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American Dream

Biography of Saiko Shihan Y. Oyama

Chapter 11  - MUAY THAI - Part 2

After the training camp, the four of us were more than ready.  We’d gotten comfortable fighting with gloves and using elbow and knee strikes with other techniques.  Mas Oyama, Sensei Kurosaki and everyone else at the dojo was excited.  However, Mr. Noguchi soon informed us that the fights had been postponed.  We were shocked.  He didn’t give any explanation, just said there was a delay.  To stay ready, we kept on with our training and preparations.  One day shortly after news of the postponement, we overheard Mas Oyama talking to Sensei Kurosaki at the dojo.  We weren’t trying to ease drop, but it was during class and the dojo was so small that we couldn’t help but overhear.  Mas Oyama told Sensei Kurosaki that in light of the delays, he should be very cautious in dealing with Mr. Noguchi and shouldn’t count on anything he says.

            After class, the four of us Samurai discussed it with each other; were these matches still going to happen?  Maybe it was just some kind of normal business delay.  After all, we didn’t have any experience with this kind of stuff.  The fights were rescheduled, but guess what?... They were postponed again.  By the third time they were postponed, it was already close to the New Year holiday season.  Our spirits were deflated.  Even Sensei Kurosaki said that he had serious doubts that it was going to happen.  Maybe they chickened out or maybe it wasn’t the big business opportunity Mr. Noguchi had hoped for.

            Whereas we had been training every day, it eventually became five times a week, then four, then three.  Eventually we stopped training together as we had been.  Instead, Sensei Kurosaki said we should just keep up our training on our own.  It was really hard to find any motivation training by myself.  I needed a partner, someone to push me.  Then one day, Mr. Noguchi invited us to his boxing gym in Meguro town.  The gym was called “Meguro Gym”.  He said he had a couple of Muay Thai fighters from Thailand that were training there.  We all got excited, even Sensei Kurosaki.  We had never even seen pictures, much less video of Muay Thay fighters.  So we jumped at the chance to go and fight with the Muay Thai fighters at Meguro Gym.

            The date for the Meguro Gym fights was set and we trained hard for again for a couple weeks beforehand.  Sensei Kurosaki drove us in his old car.  It was a white Karona (known as “Carolla” today).  At one point, a nice car with three young cocky guys in suits started tailgating us.  Sensei Kurosaki was just driving normally, not slow, but they kept riding up behind us and honking.  “Maybe we need a warm up fight before we get to the gym,” Sensei Kurosaki said as he looked in the rearview mirror.  He slowed down and pulled over on the side of the road.  The other car came and parked behind us.  Sensei Kurosaki got out, as did the three guys from the other car.  The came up to confront Sensei Kurosaki, but when the rest of us got out of the car too, they stopped and changed their minds.  We were all pumped up and ready to fight, but they hurried back to their car and drove off.  “Oh well, so much for a warm-up fight,” Sensei Kurosaki shrugged.

            Meguro Gym was in a residential area.  We parked on the street and went up the three or four steps that led to a narrow walkway to the front door.  We were greeted by Mr. Noguchi’s younger brother, who was a trainer at the gym (of course Mr. Noguchi hadn’t shown up yet).  The brother was completely different than Mr. Noguchi.  He was very polite and humble.  The gym was about the size of our dojo, but in much better condition; all of the windows still had glass and the floor and walls didn’t look like they would collapse at any moment.  Two sandbags hung from the ceiling to the right of the entrance.  Beyond those was a boxing ring that was a little smaller than a regulation-sized ring.  Opposite of that was a changing room, which included a shower area.  The shower was a hose that hung from the ceiling over a small metal tub that you could stand in to wash off.

            We changed into our dogis and started warming up.  Mr. Noguchi still hadn’t shown up.  About 45 minutes later, he finally came.  As he nonchalantly sat in a chair, his younger brother came and kneeled at his feet to speak to him.  I couldn’t believe it; there was something wrong with Mr. Noguchi’s world.  Everyone around him treated him like he was a god or some high lord from the 16th century.  His brother addressed him with absolute deference.  He used extremely polite language and chose his words very carefully.  I could never imagine talking to my brother that way. 

            “Where are the fighters?” Sensei Kurosaki asked Mr. Noguchi.

            “They’re just finishing dinner now, they’ll be here in a second,” Mr. Noguchi replied casually. 

            “They’re eating dinner before fighting!?”

“Yeah, they’ll be fine.  Don’t worry about it.”  Sensei Kurosaki was shocked.  So were the rest of us.  There’s no way we could imagine ourselves eating dinner before a fight.  It was a huge insult to us.  By having dinner before fighting, Mr. Noguchi and his Muay Thai guys were sending the message that we were nothing special, that they could beat us easily, even after they’d just eaten dinner.

