While there has never been a UFC champion from Japan, the Octagon has been graced by some of the best the Land of the Rising Sun has produced, from Kazushi Sakuraba, Yushin Okami, Caol Uno and Yuki Kondo to Takanori Gomi, Kid Yamamoto, Genki Sudo and “Mach” Sakurai.
These international stars had mixed results in the UFC, but their presence was a reminder of the talent present in a country that always embraced mixed martial arts. In recent years, though, that presence has been sporadic at best, but with fighters like 22-year-old Tatsuro Taira arriving to compete in the big show, hopes are high that a new wave of Japanese fighters are on their way.
“There are many fighters from Japan who could compete and do well on the international stage today,” said Taira through a translator. “I hope more fighters from Japan continue to get opportunities to represent the country in the UFC’s Octagon.”
So far, Taira is doing his nation proud, having already secured his first UFC victory over Carlos Candelario in May. It was a patient and technically sound effort from the Okinawa native, who took the win via scores of 30-26, 30-27, 30-27, looking like a seasoned vet and not a 22-year-old rookie.
“I never thought I was fighting like a veteran; this is just me,” said Taira, who improved to 11-0 with the win. “I have a lot of experience, and my parents did a great job of raising me, and I have a great team behind me. I want to continue competing at the highest level, and truly become a veteran of the UFC.”
That poise is something in the DNA of Taira, who, when asked on his UFC bio form for his heroes, selected not one of the aforementioned MMA standouts, but his grandfather, who is enjoying watching his grandson chase his dream.
“He is very pleased,” said Taira. “He is a very kind person who takes pleasure in seeing other people succeed, especially his family. His happiness is important to me, as well.”
So after Taira built a 10-0 record on the Japanese MMA scene that included a Shooto championship at flyweight, it’s no surprise that when he went through fight week for the Candelario bout, it was no shock to the system for the poised young man.
“It was my first fight week with the UFC, and it was very refreshing,” he said. “Everybody is very polite and professional, everything is run well and, of course, I was happy to get the win in my UFC debut. It made me even more excited to return.”
No pressure, then?
“I felt a bit of pressure because the stakes are so high and my opponent was very dangerous, but it was a very fun experience nonetheless.”
This weekend, Taira returns to face CJ Vergara at the UFC APEX in Las Vegas. It’s another stiff test, but one the seventh youngest fighter on the UFC roster is prepared for.
“He’s a tough opponent,” Taira said of Vergara. “He’s very capable and dangerous, but I’m ready.”
Taira is also ready for everything that comes along with possibly being the new gold standard for Japanese MMA in the UFC. That’s a lot to put on the shoulders of someone in their early 20s, but considering that Taira has been in the gym training since the age of 15, it’s not surprising that he believes he can handle it all.
“Honestly, I don’t feel like I’ve sacrificed much, except time and energy,” Taira said when asked what he sacrificed to get to this point in his life. “But I believe this is my path, and I don’t view anything I have to do as a sacrifice. My goal is to be a world champion, and I’m more than happy to do whatever it takes to get there.”
And if he can bring a UFC title to Japan for the first time?
“The state of MMA in Japan is important to me, so I want to take the belt and bring even more hope and excitement to the Japanese MMA world,” Taira said. “In that moment, my dreams will come true. I want to know how it will feel in that moment. Will I burn out or flare up?”
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