It feels a bit like Satoshi Ishii has already been around for ages. When the (at the time) 23-year-old Ishii first set foot in the ring he already had some real hype behind him. The 2008 Olympic Judo gold medalist was seen by many to be a potential bright spot for the future of an already quickly fading J-MMA scene.
Nevermind that he lost his first fight, Ishii won his next four, including bouts against MMA legend Minowaman and kickboxing great Jerome Le Banner. They may not have been the most meaningful wins on the grand scale, but compared to the competition other heavyweights face early in their careers, his start seemed promising.
In 2011, Ishii fought Fedor Emelianenko. He had only been in MMA for two years and there he was, facing the HW GOAT. The fight did not go well for him.
Since that loss, Ishii has continued to face the most notable opponents that can be found. And while he’s won far more than he’s lost, a pair of stoppage losses to latter-day CroCop and a KO loss to rising LHW prospect Jiri Prochazka have stifled much of the fan optimism that Ishii started his career with.
They haven’t, however, stifled his own. Ishii recently spoke to Bloody Elbow about his upcoming fight with Rampage Jackson in the headliner of Bellator 157: Dynamite 2, and it sounds like he’s more than ready to make his stateside debut.
“This is a very important fight to me,” Ishii admitted, “because I want to become more famous in the United States. And he's [Rampage] also a big fighter, a legend. When I was a kid, I watched him, right? I watched his fights, and it is an honor to fight against him.
“This fight is the most important fight to me than other fights. Every fight to me is big, or important of course, but this is very special. First time I fight in the United States.
“This is my dream, Ishii continued. “When I was a kid, I really wanted to challenge, to do MMA. Now, dream come true, I became an MMA fighter. And I want to be an MMA champion in the United States. This is my goal.”
As a heavyweight with a long history in another martial art, whose goal has been success in the United States, it seemed a little surprising that Ishii didn’t make the jump across the Pacific earlier. But, according to him, this Bellator fight is his first real opportunity to fight in America... well, other than an early career offer to go through TUF.
“A long time ago, when it was like 2008?” Ishii asked, trying to remember. “After the Olympics, yes, I talked [with the UFC]. But I discussed everything with my manager and I decided it was better to get experience in Japan, I thought. So, I couldn't go. “
It’s not a decision he regrets, and while he’s already been fighting for about six years, Ishii still sees a long career out in front of him.
“10 years more, I think 15 more years,” Ishii said when asked if he’s dedicated to the sport long term. “Because as a lot of people know, the heavyweight division... heavyweight fighters have a more long term career. 40 years old, 45 years old, they can fight in heavyweight.
“You don't have to cut weight, so more health, than other divisions.”
And speaking of cutting weight, while Ishii will be cutting to 215 lbs for his catchweight fight with Rampage Jackson, he wanted to make it clear that this is not part of a long term plan to go to light heavyweight.
“I want to fight at heavyweight, actually. Because I'm usually 245 lbs. So, I want to challenge in heavyweight. This fight, I can fight against Rampage, that's why I went to 215.
“Bellator gave me notice to get ready,” Ishii replied when asked if the cut had been difficult. “So, I had three months, I could cut weight very slowly. It was easy to cut.”
Unlike other martial arts, such as wrestling, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, or even Karate, there seem to be relatively few Judo practitioners in MMA. Ishii explained that it’s all about the international Judo Federation, and the grip they keep on their athletes:
“Basically, Judo Federation is very tight,” Ishii explained, “they are across the globe controlling players. You know, Judo Players, if they do professional fights, they never get to go back to Judo competition. They can never compete in Judo competition. They are very controlling to Judo players. So, that's why it's very difficult to transition to MMA.
“I never think, ‘I want to compete in Judo competition,’ no,” Ishii continued when asked if ever wanted to go back to Judo. “Because, I'm done, I'm done with Judo.”
And while the road away from Judo into MMA hasn’t always been easy, Ishii sounded proud of the path he’d taken to get where he is now.
“I don't think so,” Ishii said, when asked if he felt he’d been rushed in his career. “You know, they gave me the opportunities, so I don't say ‘no.’ I'm a real fighter, so I can fight anyone, anytime, anywhere. I didn't want to say no. That's why they put me, always, in hard fights. I've fought, always, tough opponents.”
Satoshi Ishii faces Rampage Jackson in the main event of Bellator 157: Dynamite 2 this Friday, June 24th in St. Louis, Missouri. You can follow him on twitter @SatoshiIshii