            There was a little hallway from the gym that led to a house behind it.  We could hear two guys coming in from there.  They strolled in wearing shorts and no tops.  They were picking their teeth with toothpicks and joking and talking loudly in what I assumed was Thai.  I was so mad.  I saw Sensei Kurosaki’s face getting redder and redder.  The two Muay Thai fighters put on their gloves and start warming up casually.  The whole time, they didn’t even look at us.  One of the guys was a little taller than me.  He was going to fight first.  “Yasuhiko,” Sensei Kurosaki said to me, “you go ahead.”  In all of my Karate history, that moment was one of my few gold medal moments.  I felt so proud that Sensei Kurosaki chose me to fight first.

            “Full speed and power?” I asked him.

            “Yeah, go ahead,” he answered with a smile.  When I entered the ring, the Muay Thai fighter burped.  It made me mad all over again.  Mr. Noguchi’s brother stepped in the ring to act as the referee.  When the fight started, I began moving around and using my lead hand.  The Muay Thai fighter’s expression was a little more serious as he began moving around.  I did a front snap kick (Mae Geri) with my lead left foot and followed up immediately with a lead hand jab (Ago Uchi).  He blocked the snap kick and the jab caused him to sway back.  After that, I brought my right knee up as if to do another snap kick.  When he went to block it, I brought my knee out to the side and did a Jodan Mawashi Geri (roundhouse kick to the head) and hit him in the temple with the ball of my foot.  That sent him back into the ropes.  I used pushed in with my right hand Soto Uke, moved to the side and delivered a left knee kick (Hiza Geri) deep into his stomach.  The impact of my knee caused all of his dinner to come exploding out onto the mat.  I moved quickly out of the way to keep from getting it on me.  Sensei Kurosaki burst out laughing.  Mr. Noguchi was shocked.  That was the end of the fight.

          Afterward, Fujihira fought with a different guy.  Nakamura fought with a Japanese boxer (just boxing).  The Japanese boxer was a strawweight; very skinny and about half the size of Nakamura.  Every time Nakamura punched him, he went flying back.  We dominated everyone in Mr. Noguchi’s gym.  He lost a lot of face that night.  However, he was a businessman, so as we were leaving, he congratulated us on how well we did and how we had upheld the honor and pride of Japanese Budo (Martial Arts) and Kyokushin Karate. 

            We were so pumped up on the way back home.  We’d finally gotten to fight.  We felt that we could handle the Muay Thai fighters, and that made us excited.  Mr. Noguchi told Sensei Kurosaki that we’d be going soon to Thailand.  But, once again, it was postponed.  Sensei Kurosaki began wondering if maybe it was all just some big joke.  At the end of the year, Sensei Kurosaki called all of us and said that Mr. Noguchi wanted to take us all out to dinner at a fancy Chinese restaurant in Shinbashi town, near the neighborhood of Tokyo.  Everything in this area is very upscale; totally different than the world we were used to.  We all met at the restaurant at the time Mr. Noguchi had said, but he wasn’t there.  We were shown to our table, which was in a VIP room separate from the main dining area.  All of us, including Sensei Kurosaki, were impressed.  The waiter brought us tea, but we were all eager to eat.  Sensei Kurosaki had told us to come hungry, so we’d skipped lunch.  Twenty minutes passed.  Then thirty… forty-five minutes… an hour.  Still no sign of Mr. Noguchi. 

            Just as we were considering leaving, he finally showed up.  Accompanying him was a stunningly beautiful woman.  This woman treated Mr. Noguchi like a king—by the way she spoke to him and did everything for him.  He took out a cigarette (in those days almost everyone smoked) and a Dunhill lighter.  I remember the lighter very clearly because it was an extremely valuable lighter.  Only real high-class people had Dunhill lighters.  The woman took the lighter and lit Mr. Noguchi’s cigarette.

            “You can have this if you want it,” he said, offering Sensei Kurosaki the lighter.  Of course neither Sensei Kurosaki nor the rest of us smoked, but a Dunhill lighter was still a very valuable thing to have.

            “No, I don’t need it,” Sensei Kurosaki said.  (After we left the restaurant, we asked him why he’d refused something so valuable.  He told us that he didn’t want to be in a habit of accepting gifts from Mr. Noguchi—it was a very slippery slope.)  Mr. Noguchi ordered us a lot of nice food.  He apologized that the Muay Thai fights had kept getting postponed.  He said he had a lot of other big business ventures going that demanded his time.  We only half listened to him, we were so focused on eating all the great food.

