Interview with two of Japan’s fastest rising UFC stars: Kuniyoshi Hironaka and Yushin Okami
In the final days leading up to UFC 64: Unstoppable, which will take place October 14th at the Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas, Nevada, I was able to sit down with two of Japan’s biggest MMA stars, Kuniyoshi Hironaka and Yushin Okami, who will both be facing very tough opposition in Jon Fitch and Kalib Starnes respectively, Saturday night.
Hironaka (10-2) is an up and coming welterweight jiu-jitsu fighter that is most memorable in the United States for defeating jiu-jitsu legend Jean-Jacques Machado in last May’s L.A. Sub X submission show. He also holds very impressive MMA wins over UFC veteran Renato “Charuto” Verissimo, Team Quest’s Ryan Schultz, as well as UFC veteran and Top 10 welterweight Nick Diaz.
Bevois: Hironaka-san, I understand you majored in Physical Science at Kanoya University and served as a military officer before you started your MMA career. What inspired you to fight professionally?
Hironaka: I started my martial arts training in Judo. The thing about Judo is once you get the “ippon” and pin your opponent, the fight was over. I felt that MMA was the only true way to measure my skills and to test myself.
Bevois: You are a black belt in both Judo and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. Who are your instructors and how long have you trained?
Hironaka: I am 30 years old and have trained in Judo for 15 years and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu for 5 years.
Bevois: You are a very well-rounded fighter that has been noted for your conditioning and your ability to always stay calm during your fights. How are you able to keep such good composure in such extreme combat?
Hironaka: I utilize relaxation and breathing techniques that help keep me calm under intense situations. That way I’m able to see the opening more clearly and strike more effectively.
Bevois: You are listed as a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu stylist. Is BJJ popular in Japan and how big has Japan’s BJJ scene now gotten?
Hironaka: BJJ used to be less popular than Wrestling, but has no passed Wrestling in popularity. However, Judo is still much more popular than Wrestling and BJJ, because it was born in Japan and is our national sport.
Bevois: What do you like most about OnTheMat.com and do we have a large Japanese following?
Hironaka: Yes, a lot of us have and we love Mat Burn, Marc Laimon’s No-Gi Remix, and the 101 Submissions DVDs.
Bevois: In your last MMA fight you defeated a very tough opponent in Charuto Verissimo at Rumble on the Rock in Hawaii and were slated to face Charuto’s top student B.J. Penn this Saturday night, before Penn was moved up to face Matt Hughes for the title in September. Now you have to fight another tough opponent out of the American Kickboxing Academy in Jon Fitch. Did you have to make any major adjustments in your game plan and training to prepare for Fitch?
Hironaka: B.J. Penn and Jon Fitch are two of the Top 10 welterweights in the world so it would be an honor to fight either of them. As far as my training routine, I like to train the same way no matter who I fight.
Bevois: You are making your UFC debut in arguably the UFC’s deepest and most competitive division. Who do you see as the toughest welterweight fighters in the UFC right now that you look forward to facing?
Hironaka: Of course I would like to fight Matt Hughes, because he has the belt. I would also like to fight Diego Sanchez, because he is very popular and undefeated and I would like to be the one to end that streak.
Bevois: Karo Parisyan is also in the UFC welterweight division and probably one of the most accomplished Judoka in UFC history. How do you think your Judo skills would measure up to his if you two ended up fighting?
Hironaka: His style of Judo is very aggressive and he is very good with his throws, but it’s also very risky. To prevent someone from taking my back, while setting up an uchimata, I’d make sure to get an under hook first. However, if I fought Karo, I’d probably use my Judo to counter his throws.
Bevois: Even though you are a highly accomplished grappler, you have stated that punching is your favorite technique. What forms of striking have you trained in and why do you prefer to strike if you have black belts in both Judo and BJJ?
Hironaka: I have trained in kickboxing and I feel that my striking is at a very high level. I also know that my grappling skills can help set up positions where I can effectively strike my opponent.
Bevois: Is there anything else you’d like to say to your newly found American fan base, before you step into the UFC octagon for the first time Saturday night?
Hironaka: You can expect to see a very exciting fight and the truth of my skills Saturday night at the UFC.
Yushin Okami (17-3) is a middleweight contender that trains out of Caol Uno’s famed Wajyutsu Keisyukai Tokyo dojo. He has fought in just about every major competition including the ADCC, PRIDE, K-1, Pancrase, and Rumble on the Rock, and also won in his UFC debut in August with an impressive unanimous decision victory over Alan Belcher at UFC 62.
Bevois: Okami-san, you train with Caol Uno at the famed Wajyutsu Keisyukai Tokyo dojo in Japan. How has Caol Uno helped influence your MMA career?
Okami: He has helped me learn how to train more effectively. He has told me what to expect from the American crowd and what it is like fighting in the UFC.
Bevois: You were very impressive in your UFC debut in August by winning a very decisive unanimous decision over Alan Belcher. How do you plan on following up that performance Saturday night against Kalib Starnes?
Okami: I fought too safely in my last fight and didn’t open things up as much as I would have liked. This time around I plan on putting together a much more exciting performance.
Bevois: Caol Uno just defeated Kultar "Black Mamba" Gill by rear-naked choke at K-1 Hero’s 6 in August, while Kalib Starnes was cornering him. Do you see this as any added incentive leading into Saturday night’s fight?
Okami: Kalib is a good fighter, but you can expect to see the same result with Wajyutsu prevailing once again.
Bevois: You have wins over UFC vets Nick Thompson and Anderson Silva and have fought in world class organizations such as PRIDE, Pancrase, K-1, and Rumble on the Rock. How much has that experience helped you prepare for the rigors of fighting inside a cage at the UFC?
Okami: I think my experience fighting in all of those organizations has helped me a lot in preparing for the UFC, which has always been my ultimate goal. The timing is now right for me to make a home for myself in the UFC.
Bevois: Prior to facing Belcher, you were slated to fight David Terrell at UFC 62 before he had to pull out due to health reasons. Do you look forward to finally facing Terrell in the near future?
Okami: I know if I keep winning that facing Terrell will be inevitable. He is a very talented fighter and we are bound to face each other in the future.
Bevois: You also had a very close decision loss to one of Terrell’s former training partners Jake Shields at Rumble on the Rock. Is there anything you learned from that fight?
Okami: Being able to test myself against a fighter of Jake Shields caliber was a great experience. It allowed me to truly see where the level of my game is at and see what areas of my game I needed to fix.
Bevois: You currently hold a very impressive record of 17-3, which includes a win over Anderson Silva who is fighting on the same card as you Saturday night for the Middleweight championship. Your win over Anderson at Rumble on the Rock was due to him being DQ’d for throwing an illegal kick. Do you look forward to facing him again now that you’re both in the UFC?
Okami: Honestly, I hope Anderson knocks Rich out Saturday night, so we can fight each other again, but this time for the UFC middleweight title. We will both be much better fighters and it will have a good storyline leading up to the rematch.
Bevois: You won the 2003 ADCC Japanese qualifiers. Do you have any plans on competing again at the ADCC world championships?
Okami: Right now my main focus is on competing in the UFC. MMA and submission grappling take different types of training, but if the timing does work out, I’d love to compete at the ADCC again.
Bevois: Currently, who do you feel are some of the most impressive submission grapplers in the world right now in your weight class?
Okami: I think David Terrell is very good at submission grappling, but Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza is probably the best in the world in my weight class right now.
Bevois: Is there anything else you would like to add before you step back into the UFC octagon Saturday night?
Okami: I promise to give a much more exciting performance and to not fight as cautiously as I did in my first UFC fight in August.