Sick and Tired of the Rain

06 May 2022


A portrait of the fighter MACH Sakurai prior to DREAM 14, in 2010. Originally published at

Monday, May 24th, 2010

The MACH dojo is a small rectangular room on the bottom floor of a short building North of Shinjuku at the Sugamo train stop. It is a damp afternoon. There are piles of shoes, sandals and boots scattered under the awning of the gym and spilling out into the wet street. It has just finished raining. Two older Japanese journalists stand at the door looking up at the sky talking about the weather.

“It’s not going to stop raining,” one of them says.

Today the iconic Hayato “MACH” Sakurai is doing a live training session and press conference at his gym in Tokyo, Japan. It is a one room gym with low ceilings. The floor is bright yellow padding and the soft walls are lined with beat-up training equipment, photos of fighters and popular Japanese animated characters. A signed picture of Kinikuman, a popular wrestling comic book hero sits above the glass doorway. It is quiet. I am talking to a young, attractive interpreter about Sakurai’s mood as of late. He has been grumpy, apparently, from having to cut weight.

“He hates cutting weight,” she says. “Makes him testy.”

The photographers set up cameras and audio equipment, waiting for the fighter to emerge from the tiny bathroom. Keiichi Sasahara and other top DREAM executives walk around typing into their mobile phones. They look anxious. Sakurai steps in taping his worn knuckles, dressed in a black sweat-suit. He’s still got a few pounds to lose. He’s wearing the usual Sakurai expression on his face- a blend of irritated and cool.

At 34, Sakurai has the demeanor of a man’s man. He is brusque, and looks durable as he saunters in, firing short punches that cut the air. Sakurai calls himself MACH after Hayato MACH, the first Japanese pro wrestler to embrace Mexican lucha libre fighting. To say that MMA and pro wrestling are connected in this country is an understatement.

The journalists crouch in a half circle around one corner of the room. MACH makes his way to the blue, hanging heavy bag and knocks it around. The rattling chain is unnerving.

He pulls on his gloves, biting the straps to tighten them. Young men stand behind the press in shorts and Sakurai t-shirts waiting for any inkling that they might be of help. You get the feeling that MACH gets what he wants.

“Where are you from?” Sakurai asks, and motions to one of the few foreign photographers in the room.

“Australia,” the man answers.

Sakurai nods and bounces on the balls of his feet, clearly enjoying the short exchange in English. His training partner picks up focus mits and they circle.

“1, 2, body!” the younger guy calls out. Sakurai obliges, fluidly tagging the old black targets. Cameras beep and click.

Between combinations MACH eyes the press.

“1, 2, 3, jab, jab!” Sakurai works for a round and drops to his knees, casually panting, and looks at the ceiling. Sweat runs off his face and onto his jacket. It reflects the white light from above.

Sakurai stands and waves at his trainer to go again. This time with long Thai pads to work his kicks. He throws combinations and finishes with a heavy inside leg kick.

“Nice.” The young training partner always says “nice” just after a slick combo.

“Left, right, knee!” Sakurai grabs the coach’s head, pulls it down and skips into knees that stop just before smashing through the guy. The mats squeak as they shuffle forward and back, dodging the scurrying journalists, like terrified insects.

MACH moans painfully near the end of the second round, back to his knees and then belches after a big hook. Everyone chuckles.

We watch one of the greats prepare for a fight everyone says he can’t win. I silently chant Sakurai’s name to myself like a kid.

“Punch-out!” the coach says. Sakurai lurches forward and does his best to unleash, snapping the targets like a pistol. He finishes against the wall, and slides to the floor, crouching.

“Who is that guy?” he asks, looking at someone who clearly trains at his gym. “Can he bring me some water?”

He is asked if he wants to keep going, or if he’s done. “Mo sukoshi,” he says. “A little more.” They grab sparring gear.

I smile at the Australian photographer and the translator. I’m excited. MACH looks different. He wants to look good for us. He’s pushing to let us all know he wants to win, that he’s very much still a part of the fight game we call Sougo Kakutougi.

Sakurai throws a head kick, works the body and shoots for a double-leg, dropping the sparring paartner. He feigns a soccer kick, falls and starts wrestling.

Sakurai asks someone if he is allowed to throw elbows in the upcoming bout. Everyone laughs again.

“Only to the body,” someone says.

Sakurai stops and rolls over onto his back, breathing heavily.

“I’m tired,” he says.

It’s impossible to disregard Hayato Sakurai’s colorful presence. He is cocky, but charming…the kind of guy you’d want backing you up in a scrap. His career is a long one. In 1996 he fought for the first time, submitting the legendary Caol Uno by way of submission. It marked the first victory in an 18 fight win streak for Sakurai.

A PR girl comes in and asks everyone to please sit around the far corner of the room, doing her best to keep things moving forward. The open workout is finished.

