UFC 100 will see the promotional debut of one of Zuffa’s biggest ever MMA signings. The funny part is almost no one watching will care. Yoshihiro ‘Sexyama’ Akiyama is the definition of “big in Japan” and unlike Spinal Tap, he doesn’t have a decade’s worth of hits here statewide.
He’s easily the most popular Japanese fighter to fight in the U.S. for an American promotion in the history of modern MMA. Dave Meltzer explains:
… Akiyama is, with the exception of only Kid Yamamoto, the biggest television ratings draw of Japanese MMA fighters, he is also hated in the country.
Akiyama has a strange dichotomy, because as much as he’s hated in Japan, he’s loved in South Korea, as the country’s current martial arts hero. At this point there are no plans to run live events in South Korea, but UFC does have television in that country and Akiyama on its roster greatly bolsters its standing.
As our own Luke Thomas said at the time of Sexyama’s signing, this isn’t about the U.S. audience. Sexyama is a Trojan Horse to help the UFC sneak into the Japanese market. He’s also a huge draw in South Korea (we’ll get to why in a minute), where the UFC has been making serious headway. If Sexyama can string together a series of wins and earn a title shot, don’t be shocked if the UFC suddenly gets serious about putting on a show in South Korea or Japan.
Meltzer also worries that Sexyama has never recovered from a KO via illegal kick to the face:
After Akiyama was knocked out cold on December 31, 2007, by Kazuo Misaki, he has not been the same fighter. He is slower to react, which is the kiss of death against top competition.
Fighting Entertainment Group, the promotion behind K-1 in Japan, was well aware of this, putting him against two non-fighters in his only matches this past year. Unless his reflexes suddenly snap back to pre-knockout levels, UFC is paying big money for a fighter who may very well be shot.
The UFC is putting that proposition to the test immediately. Rather than sheltering their big signing, they’re throwing him in against Alan Belcher. Belcher is the kind of opponent managers hate. He’s dangerous enough to have beaten Denis Kang and Jorge Santiago but erratic enough to have losses to Jason Day and Kendall Grove.
Beating Belcher doesn’t really get you anywhere and he’s a very real threat to beat anyone by KO or submission. If Sexyama beats Belcher, particularly if its in convincing fashion, we’ll know he’s got real potential to make an impact in the UFC.
Style-wise, Sexyama is very different than Karo Parisyan, the judoka with whom UFC fans are most familiar. He’s won plenty of fights by submission, but doesn’t have much of a track record of using high-flying throws in the MMA ring.
Instead he’s often fought more like another judoka who’s beginning to break out in the U.S.: Hector Lombard. Like the Cuban Olympian, Sexyama often uses his top-flight Judo skills to keep things standing or get top position where he can bring the power of his fists to bear.
If Sexyama is at 100% and not shot as Meltzer fears, we shouldn’t be surprised to see him stay on his feet with Belcher and even get the KO.
If Sexyama can deliver the goods in the Octagon, American fans are still likely to miss why he’s such a big deal in Japan. There are two reasons. First, he’s of Korean descent but is a fourth generation Japanese. His Korean name is Choo Sung-Hoon. That might not sound like a big deal here in the U.S., but in Japan that means he’s very much an ethnic underdog. More on this in the full entry. Secondly, he’s been involved in two of the most controversial No Contests in Japanese MMA history.
Sergio Non talked to Sexyama about his perception in Japan:
That said, how much does it bother you to be viewed as a villain in Japan?
It’s something that is created in Japan, and I accepts it as a fact. There’s nothing I can do at this point.
More on these controversies in the full entry, plus enough fight videos to waste your whole evening.
Photo via www.sherdog.com
On the issue of his ethnicity, from Sherdog:
“I think a lot of people tend to focus too much on nationality, and when they try to assert or put me into either category [Korean or Japanese], I’m saddened by it,” he says. “A lot of ‘Zainichi’ Koreans (ethnic Koreans living in Japan) feel the same way — where they don’t know if they’re Korean or if they’re Japanese.”
