It's not often you stand across the cage from a legend. You could imagine it would create some butterflies in your stomach. But for former UFC fighter Jason High, Hayato "Mach" Sakurai was just another opponent, another man looking to do him harm. It was only after the fight, in the reflection that accompanies a 12 hour plane trip, that High thought about the man he had just beaten by split decision in front of more than 26,000 of the Japanese's countrymen.
"I tried not to pay attention to it leading up to the fight. Everybody is pretty much the same when you're standing across from them," High said in an exclusive interview with Bloody Elbow. "Thinking about it though, he was fighting when I was in high school. One of the first shows I ever watched was one of the PRIDE shows where him and Gomi fought. It's pretty crazy man, to think that he is still competitive and still a tough fight. He was really a lot stronger than I anticipated. I'd never heard anybody really remark about his strength, so that kind of surprised me. He still moves well and is pretty sharp. When he's motivated he's still really dangerous."
While High was fighting several time zones away, his mentor Antonio McKee was getting his first opportunity inside the UFC Octagon. It was bittersweet for High, juggling the emotion of winning his fight while also empathizing with McKee. High had been in the same shoes, walking the same path. His single UFC appearance also ended in defeat.
"We were in the car on the way back from the airport and I was following the play by play on my phone...It was hard to tell on the play by play. It seemed like he lost the first round but may have done better in the second and third. I thought maybe he might get the decision. It's difficult man," High said. "I really wanted to be there and I really wanted to be out there in Los Angeles to train with him more. Everybody loses in this game. It just sucks when you feel like you could have done more. I feel like I should have done more for him. It's kind of a crappy deal....there's kind of an adage that goes around the fight game: you're only as good as your last fight. It's cutthroat. Nobody pays attention to what you did two or three fights ago. They only care about what you just did. I think Antonio is still one of the very best in that weight class. He just had an off night. We'll go back to the drawing board for him and he'll come out of it better."
McKee made a name for himself with a series of controversial interviews. High hasn't gone that route, but amazingly, he is probably better known to hardcore MMA fans today than he was during his UFC tenure. Like many others, High has discovered Twitter. Unlike most fighters, however, he actually uses it as a tool to interact with fans, not just retweet people's birthday requests.
"It's great to talk to fans. I get a lot of love from everybody on Twitter. It's just cool. To be able to engage fans and answer questions," High said. "It's like being able to text message with a bunch of people. In the past you've had to do interviews to reach out to people. This is a little more personal I think."
Dealing with fans and the media wasn't always so easy or smooth for High. There was a time when he took what was said online very personally. Before his fight with Andre Galvao, media critiques burned so deeply that he actually thought about his critics during the fight.
"After that fight I kind of stopped going to those message boards and reading people's predictions. I really wasted a lot of energy on that kind of stuff. Now I can motivate myself just imagining that people are talking about me or doubting me," High said with a laugh. "That was for the Galvao fight. I remember somebody said 'Galvao submitted John Alessio easily, and Alessio is way better than High. Galvao will submit him easily with something simple like an armbar.' I was like "What the f*ck?' You've never seen me train. You don't know me. How could you say that about me? You think I don't know he's won all his fights by armbar? You think we aren't training for that? These are people that are supposed to be the authorities on our sport. They lost all credibility to me and I was like 'F*ck these people.'
"Then, in the fight, I was thinking about that. He caught me and you kind of have this dialogue with yourself. 'This wouldn't be a bad place to go out.' But I was like 'F*ck that. All of those people would be right.' I'd rather let my leg break or I'd rather get choked out."
Instead, High weathered the storm and took home a victory over the promising Brazilian. Today, a much healthier Jason High, healthier in both body and mind, is ready to take on whatever comes. Less than a month after facing Sakurai, he'll be back in action in his hometown for the Titan Fighting Championship. His fight with fellow local Rudy Bears is being billed as settling the dispute over who owns the title of "King of Kansas City." High dismisses the hype as "promoter stuff. I don't know the guy." But he believes the kickboxer, a stranger now, won't like him when it is all said and done.
"Bears says he hates wrestlers. I'm sure he does. Because every time he fights a wrestler he gets his ass kicked," High said. "Why would he like wrestlers? I'm sure he's going to hate me after the fight too."
High and Bears is set to be a part of the nationally televised portion of Titan Fighting Championship 16, which will air live Friday (January 28) on HDNet (www.HD.net) at 10 p.m. ET. The show will be headlined by two-time UFC heavyweight champion Tim "The Maineiac" Sylvia taking on Abe Wagner, a veteran from the tenth season of The Ultimate Fighter.