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Obscure fighter of the week: Pawel Nastula

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Pawel Nastula’s first fight was against Pride’s former heavyweight champion, and one-time UFC interim heavyweight champion. Somehow, it tells us a lot about Japan’s history of Judo.

Olympia 1996: Judo Pawel Nastula mit “Gold Photo by Frank Leonhardt/picture alliance via Getty Images

Sports, like people, can be an interacting contrast of peculiar features. I don’t watch movies ironically, but for domestic thrillers starring Kurt Russell, I’ll make an exception. The Detroit Red Wings don’t like killing animals, but to honor the tradition of symbolizing the amount of wins it took to get a Stanley Cup in the 50’s, they’ll throw a dead octopus onto the ice for good measure. Jabba the Hutt doesn’t make much sense as a character, but I’ll collect Jabba the Hutt merchandise all day. Citizens of West Virginia tech don’t like setting their town on fire, but as long as it’s for a football game — hey, sacrifices must be made.

When you look at American MMA, there’s plenty of tribal tattooed affectations to go around. I mean, how long did it take Zuffa to ditch an anthem using music from a genre that lasted as long as a hair bleaching race? When MMA took center stage in Japan, Japanese MMA had their own monstrous distinctions. They had better taste in music. But they enjoyed their blood sacrifices as much as the Americans. Especially when it came to judokas.

The history of judokas in MMA — thrown into a thresher — is fairly rich. After winning Gold at the 1992 Summer Olympics, 10 years later, Hidehiko Yoshida would be asked to fight for Pride Fighting Championship. His career upgraded to Wanderlei Silva for just his fourth pro fight. Ever heard of Hiroshi Izumi? He was an Olympic Gold medalist in Athens. Four straight wins after losing his debut, and that was enough to earn him a fight with Gegard Mousasi for the Dream’s light heavyweight belt. Satoshi Ishii, one of the bigger names thanks to the hype surrounding him, was just 24 when he fought MMA’s best heavyweight ever. You didn’t even have to have an Olympic license. Just look at Dong Sik Yoon. Not an Olympian, but he was a strong practitioner, winning tournaments all over Asia. So naturally, three of his first four bouts were against Quinton Jackson, Murila Bustamante, and Kazushi Sakuraba (two former champs, and one of MMA’s last pioneers, for those keeping count). And don’t forget about the bonecrushing lamb we talked about last month.

In the proud tradition of Lord of the Flies: Judokas in Japan Edition, Pawel Nastula entered the MMA world in 2005. Nastula had won Gold at the 1996 games in Atlanta, making short work of his opponent. This was halfway into one hell of a streak: from 1994 to 1998, Nastula didn’t lose a single match. It was snapped when the weight limits changed. He retired in 2004, and a year later, he’d start his MMA career against Pride’s former heavyweight champion, Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira.

UFC 190 Open Workouts Photo by Buda Mendes/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

More than just the former heavyweight champ, ‘Big Nog’ was fresh off his sort-of trilogy with Fedor. The fact that Pride was willing to throw Nastula into a frying pan wrapped in Kerrygold’s finest was predictable enough. But Nog happily obliged the sadism. Nastula asked for special rules: less time in the ring, with both men wearing the gi. Nog declined, and the rest was forgotten history. Nastula lost, and he’d go on to fight Alexander Emelianenko and Josh Barnett before his fifth professional fight because that’s what Judo earns you; a good ole’ fashioned ass whoppin at the hands, feet, grip, and contortion of the sport world’s elite bone setters.

The more righteous hardcore fans might not feel too bad for Nastula. After his bout with Barnett at Pride 32, he’d get popped for Nandrolone — along with phenylpropanolamine, pseudoephedrine, and ephedrine. Nandrolone was once one of the more popular PED’s at the time, thanks to cosmetic and chemical side effects that are less pronounced. Barnett, Stephen Bonnar, Sean Sherk, Nate Marquardt, and Royce Gracie are some of the more famous names associated with the steroid.

Despite Nog being the former Pride heavyweight champ, Pawel did quite well for himself, all things considered. He swept Nog early on. He was immune to Nog’s patented half-guard tricks. And things didn’t go south until it was clear that a year’s worth of MMA training wasn’t enough to keep him from turning into Fourth Round Shane Carwin.

Still. Why the rush by Pride to find out how long Nastula could survive underwater?

If you want to get the most out of a fighter, and they have potential, you gradually challenge them. You don’t watch them drown and throw them a kettlebell when they ask for help.

Now’s a good time to wax pretentious. Language is dynamic. Words are more than sticks and stones. They’re history, and culture. Judo means something different in Japan. In America, it’s probably known as the martial art commonly confused with what Steven Seagal practiced against doomed henchmen in seedy bars (pre-Ronda Rousey at least). In Japan, well...let’s look at its history.

Judo Competitors Photo by Dimitri Iundt/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images

Judo, of course, isn’t a mere sport in Japan. There are somewhere around 28 million Judo practitioners in the world. Almost thirty percent of them come from Japan. As a result, Japan took home 12 medals for the Olympics in Rio, seven more than any other country. Japan’s Kodokan Institute is an eight-floor museum, slash training ground, slash dormitory, slash hostel of Judo appreciation with a sign on the door that reads “once a judoka, always a judoka”. And it was founded by Kanō Jigorō: a man who developed the martial art in a world literally forged out of bone doctors, black ship cannons, and shoguns.

Not to sound hokey, but it’s kind of no wonder judokas have always been thrown to the wolves. They are the wolves. Or at least that’s how they’re perceived.

Nastula should not have fought Big Nog for his first fight, but at least a logic emerges. To Japan’s matchmakers, the risk was always worth the reward. Because the reward is an ancient one; the validation of a nation’s work, all wrapped up inside a ring of bones and cannons, just like its history.

It’s no distraction or postscript to point out that this emphasis has played out to its grim conclusions. This Judo Never Die attitude has been enough to create a Judo Accident Victims Association; created due to the unparalleled viciousness with which Judo is practiced, akin to American football. Judo has claimed over a hundred lives over the last several decades.

It’s there, somewhere in this rich, bloody history that explains why Nastula will remain an obscure part of MMA history.

No, not because he wasn’t talented. His Judo talents will always speak for itself. And in MMA, he’d find something of a second wind competing in Poland, and eventually (in 2014), a high profile matchup with the world’s strongest man. And no, not because he’s some obscure personality. Nastula has written a book, received a Knight’s Cross from his country, and guest starred on Taniec z Gwiazdami; Poland’s version of Dancing with the Stars.

No, Nastula goes on this list because another one of MMA’s peculiar features is obscurity itself. In any other sport, an Olympic Gold medalist making his debut against a former champion would have been a hell of a story. Think Floyd Mayweather vs. Conor McGregor, minus the Moulin Rouge posturing.

But not in MMA, where these competitors are exactly the people that can become cannon fodder for the more seasoned. Because the sport has never favored a proper filter for seasoning. On the contrary, it revels in not having one.