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American Dream

Biography of Saiko Shihan Y. Oyama

Chapter 10  - MUAY THAI

Mr. Noguchi owned a boxing gym named Meguro Gym.  He was also a very well-known producer in the entertainment world.  According to Mas Oyama, Mr. Noguchi visited a lot of other Karate dojos before coming to ours in his quest to find prospects for his Muay Thai vs. Karate matches.  However, none of those dojos trained with contact.  Mr. Noguchi heard about Mas Oyama and that his dojo trained with contact.  At that time, the dojo was still in the flimsy, rundown shack in Ikebukuro.  When he saw the building, Mr. Noguchi thought maybe he’d made a mistake.  When he came inside, however, he was mind was completely changed.  To him, our fighting in the dojo looked just like a no-holds-barred street fight.  He believed he’d finally found what he was looking for.  He started talking with Mas Oyama about his multi-million-dollar idea.  It was to be the birth of “Kickboxing” as we know it today.

            The following events are based on my memories.  There may be some people who remember these events differently, but I’m not concerned with them; this is my story.  I’ve tried to be as accurate as possible.  Some memories are a little cloudy regarding exact details.  Others may have changed over time.  But some are chiseled into my mind and are as clear today as they were some 50 years ago.  As I’ve said, there was a void in my life at the dojo after Haruyama left and I was no longer allowed to fight my brother.  Once the excitement was gone, all of the inadequacies of the dojo came into full focus:  The flimsy structure of the building, the shabby interior, the lack of adequate plumbing… it was depressing.  When I was chasing Haruyama and my brother, the dojo was like a palace.  The furnishings seemed better than anything in the Trump Tower.  When Mr. Noguchi brought the idea of Karate vs. Muay Thai, the dojo for me became resurrected.  He was like a character from a Disney movie, transforming the world in an instant; I was like Sleeping Beauty suddenly coming back to life.

            At this time, the Japanese economy was also coming back to life.  The recent invention of the TV was skyrocketing in popularity, which in turn fed the growth of the entertainment industry.  Televised boxing matches were also very popular.  Mr. Noguchi promoted televised boxing matches between Japanese fighters and those from foreign countries, especially from Thailand and Indonesia.  If a Japanese fighter won, it would create a buzz of excitement on a national level.  As a promotor, Mr. Noguchi would travel to Thailand (and other places) to find fighters for his matches.

            Many Muay Thai fighters also competed as boxers.  On one trip to a Muay Thai gym, Mr. Noguchi asked the owners what they thought about a match between Karate and Muay Thai.  According to Mr. Noguchi, they said they could easily handle a Karate fighter—piece of cake.  Mr. Noguchi rose to their challenge and said that he’d find a great Karate man with true Samurai spirit to come and prove them wrong.  Mas Oyama said that when Mr. Noguchi pitched his idea to him, it was about national pride; to show the world the power and spirit of traditional Japanese Budo… That was Mr. Noguchi’s cover story.  His real motivation, Mas Oyama said, was to get rich.  He would agitate both the Japanese and Thai sides, playing one against the other in order to make his event even bigger.  You can see examples of this type of thing in the boxing and (more recently) the MMA world.  A good promotor knows how to generate excitement and spectator interest in a match.  At the time, though, we were so naïve.  We couldn’t understand why he wanted to use us. 

            We didn’t have internet, DVD’s or watch much TV, so we had no idea what Muay Thai was.  Mr. Noguchi told us, “They’re just like you.  They punch and kick and elbow each other, except they wear gloves and shorts.”  We’d never fought with gloves on, just thin strips of cloth over the knuckles to prevent cuts from an opponent’s teeth.  We’d also never used mouthpieces or groin cups.  In dealing with Mr. Noguchi, Mas Oyama was smart, though.  Rather than handle the arrangements himself, Mas Oyama had one of his branch chiefs, Sensei Kurosaki, handle things with Karate vs. Muay Thai matches.  Mas Oyama was actually very busy during this time.  He was working hard on moving the dojo to a new building.  This required a lot of interaction and face time with many businessmen and politicians. 

            Sensei Kurosaki’s dojo was a little outside Tokyo.  Mas Oyama told him to be very careful in dealing with Mr. Noguchi.  “He’s from a different world,” he said.  “He has big stories and big ideas that sound too good to be true—he’s not a regular guy.”  Mr. Noguchi talked about millions of dollars the way the rest of us might talk about a couple dollars; no big deal.  He operated on a different level.  But, I was just a college kid at the time, so I didn’t really care about Mr. Noguchi’s claims or big ideas.  I just wanted to fight.  I had dedicated myself for so long to my training.  This was my chance to prove and test myself and my techniques against these mysterious Muay Thai fighters.  I didn’t really care much about the business side of any of it. 