            I was getting close to graduating from college and had to really decide about my future and finding a job.  After the last postponement, I decided I couldn’t commit to kickboxing anymore.  Okada was in the same boat, so both he and I had to stop.  Looking back, I have a lot of great memories of my Muay Thai training.  Even though, I didn’t end up getting to go to Thailand, I still benefited tremendously from the training and was proud of myself.  I was particularly proud of the moment during the training camp that Sensei Kurosaki told me to slow down, that I was training too much.  He never said that to anyone; that’s how hard I was training.  I felt proud of myself at Meguro Gym when Sensei Kurosaki chose me to fight first and how I was able to put everything I’d been working on to use in that fight.

           I have a couple other “gold medal moments” in my Karate history connected to this period of time.  Before the International Kyokushin Karate 1st Open World Championship, Sensei Kurosaki and three other people were discussing the all-time top Kyokushin fighters for a magazine article.  Sensei Kurosaki named me and said that no matter who I fought, I could read them and use my own strategy.  When Mas Oyama saw me fighting in the dojo and using Enpi (elbow strikes) after the training camp, he said that I was a genius of fighting.  I’ve never thought of myself as a genius.  But I think that anyone who completely dedicates themselves to training over a long period of time will begin to develop movements and techniques that appear so effortless that people on the outside assume that they must naturally be that way.  When I was at this stage in my training, I could read what my opponent would do two or three techniques ahead.  Split seconds of time seemed to go by in slow motion.  I believe that it is possible for anyone to get to this point if they fight themselves and are dedicated to what they are doing. 

            As I got close to college graduation, I decided that I didn’t want to get a regular white-collar job.  I wanted to be an attorney, perhaps a prosecutor.  In the early spring, just before graduation, I heard that Sensei Kurosaki, Fujihira and Nakamura were finally going to Thailand.  I was surprised because I’d thought it would never happen.  On the day of departure, I went to Haneda International Airport to see them off.  I was standing with Sensei Kurosaki when Mas Oyama approached.  He told Sensei Kurosaki good luck and wished him well.  Then his face became really serious.  “Noguchi is going to try and get you to fight,” he told Sensei Kurosaki, “but, DO NOT FIGHT.  You haven’t trained enough.”  He told Sensei Kurosaki that Mr. Noguchi would try to tease him and bait him into fighting, but that he shouldn’t fall into that trap.

           I was amazed by Mas Oyama and how he could read people so well and accurately.  While Sensei Kurosaki oversaw our training, he didn’t train with us.  He taught us, but didn’t actually participate and prepare himself to fight.  A couple months later, someone contacted me and said they’d be showing the 8mm film of the Muay Thai fights at the dojo.  First were the fights of Fujihira and Nakamura.  They both did a great job.  Next, Sensei Kurosaki stepped in the ring.  “Oh no…” I thought to myself.  His opponent was younger and about a head taller than Sensei Kurosaki and lean and muscular.  Sensei Kurosaki was nearly 40 and nowhere as lean as the other guy.  During the first round, Sensei Kurosaki’s opponent dominated him.  Sensei Kurosaki began swinging wildly, just as we had done early on in our training.  During the first couple rounds, the Muay Thai fighter could have easily ended the match, but for some reason, he didn’t.

           In the 3rd round, Sensei Kurosaki’s arm was damaged by blocking a kick.  The Muay Thai fighter then delivered a left elbow strike to Sensei Kurosaki’s right eye.  Sensei Kurosaki was knocked unconscious to the mat, blood spewing out from the cut above his eye.  He had to be carried off in a stretcher.  Immediately, Mas Oyama’s warning to Sensei Kurosaki at the airport came flooding back to me.  Sensei Kurosaki had been set up.  It wasn’t necessary, for the Muay Thai fighter to do what he did.  He could have easily won in a way that wasn’t so gruesome.  Watching the film gave me a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach.  Mas Oyama always told us that if you’re going to fight someone you don’t know, you should to it in your own ring/territory/comfort zone.  If you are going to fight someone in their ring/territory, you have to research first.  You have to train and train until you feel comfortable with the new environment/rules/circumstances.  If you can’t do that, don’t fight.  However, this wasn’t the end of Sensei Kurosaki’s kickboxing journey.