Like many ethnic Koreans born, raised and living in Japan, Akiyama has dealt with the difficulties of fitting into two cultures, under constant scrutiny and with little room for foreign inclusivity; the consequences can be seen in his struggles in judo and MMA over the past eight years. Nevertheless — unlike his harshest critics and detractors — he harbors no bitterness; that allows him to reconcile and appreciate both identities.
“I often get this question from fans asking, ‘Which do you like better: Japan or Korea?’ Or if it’s a Korea versus Japan game, ‘Which side do you support?’” Akiyama says. “And it’s an extremely difficult question because it’s like asking, ‘Which parent do you like better, your mother or your father?’
And on the controversies, first the “Greasegate” against Kazushi Sakuraba, the most legendary and beloved Japanese MMA fighter of all time. From Sherdog:
MMA welcomed the New Year with intense controversy, as Akiyama defeated the iconic Sakuraba in the main event of K-1’s Premium 2006 Dynamite!! However, contention raged immediately after the bout, from every angle imaginable.
Sakuraba was seen to have repeatedly yelled to Yoshinori Umeki that Akiyama was excessively slippery, as Akiyama defended repeated takedown attempts from “The Gracie Hunter.”
In regards to whether Akiyama had used any lubricants or oils on his body before entering the ring, the inquiry revealed that while Akiyama had not intentionally applied any substances such as Vaseline or Thai oil, he had applied a skin moisturizer beforehand, for cosmetic purposes.
Stating simply that he had dry skin, a noticeably upset Akiyama told the media that while he understood substances such as petroleum jellies and Thai oils were prohibited, he thought that his use of a commercial skin cream was allowed. Akiyama said he accepts that he made a mistake, and offered a public apology to Sakuraba while also stating that he would like to face him again.
Then there’s the fight that saw Sexyama take the damage that Meltzer believes may have destroyed his reflexes. Again from Sherdog:
Following a review of the Dec. 31 bout between Yoshihiro Akiyama (Pictures) and Kazuo Misaki (Pictures), the Yarennoka executive committee has ruled the fight a No Contest.
The match ended when Akiyama was knocked out with a vicious kick to the face as he attempted to scramble to his feet. Following the bout, there was much debate whether the decisive blow had been illegal.
Akiyama’s camp launched a formal protest, and last week Yarennoka executive Keiichi Sasahara said his committee would formally review the bout.
This piece from Fight Opinion gets into more of the ugliness that went on after Misaki seemingly won the fight and took the microphone:
However, people think the aftermath was too excessive. It seems like ijime (a media lynching). Many people guess it is because he is Korean-Japanese. We easily see threads saying, “Fuck Akiyama, liar. Grease, grease, go to Korea” on Japanese web sites. Of course, good Japanese people don’t act like this and it may be excessive generalization.
Last night, Kazuo Misaki insulted Choo Sung-Hoon in front of a big crowd and on live television.
“Akiyama, you betrayed so many people and little kids in the ring. I cannot unforgive you. But, after tonight’s match with you, your heart reached me. After tonight, you should fight with a deep apology in mind for people.” Motioning to the crowd, Misaki asked, “Would you support? Judo is the best! Everybody, Japanese is strong!”
Why does Misaki unforgive Choo? Why does Misaki dishonor Choo?
“Judo is the best!” is Choo’s famous catch-phrase. It seems Misaki jeered Choo by using it. He said, “Japanese is strong!” Some people here in South Korea feel that this is disgraceful to zainichi (Korean-Japanese) because Choo is already Japanese.
And now, the videos:
Beef – Volume 3: A Japanese Conflict – Akiyama x Misaki
Uploaded by GenghisCon.
Akiyama vs Denis Kang
Sexyama vs Melvin Manhoef:
Sexyama vs Nagata (watch for the spinning kick finish)
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