Turning Japanese Mayhem Gets Lost In Translation

As a man with the fi tting name “Mayhem,” I sometimes have to live up to my moniker, and part of that entails making irrational decisions from time to time. For example, when my training partner, “King” Mo Lawal, competed in the Sengoku event on November 1st, in Tokyo, I of course attended as his corner man. That isn’t very irrational, it’s actually the opposite. The irrational parts came after Mo fi nished his fi ght in the third round by TKO. As the rest of the team was getting on the bus to the airport, I said, “Ya know what? I’m gonna stay.” My friends, laughed and said, “Ok, good ruck.” So I stayed. For a month.

Now, although I am currently retired, I love fi ghting. I love it, so I couldn’t stay away from the gym. And since I have taken on as “big brother”—or ainiki, as the Japanese say—the last man to beat Anderson Silva, Ryo “The Piranha” Chonan, I have an instant pass to all the gyms I could want to visit in Tokyo. First stop is the famous Rikix Kickboxing gym, in Oomachi. Riding the train from Gotanda, Chonan tells me in his broken but very understandable English about his sensei (teacher), Riki Onodera, including his wins in tournaments against Thai guys with unpronounceable names like Anuwat Kaewsamrit. The sound of the train mixes crazily with the neon lights rushing by—signs for Pachinko Parlors and Kirin beer—and signs in the train telling you not to talk on your phone. In fact, except for me and Chonan talking, the packed train is completely silent. A city of people, stuffed one on top of another, not talking at all. It’s evening rush hour, so along with two fi ghters and all their smelly kickboxing gear are loads of businessmen and super cool rock-star-looking dudes intermingled with high fashion girls with Louis Vuitton bags and thigh-high stocking boots . “Asshole,” Chonan says, one of his favorite words that I taught him during his recent six-month training trip to America. I’m lost in those stocking boots, and he’s already gotten off the train to change to another line. We get on the next train and he tells me, “Number one left hook, Riki.”

After a walk down a street in a suburban neighborhood, the streets fi lled with 100-Yen shops, old guys walking their dogs, and vending machines that have both hot and cold coffee, we get to an unassuming storefront with a small sign that says, “Rikix – No Kick, No Life,” and all the lights are off. “Maybe closed, Chonan.” “Asshole,” he grumbles and walks down the stairs into a basement, where I can hear the familiar sounds of jump rope, bag work, and timer bells. What is unfamiliar is the smell. Mixed in with the normal musk of a murky downstairs gym is that of incense. Inside, the small gym is packed with tough guys working hard, and a pair of young kids sparring particularly hard in the middle of the fl oor. I see, right by a barely open sliding glass door, the incense burning, fi lling the hot and humid gym with a bit of smoke.

After changing into kickboxing attire, we jumped rope with giant heavy cords. I learn that this is what they use in Thailand. After 16 straight minutes of jumping and beating my toes pink with this lead rope, I wrap up my hands and began shadowboxing. It’s at about this time that a freshfaced, dare I say handsome, Japanese man appeared and corrected my form. Broken English and gesturing made it clear what he was trying to say: My form was off. And when he goes to demonstrate a left hook on the bag for another student, it was clear—this is Riki. SPACK! SPACK! His left hook cracks the bag as a lanky but stronglooking, tanned Japanese kid who just fi nished sparring looks on, waiting for his turn to try the technique.

“Go bag” barked my ainiki, who pointed to my gloves, and I fell into line, doing my normal combinations until the baby-faced left-hook guy pulled me aside, wearing some mitts that looked like they were older than he was, “Jaba, straight-o, hook-ah,” he called out. I’m doing the time-tested American form that, hell, I think my dad taught me when I was in grade school. “No, no, hook-ah like a, a…” Then a look to Chonan with a rattling of Japanese, apparently asking for some English help, and a slapping motion. “Smack,” Chonan says. “Like a smack.” Riki adds, “Rike a smack!” I try. THUNK, THUNK, THUNK on the pads, Riki correcting me at every eighth or ninth incorrect attempt, occasionally nodding his head in approval, but mostly shaking it in dismay, until he fi nally sends me to the bag. He then works with Chonan, who snaps the hook with a Toyota Prius-like effi ciency. More pads, more watching, more workout. THUNK, THUNK, THUNK. On the bag, twoand three-minute rounds of a left hook. Just a left hook. Then more shadowboxing. The incense has stopped, and now the horribly humid gym is mostly cleared out, and I’m left hooking into a mirror. Thirty minutes later, I’m still left hooking into a mirror. “You sprinkler,” Chonan laughs, pointing at the mirror, now covered in sprinkles of my sweat. “Go shower, go eat!”

