World-renowned tattoo artist Ami James has been traveling to various Asian countries for the past several months with his partners in crime, fellow ink junkies Chris Nunez and Yoji Harada, to document the tattoo culture for his upcoming television series, Worldwide Tribe, slated to premiere on the Travel Channel at the top of the year.
But this past April, James and company took a break from filming to attend the M-1 Global Challenge in Tokyo. Though they were treated to a special exhibition submission match between WAMMA Heavyweight Champ Fedor Emelianenko and WAMMA Lightweight Champ Shinya Aoki — a bout Emelianenko won — the clean-shaven tattooist was more excited about the fights between Team South Korea and Team USA West.
“It was awesome! I was really surprised to see how the Koreans are establishing themselves,” the 37-year-old says, despite their losing effort. “If it wasn’t [for] the Americans’ wrestling background, they would have gotten slaughtered on the stand-up. I could see the Koreans coming up so fucking fast. I can’t wait to see what they look like in the next couple of years if they get a good wrestling coach. Their stand-up game was sick!”
James loves mixed martial arts so much that it actually kills him inside. Despite being the face of Miami Ink and co-owning Love Hate Tattoos, Love Hate Lounge, and DeVille Clothing, there’s a hole in Ami’s soul that has eaten away at him for the past decade. “There were a lot of things that didn’t work out for me, I guess,” he solemnly says. “I just regretted that I didn’t try to go pro as a fighter.”
Licensed professional or not, James always possessed a warrior’s heart. Born in Tel Aviv, Israel, to a low-income family who couldn’t afford selfdefense lessons, the only formal training James received was at 11 years old when the local police academy taught boxing to the youth. Six months later, the program was cancelled.
He relocated to Miami the following year with his mother and brother, and wrestled in junior high school. But this rebel teen was more concerned about hitting people in the face rather than hitting the books. James realized he lacked discipline, so at 17 he decided to enlist in the Israeli military because, as he puts it, “I couldn’t think of anything better than to go to the homeland and get myself in the army.”
Given the civil unrest with the surrounding Arab world, soldiers have to be extra careful. Though James admits it was “pretty crazy at times,” he gained discipline as a sniper for the Israeli Defense Forces.
After completing his service 3 years later, he returned to Florida, started his apprenticeship at Tattoos By Lou, and, apparently, caused anarchy in the streets of Miami. During that time in the early 90s, James was a 145-pound wrecking ball of hostility. Despite his scrawniness, he would get into brawls night after night, estimating that he was arrested 30 times in a 2-year period.
“I wasn’t really much into picking fights. I just never backed away from one,” he explains. “When you’re in the bar getting drunk with a bunch of people, there’s always a douchebag that wants to pick a fight, and I just love to fight. I was waiting for that stupid fucking guy who is either gonna kick my ass or I’m gonna kick his, and at times I did get my ass kicked, too, so I’m not pretending like I was a tough guy. I was just a stupid fucking kid that had nobody to direct him in the right way.”
In 1994, James received direction when he stepped into what is now called South Florida Boxing by exchanging free boxing lessons with an older trainer for free inkage in return. After learning the basics, he tested his skills in the ring and got a reality check. “I was trying to spar [with a boxer], and when you’re just a street brawler, you’ll get your ass kicked. It’s a whole different ball game,”the tattooist says. “I was getting beat up every fucking day, every time I tried to step into the ring with guys who knew what they were doing, and that kinda spun everything out.”
Nevertheless, James was hooked on the sweet science. In fact, he moved from the night shift to the day shift just so he could leave for the gym every day at 6 o’clock and spend the next 3 hours refining his art.
Two years later he was introduced to mixed martial arts when some Jiu-Jitsu wizards walked into the gym decked out in gis. Though James didn’t take their Brazilian-based fighting style seriously at first, he learned the hard way that is was effective. “I was like, ‘There is no way this guy is gonna get me on the ground ’cause I’m gonna hit him,’ ” he says, remembering his first sparring session with a submission ace. “Before you know it, the guy shot on me, and in 2 seconds, he choked me out. I was sold.”
James added Jiu-Jitsu to his skill set and, though he utilized his newfound submission talent by choking out an opponent within a matter of seconds in his lone amateur bout back in ’98, he dreamed of competing in Shooto. Luckily, he had a friend who booked American fighters for the organization, so the plan was to relocate to Japan for 6 months to tattoo, train at one of the more established dojos, and debut in Shooto.
Unfortunately, his plans crashed and burned. “I was literally there for a month when I was tattooing this girl in the tattoo shop and I fucking threw my back out. I ended up going to the emergency room, and I was in the emergency room for 4 days,” he vividly recalls, still shaken by the experience. “They took me to do acupuncture, and I spent about a week in the fetal position. I couldn’t train. My lower back deteriorated until my muscles were [like] a 4-year-old’s. It was really horrible.” James went back to the gym shortly after returning to Miami, but 5 minutes of rolling caused him to go to bed with an agglomeration of ice packs. His training sessions would be replaced with frequent visits to the chiropractor, and he practically had a 4-year-absence from the gym.
He was extremely irritable, and that animosity snuck onto the episodes of Miami Ink. But in 2004 Ricardo Liborio, co-owner of American Top Team, walked into the tattoo shop, befriended the ink junkie, and invited him to train at the Coconut Creek gym.
When James practiced Jiu-Jitsu at their facility for the first time, he did so in a gi – it was an intricate transition for him. “[I was] killed by guys who had been rolling round with a gi for 2 years,” he says. “At one point, I was doing it for seven years [with] no gi every day, and, all of a sudden, you’re getting grabbed and pulled by your gi. It definitely gave me a new perspective of the game. It was a lot more like a chess game rather than slipping and knowing what you can do when you don’t have the gi.”
Between his hectic schedule and the time-consuming trek from Miami to Coconut Creek, it was difficult for the tattoo artist to train consistently. Fortunately, close friends Marcus Aurelio and Thiago Alves traveled to Miami to work with him, and James ended up forming a family bond with Alves, stating, “Thiago is like my little brother. He’s over at my house every couple of days and we spends tons of hours talking. That kid is all gold.”
James maintains a strong relationship with everyone from American Top Team. He talks to Liborio every week (and got yelled at for tatting Alves so close to his fight with GSP at UFC 100), and even co-promoted an event with the Coconut Creek gym called Premier X-Treme Combat in December 2007, which featured ATT talent like current WEC Featherweight Champion Mike Brown, Micah Miller, and Rafael Dias. Although they haven’t thrown an event since, James would be open to it. “I can’t
say it’s gonna happen anytime soon,” he admits, “but it’s something I’d be interested in doing again.”
While he still experiences soreness in his back and neck that will never go away, and though the dream of fighting professionally has passed him by, it’s something he no longer regrets. Nowadays he doesn’t train to compete on a pro level. He does it for his well-being.
“It’s really funny because I don’t enjoy fighting like I enjoyed it when I was young. Call it a lack of testosterone or call it what it is, but to let out all those frustrations and stress, nothing in the world works better than hitting the bag or rolling around, or sparring. Nothing in the world will give you that same high, and that’s what was missing,” he says.
“I always felt like I just wanted to fight, but then I realized all I wanted was to find that calmness inside that was never there unless I did that three hours at the gym beating myself up. When I wasn’t doing it, it was building inside of me like poison. I was constantly pissed off and constantly unhappy, and there was poison inside that I had to let out. That’s probably the best thing that being in the gym fighting could do for you. It’s not about the fight for me. It was letting out the poison.”