From Left To Right:  Saiko Shihan, Fujihira, Okada, Sensei Kurosaki

                Mas Oyama selected four of the top young fighters in the dojo to fight in Mr. Noguchi’s matches:  me, Fujihira, Okada and Nakamura.  Sensei Kurosaki was middle-aged, so wasn’t going to fight, but rather be in charge of our training.  Mr. Noguchi arranged our travel to Thailand; we had about 4 months to prepare, so we started training right away.  Sensei Kurosaki brought us 15 oz. gloves, which of course we’d never seen before and had no idea how to put on properly.  We just wore gloves—no mouthpiece or headgear.  Muay Thai fighters only wear shorts, so we practiced shirtless in our dogi pants.  “OK, fight!” Sensei Kurosaki told me and another guy.  My favorite fighting strategy was to crash and get in close.  From there, I would use Soto Uke or Gedan Barai to make my opponent lose balance and follow up with a knee kick.  From there, I would move to the side, grab my opponent and take him down.  But with gloves and no top, this approach didn’t work so well.  We fought for a minute… two minutes… since we’d never used them, the gloves got heavier and heavier, and by the third minute, our hands were at our wastes and we just stood there and wailed on each other.  “So this is it??  This is how to do it??” we wondered.  But it was still exciting.

            Before starting Karate training, I did actually have one experience with fighting with gloves before this.  It happened in junior high school.  One of my friends was a very nice, quiet guy.  He never started trouble with anyone (unlike me, who was always trying to push people around and instigate things).  One day after school, he and I and some other classmates went over to his place.  His father owned a really small boxing gym.  “Hey, let me fight you,” I said when I saw the gloves on the side of the ring.

“Nah,” he said, “let’s not do that.”

            “C’mon, I won’t hurt you,” I told him.  Like I said, I was cocky.  My friend couldn’t resist.  He smiled and we went in the ring and put on the gloves.  They seemed so big!  We could barely see each other’s faces behind the gloves.  We started and my friend started moving around very smoothly.  I just started swinging wildly and pushed him back into the corner.  But he moved and blocked everything easily.  Soon, my arms got tired and my hands dropped.  He punched me in the head.  I raised the gloves high to protect myself, leaving my midsection open—which is where he hit me next.  From then on, I was like his human sandbag.  The classmates watching couldn’t stop laughing.  My friend was a nice guy, so he didn’t beat me up nearly as much as he could’ve.  “Wow, boxing is amazing!” I thought to myself when we finished.  Anyway, back to the story…

            The entire dojo was pumped up about our training for Muay Thai.  Mas Oyama remained cool, but I could it was a big deal for him.  If these matches were successful, it would be great advertisement and take Kyokushin Karate to the next level.  We fought every day to get ready.  Sensei Kurosaki, though, thought we needed more.  He made the case to Mas Oyama that the Muay Thai fighters were professionals.  They made a living from fighting.  If they did fight, they didn’t eat—they were in a different category.  He told Mas Oyama that we needed to have a special training camp for at least a month.  Mas Oyama agreed.  However, none of us had any money for the expenses of a training camp (food, lodging, transportation, etc).  Sensei Kurosaki was in charge of our preparations, so he worked hard to raise money for us.  He had a friend that was able to provide a place for us in Kinugawa, Tochigi Prefecture.  We were so grateful for everything Sensei Kurosaki did for us.   

From Left To Right:  Saiko Shihan, Okada, Fujihira

            The Muay Thai fights were supposed to happen in the Fall, so we planned to go to our training in mid-Summer.  At the time this was all happening, I was a senior in college.  I had to figure what I was going to do after I graduated.  In order to get into college, students had to study tirelessly in order to pass the entrance exam.  Once in college, though, it wasn’t as important to get straight A’s; average C’s were fine.  A university diploma pretty much guaranteed a white-collar job upon graduation.  For most people in my position, getting a position with a big company was the obvious choice.  It would mean that I would wake up at 6:00 a.m. every morning and eat a quick breakfast and join millions of people on the subway for the morning commute.  There are so many people that ride the Tokyo subways, rail cars and commuter trains during rush hour that the rail system employs workers to push as many people as possible into the trains at each station.  People travel smothered together like a month’s work of clothes that someone has tried to cram in an overnight bag (international news outlets like CNN periodically feature stories about just how chaotic and overcrowded the rush hour commune is in Tokyo).  At the office, I would be expected to work overtime all the time like the other workaholics… I couldn’t imagine myself doing that.    

            I had done one type of job or another ever since I was in junior high school.  As I mentioned before, it was just me and my mother.  She worked multiple jobs to support us, and when I was old enough, I started working too.  My first job was as a newspaper delivery boy when I was 13 years old.  I had a friend in high school who delivered newspapers and helped me get the job.  In those days, deliveries were done on bicycle.  However, there were no child-size bikes.  The only bikes around were big, heavy-duty bikes; nothing like what we have today.  When my friend brought me to meet the supervisors, they wanted to see if I could ride a bike.  I tried to get on the seat, but my feet couldn’t reach the pedals.  I had to put my left foot on the pedal and tilt the bike sideways in order for my right foot to reach the pedal.  To keep the bike upright at an angle, I had to lean my upper body in the opposite direction, forming a triangle shape.  This method of riding a bike is called “Sankaku-Nori”.  A lot of kids used it to be able to get around. 

