I visited Japan last year, and was able to meet and interview a few famous fighters. This is the third part in a series of articles on my blog. I left the first part out as it's not directly related to MMA. Part two can be found here. Hope you enjoy!
We're following Dan, our defacto guide. The grizzled veteran with the five-day beard and delapidated sandals. Leading us through the wide streets, the pleasant labyrinth of skyscrapers. Endless skyscrapers in Shinjuku. Clean lines, strong, reassuring lights, the night sky that never truly darkens. As usual, we're humping the camera gear around, pounding the Tokyo pavement. Thankfully it's the evening and the sun is gone from the sky, but it's not forgotten. It's still coming up in hazy invisible waves from the street, still hanging in the dusk air. Breeze like the warm, stinking breath of the living city. We're ants on the floor.
Two Japanese superheroes, comic book characters. The Master of Flying Techniques and the Master of Leglocks. We are meeting both of them at DEEP Official Gym, Shinjuku, Tokyo. Dan, pulling his camera equipment along the pavement, suffers a flat tyre. His sandal pops loose, flap flap flapping on the floor. It's about the fourth time this has happened. I consider buying him a new pair.
We arrive at the gym. I'm surprised, again, at how small it is. Champions are made here. Some of the toughest fighters in Japan. The gym is on a backstreet away from the main drag, nothing more than a box with a glass side.
We wait outside for the interpreter to arrive. Sit on a small wall next to a vending machine. Nervous energy - Will the Master of Flying Techniques give his customarily guarded, bordering on rude, interview? Will we be able to get a straight answer out of the Master of Leglocks?
Our interpreter arrives. At the same time, a skinny man on a bicycle pulls up outside the gym. It's Aoki Shinya, the Master of Flying Techniques and Dream lightweight champion. He glances at us - or does he? - and pushes through the gym doors. We are stood-up dates. I am Jack's twisted, anxious guts. We soldier on and enter the gym.
Our contact from Real Entertainment welcomes us and ushers us into a backroom. Not a good start - offices don't make the best backdrops for interviews. There is a bright, empty gym begging to be used, but empty it remains.
There he is, Aoki Shinya, one of my heroes, a man I've watched fight countless times in Pride and Dream. He's slouched deep in a leather chair next to a photocopier. His mobile phone revolves in his hands like a Rubik's cube. Open, shut, click, clack. Introductions happen, heads are bowed. Our voices stark in the bright office.
Saeki Shigeru, the boss of DEEP and a behind-the-scenes power player in Japanese MMA, is smoking at the end of the office behind a desk piled with papers. He's smoking. In an MMA gym. This is Japan.The smoke curls out an open window into the hot night air.
Cameras settle into place. We squeeze against each other on the small sofa. The interview starts, and the interpeter asks if Aoki could introduce himself to the camera.
He says no.
And we are off to a flying start. Thankfully, in the end, the interview goes pretty well.
Halfway through one question, the printer next to Aoki's head whirs loudly into life and starts spitting out paper. We look at Saeki who blurts out a apology and we laugh.
Halfway through another question, Saeki yells like a Japanese school boy "I need a pee," and stomps past us and out the office. More laughter.
Once the questions are officially done, Aoki, finally,begins to warm up. He asks us questions. We discuss MMA in broken English and Japanese, with our interpreter helping out every now and then. I ask Aoki if he knows the phrase Lay and Pray. He doesn't, so we explain it, and he laughs. He is a good guy. He can be friendly and open but probably chooses not to when being interviewed pre- or post-fight. And who can blame him? Not me.
Imanari Masakazu, Master of Leglocks, enters the room. He and Aoki swap places on the couch and we start the interview with Imanari. His demeanour is very different - calm, friendly, somewhat smug. We ask him to introduce himself and he does.
The interview he gives, however, is complete gibberish. He claims to have learnt MMA from Tiger Mask, to have been taught leg locks by his brother, and that he focuses on leg locks because he can't pass the guard. I ask him if he is a mean person due to the amount of legs he has destroyed in his career. He says it is up to his opponent to tap, but he is not mean. Aoki Shinya butts in from the back of the office that Imanari truly is mean and that he is always trying to break everyone's legs. I think he is mocking me.
He feeds us more dubious information, mentioning various running jokes from the Japanese MMA scene. None of this gets past Dan though and he picks him up on it. Imanari remains steadfast though. He is sticking to his story.
Aoki leaves without giving us the chance to take a photo with him. We take one with Imanari in the gym. A strange, amusing picture. Later, as we regroup outside in the warm night air, Imanari has his single speed bike upside down. He's sitting on a kettlebell and working on it. This is his life. I'm struck by the purity and simplicity of it. He earns a living by fighting. He repairs his bike outside the gym where he trains. He's wearing sandals. His hair is shaven.
Dan, Dean, Imanari, Me.
Later that night Dan, Dean and I eat deep fried pork prepared by a man in his sixties, or maybe even seventies, in a tonkatsu restaurant that is nothing more than a row of counter seats around a kitchen. The beer is cold and served in small glasses. Pictures of Korean pop stars are stuck to the side of the fridge. It's the best deep fried pork I have tasted in a long while. I think to myself that the pride of the Japanese people truly is a wonderful thing. This restaurant, that may be considered a dive - or become a dive over a period of years - in the UK or the US, is anything but. The owner takes great care over the preparation of the products. He uses the finest ingredients. He is polite. He doesn't cut corners. Sure, he smokes in between preparing the rice and the pork. But he's a smoker. That's what he does. He's a smoker and an expert in tonkatsu - fried, breaded pork.
We shoot the shit with the locals who engage us in conversation once they have sunk enough beers, smoked enough cigarettes. Strangely, they invite Dan to participate in a street festival the following week. I don't know if he ever went.