When I watched Kazushi Sakuraba beat Renzo Gracie, as I referenced in my last article, it changed my life. I had spent most of my life in BJJ-based grappling gyms, learning, what I thought, was the most effective form of fighting in the world. Sakuraba, of course, proved that theory wrong, and set me on a whole different path. I wanted to learn more from the world of wrestling, more from the world of striking, and just learn more in general.
Right before that point, I was living in my car. Not the famous time I talked about when I lived in my van for a year—this was before that. I lived outside of my Atlanta gym for a couple of weeks and used a judogi that my ex-girlfriend’s mom sewed up for me. I remember right after watching the Sak fight, I drove that Honda Civic to the back of the parking lot on a hot summer day and installed a car stereo in the hot summer sun. When I finally got it in, the first song on the radio was “Big Pimpin,” a hip-hop ballad on the awesomeness of being awesome. I sat there and basked in the hot summer sun, reveling in the fact that I would no longer be listening to only the sounds that a lack of a muffler produces. I sat there daydreaming of the day I would become an international superstar.
International superstar. That is a very cocky, douche bag thing to write about yourself. But I’m actually coming into the realization that, well, I’m kind of a big deal. After my fight, one Japanese fan called me an international superstar. That is inaccurate. I’m well known enough to be a “star,” and due to the immense popularity of Bully Beatdown in more than 20 countries, I guess I’m quite international. But “superstar” is a word reserved for the likes of Michael Jordan, Madonna, and “The Situation.” I can’t hold a candle to that type of celebrity. I will gladly accept the label “global celebrity,” or “hey your that one guy,”or “world super tard”—but I don’t want to get carried away with myself quite yet. At least not until I have a waterslide leading from my third story bedroom to my Olympic sized curling court. I just want to enjoy my life. I read that the suicide rate per capita of rich people is much higher than that of the poor. When you are poor, you don’t have as much time to think about how shitty your life is—you just go through the grind, day in and day out, hoping that life improves.
I arrive in Nagoya for the co main event on TBS—Tokyo Broadcasting System, not the Law and Order Channel—and I’m starving. I was encouraged by my coach not to eat a damn thing except a salad and a little protein on the plane. I took the Sakuraba fight on short notice, so I was doing a lot of that “enjoying my life” up until four weeks before the fight—Remember my Summertime and the Livin’s Easy’ article two issues ago? In other words, I was lifting weights and eating my ass up to heavyweight.
I show up to Japan excited, nonetheless, and not knowing how far the hotel is, take a $200 cab ride to get there. My Honda cost $400, so I’m surprised at my lack of concern as I step out, hand my baggage to the bellman, head up to my room, call my coach, who is too delirious to watch my eating habits, and jog over to Denny’s for a bite to eat. When I say Denny’s, I know I am conjuring up images of grimy, yellow restaurants tucked into freeway off ramps,but Denny’s is an actual restaurant in Japan. I ate a chicken salad that would be called an Asian chicken salad in America, but they just call it a salad in Japan. I get all introspective at this nighttime dinner joint, and I think about the twists and turns that got me here.
I was watching that Renzo vs. Sak fight on the big screen of a training partner’s house in 2000. I was 19 years old and at the onset of my MMA career—maybe four fights in, looking at this giant spectacle, a large ramp with video screens and fireworks, amazing fighters doing amazing things, much larger than life. I want that. I want to do that. I want to be there, I remember thinking.
I was in one of my two “going out” outfits and lying on the floor, because I had not yet achieved the age or status to sit on the couch. I could, however, tap out everyone on the couch, which, to me, was all that mattered. I probably had about $60 in my pocket, left over from a private lesson that I had taught, and another pocket full of dreams. The saying goes, “Dream in one hand, shit in the other,” but I was unconcerned.
“Kohee?” a nice waitress asks me, breaking me out of my nostalgia. She asks if I would like some coffee, but I reply, “Hoshiikunai, oyasumi dakara.” Roughly translated, “I don’t want any, because goodnight.” I pay my bill, try not to look too hard at the massage and sex with beautiful women shops, and make it back to the hotel to crash—and crash hard.
I awaken to find that the city of Nagoya is absolutely beautiful. I take a long run to shed some weight and see that the entire city is crammed with art. It still has the Tokyo feel of “City From the Future,” but it has more trees, more scenery, and more heart than the “all business” feel of Tokyo. I jog through the city and see a central park filled with Aztec art and even a mini Hollywood Walk of Fame. Ah, Hollywood. The romanticized image of movie stars, lined with palm trees and glittery streets paved with gold. I know Hollywood. I lived there for years. I daydreamed of that too. When I was even younger than the Sak vs. Renzo battle, I dreamt that I played a cybernetic organism sent from the future to destroy the leader of the human resistance. I dreamt that I was an ex-military commando on the run from the CIA and fought for the honor of my martial art in the Kumite. I imagined that I was on a cross-country journey with my shaggy-haired friend on a quest to return a forgotten briefcase, driving a van converted into a cocker spaniel. I landed somewhere in the middle of all that—on a wacky show on MTV. The real Hollywood is covered with opportunistic sociopaths, lined with the homeless and paved with the occasional pile of vomit. I don’t have the heart to tell the Japanese that. I’m fighting one of their legends and don’t need that negative energy.
I do my familiar ritual workout to sweat, then my nightly bath before the weigh-ins to lose an extra pound, and I think about the fight. “I’m about to do this. I’m about to beat up a legend. I’m about to beat up my hero.” I lay in the undersized Japanese bathtub, trying to visualize everything from the warm-up to the dancing walkout to the introductions to the first few seconds of the fight. But my mind drifts. I think about the years of my career after the golden era of Sakuraba. I remember the first time that I wore a mask to the ring. I remember jumping over my opponent’s guard. I remember the double-Mongolian chop I did. I realize that I’m not the same kid that was watching the big screen on the floor—there’s a lot more experience packed into this brain. There’s a lot more miles on Sakuraba’s odometer. The end of an era. Before the weigh-in, everything is in slow motion. I am doing a self-imposed prison sentence. No food, no water, suffering. Living in my car all over again. After the weigh-in, an immediate acceleration of time.
Hydrate, laugh, talk, sleep, wake, eat, laugh, bus, warm up, dance, disrobe ringside. Then, no noise at all, just my coach’s voice: “He took this fight because he think she can beat you! You don’t care that he’s a legend! You go out there and beat him.” Then I go out there and beat him. A cold, unfeeling, unaffected robot. He shoots, I stop it, I punch him, I see the ch
oke open up, and I choke him. I stand up, I yell. What comes next is unexpected. The Japanese call is “otto-naki”—when a man gets so overcome with emotion that he breaks into tears. It came unexpectedly, a wave of emotion that hit me so hard, because even though I knew I would win—that I am a younger, stronger version of my hero—I still did what I had set out to do. I spent all that time daydreaming, and I put together something better than a car stereo in an ‘87 Honda Civic. Maybe when you come to the realization that some dreams become reality, you just can’t hold in the emotion. There is so much more that I am still daydreaming about, but I can check one thing off of my bucket list.
On to the next one, but until that one comes, I’m living the dream… still working on becoming an international superstar.