I recently visited Japan, and was able to meet and interview a few famous fighters. This is the second part in a series of articles on my blog. I left the first part out as it's not directly related to MMA. The video of the interview below will be coming out soon. Hope you enjoy!
Gold’s Gym Omori is big. It reeks of money.
Real estate is expensive in Tokyo, and this place takes up a lot of it. I can’t imagine the kind of lives the people lead who lift weights at Gold’s Gym Omori. Huge muscles, tanned skin, expensive cologne, high paid jobs, lunch breaks lifting weights, neatly trimmed beards.
I’m wearing an old jiu jitsu t-shirt with a hole in it, and despite my best efforts to conserve energy, have sweated into it badly. We are waiting for Megumi Fujii to arrive.
A reasonably mysterious staircase in the middle of the gym leads to the upper floor. That’s where AACC is. The Abe Ane Combat Club, one of the most well known MMA, jiu jitsu and wrestling gyms in the country.
I feel as if we are being tolerated by the receptionists and the staff at the Protein Bar, but only barely. None of us have big muscles, or expensive cologne, or neatly trimmed beards. Although Duncan has nice pair of Raybans.
A kid runs down the staircase. He’s wearing an Art Junkie designed AACC Wrestling t-shirt. His hair is plastered across his forehead in wet, black shanks. I strain my ears and can hear the kids wrestling class above the clanging of weights. I experience that quantum confusion I often do and picture myself with crystal clarity as a Tokyoite with a kid who trains wrestling at AACC and wears Art Junkie AACC shirts. How perfect. A shift of molecules in any direction and I’m there, that’s my life.
I’m shaken out of my daydream by Megumi Fujii. She approaches us, looking like almost any other Japanese girl of a similar age – hair that never goes more than a few weeks without a cut, skin that is looked after, feminine dress, holding herself with poise. At about that point, my heart starts beating and I realise, this is really happening. Somehow I’ve convinced everyone around me that I’m important, that we are important, and worth taking the time to meet. At the same time, I get the realisation that — It’s no big deal. She’s just a normal person. — and that helps calm the nerves.
We climb the stairs together and AACC opens out before us. It’s big, by any standards. Full sized boxing ring, plenty of open space, wrestling mats, and more – obscured by rigid, translucent plastic curtains. We set up shop in the corner of the wrestling area and introduce ourselves to Megumi.
Actually, we don’t, which probably explains why she later blogged that she was a bit confused. A gaggle of sweaty foreigners pointing cameras in her face and asking her questions. Introductions that stretched as far as name and country of origin. Who, us? We’re professionals. Professionals dammit.
She soldiers on. She is polite. And, she seems genuinely interested in us. She recognises Dan from previous photoshoots. I loosen up and surprise myself by remembering most of my Japanese. Tell her my wife is Japanese, I have a little boy, and I lived in Fukouka for four years. This will later appear on her blog, too, which makes me happy.
The kids wrestling class really gets going just as we start the interview. In the end we decide to sit and watch and let it run its course. Too noisy. We face the class and stop talking.
Girls and boys engage in wrestling. They shoot in, spin, reverse, stop, restart. They sweat onto the mat. The coaches coach in queerly high-pitched voices. Timers beep loudly. When the sparring is over, they exercise. Counting off ten each time.
They’re not only developing their bodies, they’re becoming part of a team. Their voices combine into a chorus. Their sweat reflects the lights above, it mixes in puddles on the floor. This is part of growing up in Japan. You’re part of a team, you belong, you sweat. You’re broken down and rebuilt. You don’t need to think – just train. Just keep counting. Keep sweating.
After class the kids sit in a circle. Masatoshi Abe, brother of the founder of AACC, talks to them. Gentle but stern. He’s saying, in a polite and roundabout way, that if you aren’t working hard, then you shouldn’t be in this class. He doesn’t pick anyone out but gives them the chance to make amends next time, or join another program. It reminds me of when I complained about my neighbours who would idle their powerful cars at two in the morning and stand outside my window smoking and shooting the shit. The real estate agent sent a letter to every resident in the nearby area to remind them about being courteous to your neighbours at night. Job done, nobody’s nose out of joint.
We interview Megumi and then sit and chill for a while. I get to know Dan and Dean a little more as they scuttle around the gym getting footage. Later, Roxy turns up. She has a huge smile on her face but she looks tired. Japan makes you tired, the pace. It can really get to you. She works full time and is a professional fighter. That kind of commitment, it makes me feel lazy. We talk a little and I’m happy to meet her, but she leaves without doing any training.
It’s late, stomachs are rumbling, so we wrap up and take photos.
In the sushi train restaurant afterwards we congratulate ourselves and we are relieved Fujii was so great. Friendly, easy to deal with.A good one to start with. Tomorrow, it’s Yuki Nakai, Aoki Shinya and Masakazu Imanari.
Dean has never been to Japan before. Dan and I are showing him the ropes. I do this by accidentally pouring soy sauce into the lid of the green tea container, instead of the soy sauce plate. There is much hilarity when we realise what I have done.
Afterwards, I attempt to pay for Dan’s dinner, to say thanks, but he won’t have it. Now there’s a man who has been in Japan too long.
Before you know it, day one of the Tokyo adventure is over. Gone, but never forgotten.