Okami's eyes remain on prize
Middleweight Yushin Okami has won eight of 10 bouts since coming to UFC in 2006
Losses to Rich Franklin and Chael Sonnen each torpedoed title shots for Okami
Japanese MMA has gotten a bad rap but Okami embodies the best of east and west
All too quietly Yushin Okami has established himself as the most successful Japanese mixed martial artist inside the UFC.
Having won eight of 10 bouts since joining the promotion in 2006, Okami's résumé easily bests those of Tsuyoshi Kohsaka (3-3), Caol Uno (3-5-2), et al. Though not where it counts most, at least as Uno, who twice fought for UFC titles, goes. And that's why, despite the fact Okami's countrymen haven't approached his success in the Octagon, the 29-year-old middleweight remains unsatisfied with his career.
"I never became a champion," Okami said Wednesday evening over the phone and through a translator from his hotel room in San Diego, where the UFC will promote a night of fights on the Versus network on Sunday. "I know that I'm not a complete fighter. So I must keep winning."
More to the point, he must keep winning when it matters most.
Twice the large middleweight, a rare Japanese fighter because he sweats off significant water to make his division's limit, failed when it meant setting himself up for a title shot. That's why Rich Franklin tasted Anderson Silva's knees again in 2007. Why, in part, Chael Sonnen, who outpointed Okami last fall, will fight Silva on Aug. 7 for the UFC middleweight title. And it's certainly the reason Okami has been tasked with fighting powerful wrestler Mark Munoz at the San Diego Sports Arena on Sunday.
"I know aggression works really good for Munoz," Okami said of the 32-year-old slugger. "But he needs more factors than that to win the fight. I'm going to keep applying a lot of pressure on him. I'm not going to let him show his aggression in the fight. I need to create my pace by using my striking and not allow him to use his ground-and-pound."
At a time when Japanese MMA is maligned in most quarters as lower-tier fare, especially in the wake of lightweight Shinya Aoki's weak effort against Gilbert Melendez last April, Okami stands out, even if he's mostly anonymous in his home country.
"Aoki is a great fighter, but he really wasn't prepared for the fight in terms of fighting in a foreign country and fighting in a cage," said Gen Isono, Okami's training partner, teammate, coach and translator. "It is not a good time to make a final decision about Japanese MMA."
Of the many reasons Okami believes he's thrived stateside, understanding and embracing inherent differences between eastern and western MMA is at the top of the list. And for that he can thank Isono, who retired in 2004 after just two fights, the last a stoppage loss in England.
"I think it is simply a factor of most Japanese fighters don't understand the difference in environment between the U.S. and Japan," Okami said. "In my case, I fought several fights in foreign countries. I had experience fighting in foreign countries before fighting in UFC. It's a big difference. And there is another difference in how to win in Japan or UFC. It's a different system of judging. The fighters need to understand everything."
Isono, who remembers Okami (24-5) as very young and very talented when they first met at the Wajutsu Keishukai Dojo in Tokyo nine years ago, made it a point to teach Okami to think about succeeding beyond the borders of ring-based MMA, which these days is more the exception than the rule. For Okami's seventh fight he travelled to Moscow in October 2003 to meet Amar Suloev in an M-1 event. He was stopped late in the first round. Nine months later, after two rebound wins in Japan, Okami dropped a tight split decision to Falaniko Vitale in Honolulu. Back home he was one of the few top Japanese prospects to eschew Pride, which was thriving at its promotional height. Okami instead competed in the only cage-based event in the country, the largely unknown GCM-promoted D.O.G. cards.
In 2006 he returned to Honololu for the best caged tournament in years, joining, among others, Anderson Silva, Jake Shields, Carlos Condit and Frank Trigg. Okami's first opponent: Silva -- who went on later that year to capture the UFC title. Midway through the opening round, Silva pasted Okami with an upkick, a clear foul that resulted in a disqualification loss in a fight that was going the Brazilian's way. To this day Silva bristles whenever Okami's name comes up. In advance of Sunday's fight, the 34-year-old champion is said to have told Munoz, whom he trains with, that he won't have any trouble handling, according to SI.com's rankings, the eighth-best 185-pounder.
"Anderson knows me, but it was five years ago so I've improved a lot," Okami said. "Anderson will understand how I am right now after he watches my fight."
Okami's tournament run in '06 ended when Shields grappled him to a majority decision, but he did well enough to step into the UFC late that summer. Four years gone, he hasn't fought anywhere else. And doesn't want to.
"My goal is to be the champion of UFC," Okami said. "I never think about fighting in Japan and I'm happy with it."
As economic realities of the Japanese fight scene make it less likely young athletes can justify a career in MMA -- since Pride's demise in 2007, Isono's gym, for example, has suffered from a sagging interest among kids that would have previously considered the sport -- Japan's current crop of names have matriculated to the UFC. Joining Okami on Sunday is the much better known Pride lightweight champion Takanori Gomi, who failed to win his first UFC test against Kenny Florian in March and would appear to need a big turnaround at this stage of his career.
"I have sympathy for other Japanese fighters, of course," Okami said. "We always help each other. Sometimes we train together or give advice to each other."
Blame it on a style that can be sometimes slow. Or those failures in No. 1-contender fights. Okami has not received the credit he surely deserves for a quality UFC run. But should he get past Munoz (8-1) -- no guarantee against an aggressive fighter known as the "The Filipino Wrecking Machine" -- Okami wants "to fight for the No. 1 contendership next. I'd like to fight with Vitor Belfort."
And then, maybe with the volume raised, that elusive championship.
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