            A couple years after Thailand, more and more people had TV’s in their homes.  “Kickboxing” had skyrocketed in popularity and was a prime-time event.  One of the top Japanese kickboxers on TV was named S.T.  He was from Mr. Noguchi’s gym.  S.T. had become a huge star in Japan, so out of curiosity, I tuned in to one of his matches.  The match was in a packed arena between S.T. and a Muay Thai fighter.  In the first round, it was even.  In the 2nd and 3rd rounds, the Muay Thai fighter began dominating S.T.  The announcer and commentator and everyone else were on the edges of their seats.  The announcer and commentator would say things like “Is S.T. finally going to be defeated” and “I don’t know how he’s going to come back from this.  Can he do it?”  Towards the end of the final round, S.T. started making a comeback.  Suddenly, he did a jump knee kick and knocked his opponent out.  This was his signature move, called Shinku Tobi Hiza Geri.  Everyone erupted in applause.  It was so dramatic… and obviously a gimmick.  I didn’t buy it for a second.  S.T. used his signature knee kick to end 90% of his matches.  He was so famous—all over TV, magazines and newspapers.  People loved him.  But it was all staged.  Either no one else could tell or they didn’t care, but it made me feel disgusted. 

            In my Karate journey, this period of training for fighting Muay Thai was a very important time for me.  I also want to share this experience with other people.  As I’ve said, these are my memories, my recollections.  Some people may remember things differently, but that’s their business.  After I left the Kyokushin organization, I started writing essays and contributing training advice segments to the magazine Full Contact.  This monthly magazine was very popular in Japan and featured all types of martial arts (i.e. Karate, Jodo, Boxing).  The April 1996 issue (#110) had a picture of S.T. on the cover.  In contained a feature story on the history of kickboxing.  Part of the feature was an interview with Mr. Noguchi.  The following are some excerpts from that interview:

           Noguchi:  “I approached Mas Oyama about forming a kickboxing association… I would bring the Thai fighters and he would provide the Japanese fighters … We were 99% in agreement… but after a little while, he (Mas Oyama) said that the Muay Thai fighters were too strong for them.  If they lost, the Kyokushin organization would lose a lot of face, so he wasn’t going to do it… He said he was sorry to pull out since I’d worked so hard on putting the event together, so he asked if I would take three of his fighters—Kurosaki, Fujihira and Nakamura—and train them.  So I trained those three and took them to Thailand to fight.  Kurosaki lost, but Fujihira and Nakamura won.  After that, I realized that kickboxing was going to be a big hit, so I started training more fighters…”

           When I read his interview, I couldn’t believe it!  He was saying this in a very well-established magazine.  I wasn’t present for conversations between Mr. Noguchi and Mas Oyama, but I know for sure that Mas Oyama never, Never, NEVER said that he thought Muay Thai was too strong for Kyokushin.  He also NEVER asked Mr. Noguchi (or anyone else) to teach his fighters.  None of us ever trained with Mr. Noguchi.  We never got any training advice or tips from him; the only thing he gave us was talk of big business opportunities.  President Trump now talks about “fake news” all the time.  But, 50 years ago, Mr. Noguchi really was full of fake news.  I will say that I agree he did a lot to build up the popularity of kickboxing.  But everything he says, I disagree with 100%.

            I understand that a new organization/venture needs a big star.  That’s what he did with S.T.  But people who really train can see right through what was going on in his matches.  How can he realistically finish 90% of his matches with the same signature technique—Shinku Tobi Hiza Geri?  I’m not saying that the fights were fixed, but there is a big, BIG, BIG question mark hanging over them.  After I watched his fight, I didn’t have any respect for him.  There was nothing inspiring or exciting about his matches—they were just insulting to me and everyone else who has dedicated themselves to Karate training.  Like I said, these are my memories, my experiences.  Perhaps I’m wrong… but this is what I know to be true.

            A couple years after S.T. and kickboxing became popular, Sensei Kurosaki opened Meijiro Kickboxing Gym.  He produced real champions.  His student, Fujiwara, was the first non-Thai fighter to become Muay Thai champion in Thailand in over 500 years of the sport’s history.  Fujihra (who adopted the ring name “Noburu Osawa”) was another Muay Thai champion from Meijiro Gym.  While still part of the Kyokushin organization, Sensei Kurosaki taught in Holland for a year.  After he’d established the great reputation of Meijiro Gym in Japan, someone in Holland connected to Sensei Kurosaki (perhaps a former student) opened a Meijiro Gym in Holland.  I’m not sure what their arrangement was, but it was because of Sensei Kurosaki’s strong reputation for producing high quality fighters that the Dutch wanted to use the name too.  The Meijiro Gym in Holland is still active and it still has a reputation for producing world-class fighters.  As Sensei Kurosaki’s fighters gained more and more success and made Meijiro Gym famous, Mr. Noguchi’s gym and S.T. began to fade away.  It was Sensei Kurosaki who introduced real kickboxing to Japan and the world.  As I said, these are my memories and recollections.  I’m not concerned with anyone else who has a different opinion.  Following in the footsteps of Sensei Kurosaki, there are many former Kyokushin members who have gone on to open kickboxing gyms that top fighters and there are some who have become successful promotors of in the kickboxing world.   

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