After dropping off some baggage, and a train ride to a station with another unpronounceable name, we come to a restaurant, me chasing Chonan, as usual, in a sea of Japanese people walking back and forth in every direction. “We go smo restaurant.” “What the hell is a smo restaurant? What is smo?” I ask, worried that I’m going to be stuck eating noodles again, “You know, smo! Smo! Smo!” “No dude, I don’t.” “Asshole.” At the front of the place there’s an old guy cooking chicken on the street, skewers of beef, stuff I could really eat. And when we go in, standing right in front of me, with menus in his hand like he was working at TGIFridays, is a reallife Sumo wrestler. Hair, robe, and I’m sure underneath is the underwear. “SU-mo! Oh, Sumo Restaurant!” “Yeah, I say, many times, SMO! Ass…” Interrupting him, “I know, man. I got it.” We head up a fl ight of stairs to a room with sliding wooden doors and low tables and cushions on a tatamicovered fl oor—legit. I mean this is like a movie. Sitting at our table, down the way from me, is one of my childhood heroes, Tsuyoshi Kosaka. I think I peed in my pants a little bit.

Being the only gaijin (foreigner) around was something I was getting used to, but not understanding much of anything that was being said was getting frustrating. The wait staff hustle in and out of our private room, which has grown increasingly small due to all the fi ghters crowded around the low table, and the Japanese banter is fl ying back and forth faster than ever. Finally, after a big hit of laughter, Chonan explains: “He cherry boy! Ha, ha!” “Huh?” After a quick consultation with his electronic dictionary and another hearty laugh, “VIRGIN!” The shy young fi ghter obviously knows that English word, and cowers down laughing at the end of the table. Later, more drinks, more food, more fun, and a strange sushi-looking plate comes out that, after taking a bite, I learn is horse meat. Sorry cowboys, horse is delicious. The main dish is a soup called chanko, which is fi lled with meat and vegetables, perfect for sumos or a room full of Japanese MMA fi ghters (save one American). More drinks, more loud Japanese yelling, and UFC vet Michi spills Chanko on his foot, causing him to tear his sock off and everyone to crack up. The cherry boy is taking more and more abuse, and is eventually forced to strip down, in a culturally unexplainable phenomenon. Everyone is now laughing hysterically, throwing things at the poor bastard until they got bored with it, and he puts his undies back on. Glad I wasn’t an up-and-comer in Japan. After a while, in our paper-and-wood box of laughs, Hideko Yoshida arrives, emitting the coolness of someone on face lotion ads all over Tokyo. Seriously, he’s on face lotion ads all over Tokyo. We shake hands, and I feel like I’m rubbing shoulders with the Yakuza. Except instead of an underground network of criminals, it’s an above ground network of fi ghters, headed by a Judo champ, and national hero. As I sat in awe for a moment, somehow the cherry boy was naked again, getting assorted things thrown at him, and a waitress opens the door wide, sees the nakedness, and slams the door shut. In any language that is hilarious.

The room agrees. After the laughter dies down, Yoshida invites us down to Yoshida Dojo the next day.

