Uyenoyama, who has trained extensively with Joachim Hansen, last appeared at Shooto “The Way of Shooto 5: Like a Tiger, Like a Dragon,” when he stopped then Shooto 132-pound champion Shuichiro Katsumura on second-round punches in September 2010.
“One important thing Joachim has taught me is that stress causes fatigue. I think that’s how I got Katsumura to wilt in my last fight,” he said. “It’s also something I fell victim to in the [Tomoya] Miyashita fight [in Deep] because everyone was telling me how good his boxing was and I’d only had two weeks to prepare for it. It’s stuff I should have put out of my mind, since, honestly, anyone I fight I should already expect to be pretty good at what they do. That kind of stress is something I want to bring to this Kid fight.”
Despite how touchy an issue fighting one’s friends has become, Uyenoyama claims he has no such reservations with Yamamoto. Though he and Kid have been friendly and their gyms have cooperated in the past, the fact that they are currently fighting in the UFC changes everything.
“We all want the same thing at the end of the day,” Uyenoyama said. “In small shows, yeah, it can be bothersome to fight friends, but in the UFC, you’re fighting in the top one percent in the world. I don’t think Kid has any reservations, either. He wants to be back on top, too, and being successful in the UFC means that.”