“He has power and he does not have any weak points,” Okami says of Marquardt. “I recognize that he is a really great fighter.”
Known for his calm and cool demeanor, Yushin Okami exudes confidence in the Octagon. It wasn’t always that way though. Just flash back to his pro debut against Kyosuke Sasaki a little over eight years ago, and the man will tell you himself that he barely resembled a man one win away from a world title shot.
“At that time, I felt nervous,” he said. “Therefore, I do not remember anything.”
That’s what the prospect of facing another man in sanctioned hand to hand combat can do to you. It can make you forget everything – your training, your techniques, even your name. The funny thing is, it’s natural, and the ones who are able to control those emotions are the ones who go on to big things in this toughest of sports.
Okami won that night in September of 2002, and in the ensuing years he’s added 25 wins to his pro record and just five losses. On Saturday, he faces Nate Marquardt in the main event of UFC 122 in Oberhausen, Germany, and with a victory, he will be looking at a championship fight in 2011.
It’s been a long road for Okami since his days growing up in Kanagawa, Japan. A self-described “gentle child,” the future middleweight contender says that he “grew up normally. It was happy every day.” Skilled in track and field during his school years, Okami eventually gravitated to combat sports, and by 2001, the 20-year old was entrenched in the fight game and a year away from his pro debut.
From there, it’s been a whirlwind of fighting, traveling, and getting better, with Okami’s ultimate goal to become the first Japanese fighter to win a UFC title. Yuki Kondo, Kenichi Yamamoto, Hayato “Mach” Sakurai, and Caol Uno have all fallen short before, prompting the question for Okami as to why his countrymen have never been able to secure the belt in the Octagon.
“I think that not being accustomed to an overseas environment is one of the causes,” he said. “That experience helps in the UFC because I was fighting a lot in foreign countries.”
He’s not kidding. In addition to his fights at home, Okami’s fighting passport has been stamped in Russia, South Korea, Northern Ireland, the United States, and now Germany. But perhaps his most memorable international bout came in 2006 when he traveled to Honolulu, Hawaii to face future UFC middleweight champ Anderson Silva. In a well documented bout, Okami defeated Silva via disqualification when ‘The Spider’ landed an illegal up kick that rendered the Japanese fighter unable to continue. It was Silva’s last loss, and if Okami has his choice, should he beat Marquardt, he wants Silva to emerge victorious in his upcoming bout with Vitor Belfort to set up a score settling rematch.
“I want to fight with Silva, who is the champion,” he says, getting right to the point. It’s this quiet confidence that has taken him through his 11 fight UFC career, one that has seen him build a stellar 9-2 record, with the only losses coming to Rich Franklin and Chael Sonnen. It’s a resume to be proud of, but the loss to Sonnen at UFC 104 in October 2009 still leaves a bitter taste in his mouth.
“I was embarrassed and disappointed with myself,” he said, showing the competitor inside. Yet shortly after the bout, he figured if you can’t beat ‘em, learn from ‘em, and soon he was in Oregon training with Sonnen and Team Quest.
“Team Quest offered the highest training environment to me that exists,” said Okami. “I wish to express my gratitude to them. Communication was the only problem for me because my English language skill is still low.”
But training with a former opponent?
Since his first stint in Portland (he has since returned to work there for the Marquardt bout), Okami delivered one of his career-best performances in stopping Lucio Linhares in March, and then he scored a split decision win over Mark Munoz in August that brings him now to Germany and a matchup with Nate “The Great.” Okami, as usual, is very respectful of his foe.
“He has power and he does not have any weak points,” he said of Marquardt. “I recognize that he is a really great fighter.”
And it takes a great fighter to beat a great fighter. So if Okami is going to make history for Japan by winning a UFC title, he will have to prove himself the hard way as he removes all obstacles in his way. The first one is Marquardt, then it’s off to Silva or Belfort. It’s a daunting stretch to say the least, but Okami’s ready for it. It’s probably why when you ask him what fight fans should expect from him in the future, he just has a one word answer to the question.