With about a month and a half to go before UFC Fight Night Japan 2017, excitement for the mixed martial art event is building up. At the Carpe Diem fighting gym in Mita, we caught up with one of the UFC’s most popular athletes, as well as two of the Japanese fighters who will be on the card come September 23.
Following his win over Jose Aldo in Rio on June 3, Hawaiian-born Max Holloway (18 wins, 3 losses, 0 draws) has taken up the UFC featherweight title. So it should come as no surprise that the 25-year-old was brimming with confidence, and happy to have silenced the naysayers: “People said that I couldn’t compete with the guy [Aldo], and said that I couldn’t win the fight, and they ultimately said that I couldn’t even compete with the guy. And then they said that I was out of my mind to fight him in Rio, where he’s the country hero. So it feels great to hush the critics.”
Holloway has been in town to help promote the the upcoming Fight Night, which will be held at Saitama Super Arena, but he also took the time to visit the sumo stable of his fellow Hawaiian, Musashimaru: “I got to see the sumo wrestlers doing their thing. That was great. Musashimaru and Konishiki were there. And they’re both from my side of the island, the west side of Oahu. We actually had five Hawaii West Side guys in the building. One of Musashimaru’s nephews sumos for him. Toks, one of my friends is there, and Konishiki and Musashi … it was awesome. A bunch of Hawaii guys here in Japan.”
Most signs point to Holloway facing former lightweight champion and currently number two ranked featherweight Frankie Edgar in his first title defense, but Holloway jokingly said he would be willing to take on both Edgar and the top ranked Cub Swanson in a tag team handicap match. He didn’t rule out the possibility of taking on Conor McGregor, who’s currently preparing for his highly publicized boxing matchup against Floyd Mayweather Jr. Holloway lost to McGregor by unanimous decision in August of 2013 and Holloway hasn’t dropped a fight since. Regardless of who he takes on in the near or distant future, he only wants to show fight fans one thing: “I want to show them a dominant champion … Just show that this is my division, and no one is going to take it from me.”
More soft-spoken, but no less confident is Daichi Abe (5-0-0), a welterweight who will be fighting Hyun Gyu Lim (13-6-1) at Fight Night. Abe has fought in the Pancrase MMA fighting promotion, but he has recently been training at HMC Academy in Honolulu to help him become more successful against crafty Western fighters: “Western fighters are definitely more aggressive. Japanese fighters tend to be more straightforward – they have a style and a form that you can predict. With Western fighters, it’s much harder to know where an attack is going to come from. That’s the reason that I train overseas.” One of the other benefits of training at HMC is that his coaches have exposed him to new cross-training approaches, including surfing, all of which have helped the 25-year-old improve his overall strength and made him a more effective fighter.
In Lim, Abe knows that he faces a taller fighter with an impressive reach. He tells fans to expect a “very competitive, striking fight.” When asked what he thinks that needs to happen to make the UFC more popular, and his answer is simple: “They need a star. There needs to be someone who people can really admire, and want to become like them. That’s what I want to become for Japanese MMA fans.”
Equally ready for the UFC limelight is Syuri Kondo (13-1-0 shoot boxing/kickboxing, 5-0-0 MMA). The half Japanese, half Filipino fighter has a long and varied background in fighting sports, having launched her career as a female pro wrestler in 2008. She began her shoot boxing career a year later, started kickboxing in 2011, and moved into MMA under the Pancrase promotion last year, all while continuing to wrestle.
She’ll be facing Chan-Mi Jeon on September 23, and she already has her game plan prepared: “[Jeon’s] a really good striker, and she’s tall, so she has a good reach. I’m planning to watch that range. In the first round, I really want to assess what she’s capable of, and dodge her strikes. Once I can take her down, I should be able to grind it out.”
The 28-year-old straw-weight has gone from strength to strength over the course of her multifaceted career, and she’s looking to succeed in the UFC as well: “I’m really happy that I got this contract. I’m looking forward to winning this fight, obviously. Ultimately, my goal is to become a champion. I want to be that star that people look up to.”