            The supervisors didn’t think I could do it, but I managed to pedal the bike down the street at a normal pace in this position.  When I got back to them, they were surprised at how coordinated I was to be able to do it.  They were also laughing.  “You don’t need to deliver newspapers,” one of them said, “you can just get a job with the circus.”  I couldn’t tell if he was joking or not, so I assured him that I really needed the job delivering papers, not in the circus.  Although they were impressed with my bike riding technique, the supervisors were worried that I wouldn’t be able to go uphill that way.  I wanted the job, so I told them to give me a chance.  I started pedaling uphill.  It was impossible to go uphill in a straight line, though, so I had to zigzag my way uphill.  After that, the supervisors were still reluctant, but my friend pleaded on my behalf and in the end, they agreed to hire me for a one-week trial period.

            I had to wake up at 4:00 a.m. every morning.  We didn’t have an alarm clock, so I would tie a long string to my big toe and hang the other end out of the window.  Every morning, my friend would come and yank on the string, and that’s how I woke up.  In the winter, it was really cold.  Of course, we didn’t have gloves, so I’d use a pair of socks to cover my hands on the bike.  Once I started pedaling, though, I would quickly warm up.  That was my first job.  After that job, I worked as a painter, and when I got a little older, I washed dishes at a restaurant.  In high school and college, I moved up to waiter.  In college, I also worked night shift doing road construction.  I became very good with a jack hammer.  I had to divide my time between school and work in order to make ends meet for my mother and I.  I knew that if I pursued fighting in Thailand, it would put a strain on our financial situation.  I wouldn’t be able to train as much as I needed to and work at the same time.  When I discussed it with my mother, she was so supportive and told me that I could take 6 months to pursue it and train as hard as I could. 

            At the training camp, we would wake up early in the morning.  I can still vividly remember the beautiful sunrises by the river at the camp.  I’d never seen anything like it in Tokyo.  The rich color of the clouds and sky created a sense of awe within me.  I had such a strong emotional response.  I felt like I was challenging myself and doing something really important.  We would jog every morning and also do sprints and various jumping exercises.  After that we’d rest and practice our combinations in the late morning.  In the afternoon, we’d spar with headgear and gloves.  We also wore mouthpieces.  We’d never trained with mouthpieces, so at first we had a hard time breathing with them in, so would end up spitting them out.  Sometimes we’d just practice punching, sometimes just kicking and sometimes everything.  One time when we were practicing punching with the gloves, Fujihira hit me with a clean shot across the left side of my jaw.  Afterwards, I noticed that the right side of my jaw, not the left, was in pain.  That was very interesting to me.

            Every day, at least one of us had trouble with having been hit in the jaw.  It made chewing food very difficult, so we’d mash up everything and put it in a soup and try to drink it down.  But we were so excited and trained hard every day.  Through practice, we got to where we started understanding how to fight with gloves.  At first, we would just punch each other in the face.  When one of us got hit in the face, since we were still new at it, our tempers would flare up.  When that happened, all technical considerations went out the window; we’d just swing at the other person as hard as possible, trying to pay them back twice over.  Getting so worked up like that eventually caused us to lose balance mentally and physically.  We quickly realized that there was no way to fight at a professional level with this mindset.  (Interestingly, whenever we added kick techniques to the fight training, things seemed to go smoother and we remained calmer).

            In order to get to the next level, we had to figure out what was important to keep in mind when fighting in this new way.  Losing our tempers and taking big swings at the other guy’s head made our movements easy to read and also tired us out quickly.  We realized that at a professional level, it was extremely important to not change our Kamae during the course of the fight.  Big, easy to read swings didn’t work, so we had to figure out how to set-up our strong techniques with other ones.  We realized that Ago Uchi (Jab) was an essential tool for this.  Ago Uchi could be used to set up combinations of other, stronger hand techniques such as Seiken (straight punch), Mawashi Uchi (big swing), Furi Uchi (hook), and Shita Zuki (uppercut).  We also figured out that if we missed with a punch, we could immediately follow up with Enpi (elbow strike).  After hitting walls and learning through experience, we made a lot of improvement.  Where we had gotten tired quickly by swinging wildly in the beginning, we could now go easily for 3 or 5 minutes at a time.  Through training, I figured out how to adapt my in-close fighting strategy to fighting with gloves.  I began incorporating elbow strikes from different angles in addition to sharp hand techniques and knee kicks.

            When we returned to Tokyo from our training camp, everyone back at the dojo was anxious to see our progress.  Students at the dojo were used to fighting with full contact (including eye pokes, face slaps, groin kicks), but the way the four of us fought after the training camp seemed much more polished and professional than it had been before we left.  During one class, I fought against a very strong young Brown Belt.  He had his eyes set on reaching Black Belt in the near future, so was training extremely hard.  For me, he was the perfect partner to try out my new fighting style on.  During our fight, I used my lead Ago Uchi.  He returned with a hard reverse punch.  I blocked it with my left arm and immediately followed up with a left elbow strike to his jaw.  He fell in a heap to the floor.  People being knocked out in the dojo was nothing new, but nobody had seen it done with an elbow strike.  Even Mas Oyama was excited.  After the training camp, the four of us, the Four Samurai, were so pumped up.  Everyone in the dojo was too and couldn’t wait to see our real professional fights.