After 15 difficult years, one of Japan’s most revered prizefighters senses the clock is ticking on his glorious career.
Every time Tatsuya Kawajiri steps into the Octagon, he knows the journey could be his last. The veteran heads to UFC Berlin this weekend aware that defeat against Dennis Siver could spell the end for his featherweight title dreams.
“I think about retirement every fight,” Kawajiri said. “I am 37 years old and I have been injured, I have been sidelined. As I get older it takes longer for my body to recover from the fatigue of training. But I just can’t give up yet.”
Yet he can still remember vividly the very moment that martial arts captured his imagination. “I went to see Ernesto Hoost and Francesco Filho fight at the Tokyo Dome in 1997,” he said. “I was a student back then so I bought the cheapest ticket. From where I was sitting the two fighters were about the size of my thumbnail. However, the sense of tension that emanated from these two fighters was so strong, it reached inside of me. From that moment, I knew I had to learn Kakutougi (martial arts).”
“The Crusher” turned pro in 2000, although a loss and a draw in his opening two bouts hardly marked him out as an outstanding prospect. “I was miserable on the day I made my pro debut,” he said. “I didn’t ever want to go back to that day. I knew the weak part of myself and I wanted to be stronger.”
After that inauspicious start, Kawajiri blossomed into one of Japan’s hottest prospects. He tore through the ranks of Shooto and PRIDE, earning himself a reputation as a fearsome finisher who rarely required the services of the scorecards.
He was on a collision course with another high-flying superstar, “The Fireball Kid” Takanori Gomi, and their scintillating PRIDE clash in 2005 is still remembered as one of the best that era had to offer. In the event, Kawajiri fell just short but his status as one of the best in the business was secured.
In typical fashion, Kawajiri bounced back from that defeat in spectacular style. He racked up 17 wins from his next 21 fights. Respected names such as Drew Fickett, Josh Thomson, Gesias Cavalcante and Yves Edwards were added to the ever-growing list of victims.
He was the worst-kept secret outside of the Octagon. Yet many of his loyal fanbase feared they would never see him compete under the UFC spotlight. Thankfully, in 2013 the organisation secured Kawajiri’s signature and he didn’t disappoint in his debut, defeating Sean Soriano via technical submission in January 2014. He followed that up with a Fight of the Night bonus for his losing effort to fellow MMA mainstay Clay Guida.
Since then, a detached retina has kept him out of action for 14 months. It’s the kind of gruesome injury that has forced many a fighter to reconsider their future. However, Kawajiri insists that, despite his stellar career, there is still one goal that eludes him.
“I want to be number one in the featherweight division,” he said. “Until the day I couldn't fight and retire, I would continue to think about being number one. That is my motivation.” His quest for featherweight gold resumes in Berlin against Dennis Siver. Incredibly, it will be Kawajiri’s first fight on European soil and he hopes his vast experience will help him overcome any hostility from the home fans. In the heat of conflict, he’s expecting his years on the front line to make the difference.
“I know I am fighting on enemy territory,” he said. “But MMA is a battle with many alternatives. Strategy is important. My experience will be a big advantage. I can choose my tactics in a level-headed manner. During the fight, even when I am in danger I can rely on my experience too.”
In Siver, Kawajiri faces another man hoping to drink from MMA’s fountain of youth. A stalwart of some 32 fights himself, the German will doubtless be looking to secure his own legacy in front of his people.
It’s a match-up between two masters of their trade – with plenty at stake. When the Octagon door closes in Berlin, Tatsuya Kawajiri’s destiny will rest in his own battle-hardened hands.
He wouldn’t have it any other way.
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