"He’s going to judge if I’m intimidated; I’m going to show him that I’m not." - Darren Uyenoyama
Earning legendary status is virtually every fighter’s fantasy. Yet few ever prove worthy of immortality among the ages. In the Land of the Rising Sun, the short list of timeless MMA stars is headed by names such as Sakuraba, Gomi, Sudo, Aoki and Akiyama. Another widely revered and dynamic figure in Japan, near the very top of the list, is the bundle of fast-twitch ferocity that is Norifumi “Kid” Yamamoto. The Japanese superstar who just happens to be Darren Uyenoyama’s next opponent.
They say that when you beat another fighter, you steal a part of his achievements, a part of his power transfers to you. This potential inheritance is part of what drives Uyenoyama.
“Ten years from now people will talk about Kid Yamamoto and what he did in his career,” Uyenoyama said in the days leading up to his UFC debut. “Other people would kill for these opportunities. I’ve been really fortunate, so I want to make the most out of it.”
The UFC on FOX undercard matchup, which will be broadcast live and free on Facebook, strikes at the heart of Uyenoyama’s identity and therefore carries even greater consequence to him. He is a third-generation Japanese-American whose ancestry can be traced to Buddhist Church officials who relocated to Hawaii to serve Japanese migrants who worked in the cane fields. Though he was born in San Francisco, 32-year-old Uyenoyama had long romanticized Japan and its celebrated MMA scene. The Brazilian jiu-jitsu practitioner went from spectator to participant back in 2002, when he needed $3,000 to cover expenses for his wedding. A Japanese MMA organization offered him a fight – for exactly $3,000. Uyenoyama accepted, and notched his first pro win via decision before walking down the aisle and tying the knot.
A veteran of Strikeforce, Uyenoyama has fought on several other occasions in the land of his ancestors. In his most recent fight, last year, the heavy underdog upset then-Shooto champion Shuichiro Katsumura in a non-title affair. Despite notching the biggest win of his career, Uyenoyama feels unfulfilled and disappointed regarding his time in Japan. He had expected more, wishing the Japanese would embrace him as one of their own.
“Me being a Japanese-American, I wanted to be accepted by them, to show that I was worthy,” he said. “I was a big fan of the Japanese MMA scene so I had this view that it was so great. Then I went over there and saw how things really were and I was kind of jaded by it. It was really hard because when I was fighting there they wanted me to behave like a Japanese fighter but they treated me like a foreigner. They didn’t treat me too well. Every situation that they brought me in for was on like two weeks’ notice against one of their best guys. And they would always want me to bring like one cornerman, or no cornermen, you know. I felt like I was being set up to fail.”
After a lengthy contract dispute, Uyenoyama signed with the UFC. The Ralph Gracie black belt was surprised to learn that the opponent for his UFC debut would be a Japanese legend.
“This was supposed to happen a long time ago (in Japan),” Uyenoyama said. “Even though this is in the UFC it’s really a Japanese MMA fight. You have two guys who are known in the Japanese MMA scene so I think it will be super-exciting. I don’t see myself holding back and playing it safe and I don’t think he will play it safe, either.
“I see him coming across the ring. He’s going to judge if I’m intimidated; I’m going to show him that I’m not. I will close the distance with him and display how good my grappling and top position ground and pound is. If I end up on bottom I will show some transitions and submissions that have never been seen before.”
With a Pan American championship and World Grappling Games title on his resume, Uyenoyama’s world-class ground skills are beyond reproach. Yet the nine-year veteran has never been able to shake the one-dimensional label of being “a jiu-jitsu guy” in MMA. Because of that reputation, Uyenoyama suspects that Yamamoto is salivating at the matchup.
“Honestly, I think he thinks this is an ideal matchup for him,” Uyenoyama said. “He knows that I’m a smaller 135-pounder because I plan on going down to 125. So he won’t be fighting one of the bigger guys like Michael McDonald or something. I think they see me as a smaller, less physically strong guy in the 135-pound division. And he’s got a good record against (so-called) ‘Jiu-jitsu fighters.’ He’s beaten Bibiano Fernandes, Rani Yahya and Royler Gracie. So I think they see me as fitting into a mold of fighters that he’s beaten already.”
Uyenoyama took the fight precisely because he believes the scouting report on him is a bunch of hooey.
