Barefoot In Japan

One MMA journalist’s adventure into The Land of the Rising Sun for UFC 144.

Exiting the American Airlines jumbo jet that had been my home for the past 10 hours and walking into the main concourse of Tokyo’s Narita airport, I couldn’t help but laugh. After all, right there in front of me was a sharp-dressed Japanese gentleman holding a sign with a familiar name—well, sort of: “Gerges St-Piere”

Now, I’m not one to make light of anyone’s spelling, especially in a foreign country. And if you asked me right now to draw any one of those incredibly detailed symbols that Japanese people use to communicate, I would admittedly be at a loss (except, strangely, the symbol for “sauce,” which I learned—but we can save that story for a different day). However, this was the UFC Welterweight Champion, the biggest superstar in mixed martial arts. For crying out loud, his chiseled physique is so famous that there’s an entire workout system named after him.

It was just a passing moment, but it was my first-ever moment in Japan, and it came to symbolize everything that would happen throughout the week. Things were largely as you would imagine— respectful people, clean streets, loads of technology, and an underlying serenity—but it was also unquestionably foreign. After having the good fortune of traveling the globe for the past several years with the sole purpose of watching cage fights, Japan was the first country where, at moments, I felt truly helpless.

February’s UFC 144 served as the UFC’s first trip to Japan since December 2000, not to mention the promotion’s first-ever visit there under Zuffa’s ownership. The historic card served as the perfect opportunity for me to make my debut in Japan, as I was never fortunate enough to make it to the country during PRIDE’s heyday.

Upon arriving in the country, the extensive use of surgical masks by everyday citizens is immediately apparent. So prevalent are the masks, I was told one particular UFC 144 fighter briefly considered using one as a prop during his pre-fight walk-in.

At the airport, arriving internationals with “concerns of health problems” are asked to voluntarily subject themselves to a brief quarantine. I assumed they didn’t mean the type of problems an overweight journalist quickly nearing middle age might encounter, so I simply exited through customs.

For the media, both foreign and domestic, fight week started on Wednesday, where Tokyo’s famed Harajuku neighborhood played host to UFC 144’s open weigh-ins. Packed into a miniscule (by American standards) workout studio at Gold’s Gym, I quickly learned that some Japanese traditions are based in practicality. We removed our shoes to enter the workout studio, which seemed fair enough, until I realized that I would then be spending the next five hours standing barefoot on a hardwood floor.

Now, I realize in terms of physical feats, five hours barefoot on hardwood probably doesn’t merit a mention in the Guinness Book of World Records, but it’s not exactly comfortable. Fortunately, the Japanese have invented the perfect solution to just such a situation: women’s slippers— or at least what I presumed must be women’s slippers based on their dainty size, slim widths, and pointy toes.

As a red-blooded, testosterone-filled American man, I obviously passed on such hideous footwear. Beyond the feminine undertones of the slippers, they were also yellow. Come on. Who would wear such a thing? Me, after about three hours. And once I put them on—heels hanging off the back and toes crunched in the front—I realized I should have done it far sooner.

Ironically, I faced a similar challenge back at the studio apartment that I’d secured for the week (the one tucked into a non-descript block building that looked just like a million others in Tokyo, save for the big-ass animated crab mounted above the awning of the building across the street—thank you for the landmark, random seafood restaurant). After traveling across the Pacific Ocean and going immediately to work at the pre-event workouts, a hot shower was in order. Unfortunately, for those unfamiliar with the inner workings of hot water in a Japanese apartment, you need either a degree in engineering or an incredible stroke of luck to determine how to access said valued resource. I had neither, but YouTube provided my reprieve from an icy cold dousing.

Thank you, kklein25, whoever you are.

I’m not sure what possessed this gentlemen to put together a near-six minute video on the inner workings of a hot-water system, but he is a saint. Five years and some 15,000 views after he first uploaded his instructional masterpiece, kklein25 saved me from what was essentially going to be an ice bath.

And there it was again. The system made absolutely no sense to me, but once I figured out how to make it work, it made all the sense in the world. In fact, I immediately wondered why we haven’t adapted such a precise and easily adjustable system back in the U.S.

The week went on, and I gradually began to assimilate myself to Tokyo’s style. Don’t stop moving, ever. Do not bother to look both ways when crossing the street—as long as the “WALK” light is on, you should be fine. Drive on the left-hand side of the street (seriously wasn’t expecting that one). Get in and out of the subway car as if your life depends on a speedy transition. Multi-task at every opportunity (I learned that one from the woman who held an umbrella and talked on the phone while bicycling her way to work). Know that 7-Eleven actually has a few incredible food choices. I was actually learning to exist in Japan.

Then came fight night.