Yoshida is busy with his new baby, but we get to train with the crew, which is increasingly excited about me being there; so I have some of the craziest sparring sessions one could have, with some of the most excited young fi ghters in Japan. One who is especially enthusiastic unexpectedly knees me in the face during grappling, giving me a nice bruise to walk around Tokyo with. Moments later, I crush this less experienced guy with my specialty, “the sleeper,” which Americans call the “rear naked choke.” After practice, the room disperses, and I work on the left hook in the mirror. Left hook, left hook, left hook. Over, and over, and over. The young kids watch this, and begin doing their own post-workout workouts, some that look too hard for anyone, including a whole set of body weight exercises that includes picking a partner up from the guard, climbing around a partner like a monkey while he stands there like a tree, and squatting with a partner on your shoulders. We are all satisfi ed and dead tired, but I pull the young guys aside and point out the intricacies of my “sleeper hold,” so that they can now use it. They thank me the best they can without knowing the English words, but I got it. That night, we go again to Rikix. And this time Riki, holding the pads, was a tiny bit better. SPACK! went my hook, and Riki’s face lit up. “So, so, so!” Which is the Japanese equivalent to “Yeah, that’s it!” But the next few hooks, THUNK THUNK, and back to the face of dismay I was used to. Back to the bag, where I worked on it again, getting the occasional SPACK, but mostly THUNKS.

The weeks go by, and more and more left hooks. Sometimes I’m having dreams about them in my tiny rented weekly apartment, the kind the Japanese call a “mansion.” I mean, this place is a broom closet, but everyone keeps calling it a mansion, making me worry about how small THEIR places are. Since the Tokyo landscape is fi lled with buildings, many places have no direct sunlight, and my mansion is no exception. The sunlight is choked out of my entire building, so it’s hard to tell what time it is without leaving for the train station. I feel like Batman, living in a tower in Gotham city, except when I look out the window I don’t see the Joker, I see an alley where people ride their bikes and a Pachinko parlor (basically a Japanese slot machine casino) where drunk and now broke businessmen occasionally stumble out the door, cigarettes dangling from their mouths. The weeks pass by like this… training every day, and being confused about what to eat every night. When I’m alone, I go to “Mos Burger” to try to have something American-tasting without going to “Macadonordo’s” (how they say it). I really get used to the lifestyle of Tokyo: riding the train at all hours of the day; the schoolgirls giggling; the super cool rock star-looking dudes; the occasional woman in a kimono; and the loud, brightly clothed hip hop kids with sunglasses at 11 P.M. And people referring to 11 P.M. as “23 ocrock.” I get used to it all, and can even communicate in Japanese somewhat, which blow’s everyone’s mind, including my own. It’s time for me to head back to America, so I start packing up my mansion in preparation for the exodus, from being a stranger in a strange land to being a strange person in a familiar land.

On the last day of training, we walk down the familiar dark stairs of Rikix and change into our gear. It is late on a Saturday night. Noticeably absent is Riki. I want to say bye to the handsome bastard, and thank him for all his help with my training. “Chonan, where is Riki?” I shout across the small gym. “No coming, Riki, his teacher… there,” pointing to a guy outside on the spiral staircase smoking a cigarette, maybe 50, with a bushy moustache, a military fl attop, and the hard face of someone who has chopped off someone’s fi nger for dishonoring the clan. “Looking Yakuza, but no Yakuza,” Chonan clarifi es. I laugh. After my warm-up and some shadowboxing, the Yak-boss calls me over, holding a pair of hand pads that look even more ancient than Riki’s. Through some broken English that he must have learned from foreign boxers that have come through Japan, he starts to take me through some pad work. Pop, pop, SPACK, my one-two-three hits the pads, singing a sweet song. Pop, pop, SPACK again. He calls for a four-punch combo, and I let it go, pop, pop, SPACK, thunk. The round ends. Chonan comes by to check on me, and after they confer in Japanese, Chonan translates, “He say hook number one good, uppa-cut, uh, shit.”

I guess that’s one thing that wasn’t lost in translation. I also guess that I’m glad that I decided to stay behind and live in Japan for a month. It gave me a whole new perspective on life, training, learning from the “big brothers” of the world, and paying it forward to the little brothers of the world. It almost makes me not want to go back to America, and instead just stay here in my broom-closet mansion and train for a few more months. But I’ve got other adventures to get into, and I can hear Chonan coming up the stairs. “Let’s go, asshole!”

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