Sick and Tired of the Rain by Kris Hartrum
A portrait of MACH Sakurai prior to DREAM 14, in 2010. Published at mma-japan.com and tokyofivebrand.com
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 front of us 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 the hell from it, causing the chain to rattle. It 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 young 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. I consider how awkward it must be to lose yourself in front of a quiet crowd. Maybe he’s numb to it, I think.
“1, 2, 3, jab, jab!” Sakurai works for a round and drops to his knees, comfortably panting and looks up to the ceiling. Sweat runs off his face and onto his jacket, making it reflect the white light above.
Sakurai stands and waves to go again, this time with long Thai pads to work his kicks. He throws jabs and then finishes with a heavy inside leg kick.
“Nice.” The young training partner always says nice just after a combination. “Left, right, knee!” Sakurai grabs the kid’s head, pulls it down and skips into knees that stop just before smashing into him. The sweat on the mats gives off squeaking sounds as they shuffle forward and back, changing angles, all the while dodging the scurrying journalists like so many terrified insects. I’m watching one of the great wairriors of the sport prepare for a fight everyone says he can’t win. I silently chant Sakurai’s name to myself like a kid. MACH moans painfully near the end of the second round, back to his knees and then belches after a big hook. Everyone chuckles.
“Punch-out!” his partner says. Sakurai hunches over and does his best to unleash, snapping the targets like a pistol, grits his teeth in pain and then finishing against the wall, sliding to the floor in a crouch.
“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 is pushing to let everyone to know he wants the win, that he’s very much still a part of this wonderful craft the Japanese call Sougo Kakutougi.
Sakurai throws a head kick, works the body and shoots for a double-leg, dropping the the other guy. He feigns a soccer kick, sprawls and they are wrestling, trying like hell to slip the awkward red and blue gloves around necks and under extremities. Sakurai asks someone at my back if he is allowed to throw elbows in his upcoming bout. Everyone chuckles.
“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 professionally for the first time, submitting the legendary Caol Uno by way of submission, marking the first victory in an 18 fight win streak.
A PR girl comes in wearing a conservative black dress suit and asks everyone to please sit around the far corner of the room, doing her best to keep things moving forward. The interview begins.
On Saturday Hayato MACH Sakurai will fight Strikeforce’s champion in Nick Diaz at DREAM 14 in the Saitama Super arena. Diaz hasn’t lost in 3 years. Sakurai has dropped his last two- a submission and a knockout. Sakurai has not 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.” He speaks directly. 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 jest-fully 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 the Japanese thank you hundreds of times. 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 for 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. Maybe he’s the guy to do it, I think. Maybe not.
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 by the whole subject. For a tense moment he is quiet. He changes gears and asks us how old we are and tells the Australian to 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.”
It is safe to say that Hayato MACH Sakurai is a man of great passion. Whether he wins or loses against Nick Diaz on Saturday, Japan and the fans of mixed martial arts can sleep well knowing there are those who truly give a damn about the future of this beautiful sport. In a lifestyle where you’ve gotta tear yourself to pieces to make a buck, there must be some trace of emotional fire to rage through all those intolerable rainy seasons.
Saturday/May 29th/ 2010
THE CROWD WAS AT AN ALL TIME LOW, having just witnessed Kazushi Sakuraba lose a close decision to Rorion Gracie’s son, Ralek in Saitama Super Arena on the night of DREAM 14. As he made his approach to the bleach-white cage, MACH looked modest and focused on the prize that was the defeat of his opponent, Nick Diaz . Touching gloves, he inhaled and released heavily. 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 everyone edging over the seats in front of them. The STRIKEFORCE king stumbled and was dazed. Witnessing what he believed to be his golden moment, Sakurai shot in for a double leg, landing both of them into 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 white netting. Diaz worked, tied 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.”