The opportunity to attend an event inside Saitama Super Arena is something no true MMA fan should ever pass up. The incredible expanding arena, which has anywhere from 5,000 to near-50,000 seats, stands as a shrine to the glory days of the legendary PRIDE Fighting Championships. As a hardcore fan of the sport, knowing that Emelianenko vs. Cro Cop, Coleman vs. Rua, Cro Cop vs. Barnett, Aoki vs. Hansen, and Sokoudjou vs. Arona, not to mention countless other scraps featuring legends such as Wanderlei Silva, Kazushi Sakuraba, Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, and so many others had taken place in the very same building, it’s hard not to get chills.

The action began at 9:30 a.m. local, and the crowd was a little late arriving. It’s understandable. Saitama is a bit of a trip from downtown Tokyo, and this was a cold, dreary morning complete with a drizzling rain. But after some initial concerns, the building filled out, and nearly 20,000 fans instantly remembered what it was like to host big-time MMA.

However, this was not a PRIDE crowd. The viewing practices seem to have evolved a bit, with the crowd happy to give a few more cheers and boos than before, and not simply waiting for the proper moment to issue unanimous applause. They were more animated, more involved than in those PRIDE glory days. And thankfully, the fighters delivered.

Benson Henderson was sensational in his successful effort to take Frankie Edgar’s UFC Lightweight Title. Mark Hunt and Tim Boetsch had surprising wins that brought the fans to their feet. Anthony Pettis and Issei Tamura delivered incredible finishes. And while he embarrassed himself the day before by weighing 207 pounds, Quinton “Rampage” Jackson provided an incredible moment, entering the arena to the famed PRIDE theme music, bringing the Saitama Super Arena crowd to its feet, clapping in unison, just as if it were 2006 and the once-dominant fight company had never crumbled into oblivion.

But at the end of the day, UFC 144 was unquestionably a UFC event. There were no over-the-top entrance theatrics, no crazy screaming lady, no ref-cams, or repeated yells of “Action!” and “Give up?” This was the traveling road show that the UFC brings from city to city. Maybe it didn’t translate perfectly, but it sure seemed like the Japanese fans figured out how to access the UFC’s hot water.

As I prepared to leave Japan, my fight-night joys—coupled with a week of positive experiences in Japan—left me confident I would have no problems venturing out to meet my friend at the Westin Hotel in search of one final sushi meal. Alas, it was not to be. My taxi driver and I couldn’t get on the same page, and I never did make it to meet my friend. However, the Western Hotel seemed liked a decent place, as did the Washington Hotel. Neither, of course, was where I was trying to go, but in a completely non-American gesture, the taxi driver refused to charge me since he hadn’t taken me to the proper destination. He let me leave without so much as accepting my tip, and I jumped on an express bus for the airport.

As I left Tokyo on Sunday afternoon, bound for Australia via Los Angeles (again, another ridiculous story to save for a different day), I immediately hoped that I’d have another chance to visit Japan. They may still struggle to spell Georges St-Pierre, and I’ll admittedly probably never learn another character outside of “sauce,” but the country still knows how to enjoy a good fight.



I was just minding my own business, taking pictures like a typical western tourist in the middle of Shibuya—the Japanese big brother of Times Square (without the trash on the streets)—when I felt someone tap me on the back. I spun around and saw who else, but Ariel Helwani in the middle of a sea of Japanese people. He was doing the same thing, just taking in this kaleidoscope of humanity.

Shibuya is an amazing place to just sit and enjoy people watching, so that’s what we did, taking some pictures to commemorate the experience. We continued our pictorial until it was time to meet up with Daniel Herbertson, an Australian photographer/journalist and our guide for the evening. We were joined by Esther Lin, another ass-kicking-talented photographer.

Off we went, headed to Kabukicho, the Red Light District. There’s a lot of walking going on in Tokyo, hence the shortage of fat people, and abundance of blisters (I suspect). We wound our way through the back allies of the Red Light District as Daniel led us deep into the well of debauchery. We passed one club that was made to look like the inside of a subway train—full of sexy females dressed like school girls. You can go in, pay a fee, sit next to them, and…well, touch them. And no, although most people won’t believe me, I didn’t go in. Daniel had other plans in mind for us, which did include purring beauties. We continued until arriving at The Cat Café, where for 1000 yen (about $12), you can pet all the kitties you want. Off with our shoes and in we went.

The café had the ambiance of a doctor’s waiting room—thin carpet and fluorescent lights. And there they were, maybe 40 of them, purring, bright eyed and bushy tailed, some being openly petted by those clients that embraced this kind of deviance. Cats…being petted. Daniel had tricked us.

We had walked several miles and passed at least 100 places that offered more sexual healing than Marvin Gaye to get to a place where we could sit down and enjoy a good stroke of a cat. This had to be some sort of Eastern joke that Daniel was playing on us, but my feet needed a rest and they served tea, so we sat… and stroked.

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