(Check out the gallery here. Photos by Shirley Graser for FIGHT)
SAN JOSE, Calif.—Takanori Gomi walks into the American Kickboxing Academy unnoticed.
He arrives early for pro team practice, kicking off his green gel flip-flops on his way to the locker rooms as Dave Camarillo winds down his morning Guerilla Jiu-Jitsu class. Once the world’s top lightweight, Gomi will be three years removed from his last great performance—a 74-second bludgeoning of Mitsuhiro Ishida in PRIDE FC in 2006—come New Year’s Eve.
“I [want] to get back on track and demonstrate my [fighting ability] to my fans and this is very good place to refresh myself,” says Gomi through a translator.
The 31-year-old is in America for negotiations with the Ultimate Fighting Championship and its chief rival, San Jose-based and Showtime-CBS partner Strikeforce.
Gomi stretches in the ring with long rests—rolling out of the ring to put on gear and back in. He drapes a towel over his forehead for neck strength exercises, placing a circular weight over and on his head for crunches with his head unsupported by the ring, dangling in mid-air. Gomi exits. Jon Fitch enters. This time Gomi stays out.
Fighters with fights get priority attention thus Gomi floats around the gym and Fitch goes after Trevor Prangley. He doesn’t have the internal clock of a Cain Velasquez or Nate James, who run warm up laps and go straight into sparring and rolling. So Gomi walks over to the heavy bags and works lightly. It’s hard to remember the clean, killer punches he landed on Jens Pulver and Hayato Sakurai as he punches the heavy bag apathetically.
“I didn’t have clear goals for myself,” says the only PRIDE Lightweight Champion in history about the three years since the organization was bought out by UFC parent company Zuffa.
Gomi’s handlers motion him over to the ring at the request of trainers Camarillo and “Crazy” Bob Cook. Strikeforce Lightweight Champion Josh Thomson is going five rounds to prepare for an upcoming Dec. 19 tilt down the road at the HP Pavilion. Sparring with fighters of Thomson’s caliber is what Gomi admits he’s been missing. Rascal Gym, his Kanagama, Japan training center is comprised mostly of amateurs. Direction is another component alarmingly absent from his camp admits the former Shooto welterweight champ.
“In Japan, I had to think training schedule—schedule training mainly by myself; however, AKA for instance, once in camp I just follow the program,” he says. “So no matter what I’m supposed to train.”
Gomi enjoys the different challenges American training brings. He’s unaccustomed to the techniques and emphasis on physical strength. Sparring with Thomson tells little, explains Gomi, because he’s not in fight shape and Thomson is ready for battle.
“I have to change my lifestyle to a more serious lifestyle to focus on fighting,” says Gomi.
The PRIDE 2005 Lightweight Grand Prix champion reveals depression marred his post-PRIDE career as he coasted through Sengoku to a 2-2 record. Recently, he started turning it around, picking up a knockout in Shooto in May and scoring a Vale Tudo Japan decision in October. Still, Gomi points to Affliction canceling it’s August event “Trilogy” as another time his motivation ceased, making his last bout another uncharacteristic performance.
“Pride was peak and I became champion. I feel I reached my goal. At the same time, I had [confidence] I could be number one in the world,” says Gomi. “At the same time, I wanted to open my own gym and others so I started defocus on fighting itself. Also, as a human being, sometimes up-and-down-up-and-down—something focus and cannot focus forever.”
Gomi spars without a ring on AKA’s mats after a solid round with Thomson.
With no more partners available, he pitter-patters the heavy bag again. Gomi is called back into the ring with Thomson after five minutes off. A competitive first go seems distant. Gomi struggles. He’s tired and winging punches like he did before tapping out to Nick Diaz in his last PRIDE fight.
Thomson takes him down and works a submission with little resistance; however, Gomi finds his way out and the round ends standing.
“I can manage a fight with my experience but training is different,” says Gomi after Strikeforce lightweight Justin Wilcox stifles and mounts him during grappling rounds.
For the first time since PRIDE’s demise though, Gomi believes he’s on the right path. He desires championship gold again, but knows the first step toward claiming a crown is conditioning, which is the main manifestation of dedication for a fighter—something he’s lacked. He feels invigorated by training at AKA, recent UFC events and Manny Pacquiao’s drubbing of Miguel Cotto. Perhaps most importantly, Gomi also feels alleviated of pressures to cultivate Japanese MMA in the wake of Pride’s demise.
“The Fireball Kid” affirms he has “no idea” where he’ll fight next. He asks, “What’s the difference?” between UFC and Strikeforce. Of Strikeforce’s talent exchange relationship with Japanese organization DREAM, Gomi answers, “I fought more than 30 fights in Japan. It’s not necessary to go back.”
Gomi lost his motivation when he lost PRIDE; however, the brief stint at AKA illustrates to Gomi that greatness comes in the gym before the ring. But with more than a decade in the sport, what motivates Gomi going forward? For once, it’s his pride—not PRIDE.
“I want to show my performance to fans in the world, not just in Japan only,” says Gomi. “So I want to show my performance to worldwide fans—that’s the difference.”
Whether Gomi lands in UFC or Strikeforce or back in Japan, critics and fans that remember Gomi as “The Fireball Kid” are still waiting for him to reignite.