“People go, ‘Ah, he’s just a grappler or a jiu-jitsu guy that tries to take everybody down. But I’ve sparred with a lot of guys like Chris Cariaso and Joachim Hansen … these guys have all been huge influences on me,” Uyenoyama said. “So people who think I’m just a grappler are in for a big surprise. This is the first time I’ve had a full camp to prepare for a fight and my striking is a lot better than what I’ve shown in fights before. My grappling for MMA is better than ever. There’s also a huge stylistic difference between me and most jiu-jitsu guys. What they’re underestimating is that when I fight high-level competition, I tend to meet that high level of competition. I’ve been fighting guys with 30 plus fights since I had my fifth fight. Every time I step up. So I think they’re anticipating what I’m going to do – but I don’t even know what I’m going to do.”
Uyenoyama (6-3) and Yamamoto (18-4, 1 NC) are not strangers. The paths of the grappling ace and explosive knockout artist have crossed numerous times before, with each encounter marked by cordiality and respect.
“I wouldn’t say we’re friends but we’re pretty friendly,” Uyenoyama said. “We e-mail each other, and when he was here in the states he would call me for directions. We have a lot of mutual friends. He had been at my last three fights and would always come up to me afterwards and say, ‘Ah man, that was a good fight.’ A fighter from his camp came to the states and stayed with us. So I wouldn’t say we’re friends – I’m not going to pull the Tito Ortiz-Chuck Liddell thing – but we’re acquaintances, I guess.”
Mindful that the once-dominant Yamamoto has dropped three of his past four fights, Uyenoyama defended his foe, touching on the oft-discussed hard luck that Japanese fighters have experienced inside the Octagon in recent years (with “hard luck” meaning fighters other than Yushin Okami not being very successful). Uyenoyama even floated an interesting theory for the curious trend.
“It’s not just Kid specifically, but Japanese fighters in general have had a rough run in the UFC lately,” Uyenoyama said. “I think a lot of it can be attributed to travel. When the Americans flew over to fight in PRIDE sometimes they were losing a lot. Right now we’re seeing it more with the Japanese. I think it’s travelling, being away from home, having to rely on a new diet, the time changes, knowing where to get food and how to eat properly, getting thrown off when you travel to a foreign country.
“For him (Kid) as an individual, he’s got a lot of responsibilities; he’s got a huge gym and a lot of fighters that he’s training now. And in Japan he’s a huge star, as big, if not bigger, than (Japanese TV star and UFC fighter Yoshihiro “Sexyama”) Akiyama. So I’m sure he has other obligations.”
Uyenoyama also has a lot on his plate, juggling training, instructing at his academy and family life. The time crunch forced him to sacrifice trips to the bay.
“You know, I like surfing. Shoot, if I could be a professional surfer I would drop this fighting thing in a heartbeat!” he said. “Unfortunately, I’m not that good at surfing. Before I was fighting in the UFC I would go all the time. But now, with so much on the line, I haven’t been surfing for months. That’s something I miss out on, especially because the surf is so good this time of the year. So I read the surf reports but I’m locked in the gym. Other than that, I’m just focused on raising my kids.”
For Uyenoyama, there is a strong link between fighting and fatherhood. They are not mutually exclusive. He fights for self-revelation, hoping to pass on lessons learned to his children, just as his ancestors did.
“My great grandfather was placed in an internment camp during World War II,” he said. “My grandfather served in the U.S. Army and, at the time, even though there was the Vietnam War and the Korean War, people in the U.S. didn’t really differentiate between if you were Vietnamese, Korean or Japanese. If you were Asian you were referred to as a ‘Jap’ or some other derogatory term. So from my mom’s generation down to me we were always taught that we had to stand up for ourselves or work harder so that we weren’t looked down upon. From my family’s experience we always had a chip on our shoulders. I would hear stories from my grandmother all the time about how we needed to work twice as hard to get the same recognition, so that has definitely impacted me.
“For me, fighting is a personal test. I have a gift for it and I feel an obligation to that gift to see how far I can go. Fighting has taught me that I’m a lot tougher than I originally thought. It’s taught me to work hard for what I want. It’s allowed me to be a good example for my son … We live in a weird time. We have a lot of people doing this “Occupy Wall Street” stuff and people kind of feel entitled to stuff. Martial arts have given me a way that I can earn every dollar. It’s given me a way to teach my son that you can make it if you work hard. That’s the most important thing it has given me.”