On May 29th, Hayato MACH Sakurai will fight the Strikeforce champion Nick Diaz at the Saitama Super Arena. Diaz hasn’t lost in 3 years. MACH lost his last two fights and hasn’t fought in a cage since 2002. Saturday’s fight will be in one.

“How will you prepare for the Diaz fight?” someone asks.

“I’ve never prepared for an individual game in my life,” he answers. “I’ve never cared what others are doing or thinking.”

I believe him.

Scratching his head, he tells us that all he’s done is sleep, eat and train. He’s been in the states with longtime trainer and friend, Matt Hume.

“I wanted to see all my other friends while I was over there, but I was too exhausted. I was dead every night.”

When asked about his current condition Sakurai jestfully tells us that these days he can’t remember everything, that his heart-rate is slowing.

“I can really feel my fight age, you know?”

From 1996 to 2001, Sakurai hadn’t lost for 20 professional fights. He won the Shooto middleweight(167 lbs.) belt and defended it 7 times before meeting current UFC champion Anderson Silva, losing a unanimous decision. He was emotionally crushed; down, but not out. During his 47 fight career he competed in Shooto, DEEP, UFC and Pride where he fought a admirable string of comeback fights, including an impressive run in the 2005 Lightweight Grand Prix, losing only in the final bout to (at that time) an insurmountable version of Takanori Gomi.

The questions dwindle to a halt. Sakurai changes into white boxing shorts and poses for the camera. He looks somber, having shed his expected visual confidence. People clear out, exchanging endless arigatos.

Sakurai’s PR girl tells the translator that he’d like to go to the cafe next door to talk a little more. It’s drizzling outside. MACH walks in front of us in the boxing shorts and sandals and a black t-shirt. Young kids stand outside a convenient store smoking cigarettes. They’re looking at him wondering if they should know who he is. Some of them might.

The cafe is old an decorated in the Japanese fashion. It’s nearly empty and we head to the back, the middle aged waitress motioning us to sit down wherever we like. Sakurai downs two glasses of water and then orders an ice tea. His leg is up on the chair and he’s tearing a bit of the paper from his straw-wrapper. We ask him again about how he feels as a fighter with 47 battles behind him.

“There’s no concern for my body now. I should think about things long term,” he says. “No matter what, there will always be another fight. It will never stop if I’m not conscious of it.” He seems slightly miffed about the possibility of his own retirement.

We talk about the condition of the sport in Japan and he does not seem optimistic. According to MACH there are less and less young Japanese standouts.

“Why is Aoki the only good, young fighter from Japan? Everyone else is an old guy. The old guys can’t carry us forever. Something’s gotta change,” he says.

When Hayato Sakurai first entered MMA it was not about money, but about a social rebellion. In a country where conformity is expected, becoming a prize fighter is especially tiresome.

“There’s just not enough money,” he tells us, clenching his jaw. “Spend it on young MMA fighters who are trying to make something with their lives.”

He talks about fighters like Satoshi Ishii coming in from Judo and making more money than anyone else. He is naturally bothered. For a moment he is silent. He changes gears and asks us how old we are and tells us we should train at his gym.

“I’ve got Takafumi Otsuka teaching there now. I need more guys to teach so I don’t have to.” He laughs.

Sakurai stands and yawns, looking through the windows into the street. We shake hands and he walks out the front door and into the greyness of the early evening. The PR girl leans over to us and explains that he’s very edgy.

“Don’t think he is a negative person,” shes says. “He always gets very emotional before a big fight.”


Saturday/May 29th/2010

AT DREAM 14 THE CROWD WAS AT AN ALL TIME LOW, having just witnessed Kazushi Sakuraba lose a close decision to Rorion Gracie’s son Ralek.

As he made his approach to the bleach-white cage, MACH looked modest and focused on the target. Touching gloves, he inhaled and released.

In the early seconds after the bell, Hayato Sakurai smoothly countered the much taller Diaz with two left hooks and then a right. The American, not fairing well in the stand up, caught MACH’s kick and threw him to the mat. Sakurai played it cool and struggled back to his feet, letting go an overhand right that had the crowd on their feet. The STRIKEFORCE king stumbled, seemingly dazed.

Witnessing what he believed to be his golden moment, Sakurai shot in for a double leg, landing the pair on the wall of the cage. With Diaz on the bottom, MACH struggled for dominance in the guard. He looked awkward, being pressed uncomfortably against the cage.

Diaz worked, tying him up with long limbs and locked in an armbar. After clawing for an exit, the 34 year old MACH Sakurai tapped with 1:07 left on the clock. He apologized to the referee for losing and shook his head as Diaz raised an arm in victory. When asked about his retirement, Sakurai could only laugh.

“The darkness,” he said. “The darkness is right in front of me. I’ve just got bad luck.”