CHULA VISTA, Calif. – It's hard enough to get in a cage and fight another man for money on live TV when everything back home is nice and safe and boring.
But this weekend Shinya Aoki
and Tatsuya Kawajiri
will have to do it while their homeland is in a state of disarray and the future of MMA in Japan looks increasingly grim.
The two Japanese fighters on Saturday night's Strikeforce: Diaz vs. Daley
fight card left a country still suffering from the effects of massive earthquake and tsunami damage, but their reactions to the situation back home – at least while in the public eye – have so far proved to be as wildly different as their personalities.
A stone-faced Kawajiri showed up to Wednesday's open workouts sporting shorts and t-shirt labeled with the simple message, 'Pray for Japan.'
Where he lives, in the Ibaraki prefecture along the island's eastern coast, damage was extensive and staying focused on preparing for his title fight with lightweight champ Gilbert Melendez
wasn't always easy, he said.
"In the beginning I lost my concentration a little bit, but I had friends who helped me train and work out," Kawajiri said, via a translator. "We're still getting light earthquakes, and water's cut off. We're lacking gasoline, and for a while food was hard to get. Things have gotten better day by day. I have friends who helped me train and workout, and now I am in the best shape. Now I'm concentrated on the fight."
But while the stoic Kawajiri did his best to draw attention to the seriousness of the situation, Aoki, who fights Lyle Beerbohm
on Saturday night, smiled and shrugged it off, insisting in English that the disaster in Japan was "no problem."
"He lives in Tokyo," Aoki's translator interjected in an attempt to explain the contrast between his reaction and Kawajiri's. "Kawajiri's place was much closer to the actual damage."
The difference between the two countrymen isn't simply a regional one, however. Aoki -- at once playful and indifferent -- seemed as if he were being intentionally difficult at times, giving one-word answers to some questions and refusing to take others seriously.
For instance, when asked what he learned after his first experience in the cage last April, Aoki said, through his translator, "I learned how to solve the jetlag problem; I came two days earlier this time."
As for what's holding MMA back in his homeland, Aoki responded simply: "Japan: no money. USA: lot of money."
Simple, direct, and not necessarily inaccurate.
Kawajiri, on the other hand, seemed to be taking every issue a little more seriously. He showed up to the workouts with an entourage in tow, and spent a few minutes hitting mitts in the cage that was set up inside the Alliance MMA gym. Before leaving, Kawajiri and his coach climbed back in the cage so they could practice the start of the fight several times, walking towards each other from opposite sides and then starting all over again, just to get the feel of the surroundings.
While Kawajiri said he was intentionally not making himself a representative for all of Japanese MMA, as Aoki did before he faced Melendez, he acknowledged that the outcome of the title fight will likely decide whether his future is back home in Japan or here in the U.S.
"I don't think about being a representative of Japanese MMA, but for me personally it is very important to beat Gilbert Melendez and become the champion," Kawajiri said. "I don't think I'm auditioning for the UFC, but I do always think about the UFC lightweight fighters. I want to make sure I'm in the field with the UFC lightweights as the best lightweight fighters in the world."
Aoki? He did very little in the way of an actual workout on Wednesday, and his enthusiasm for staking his claim in American MMA with this fight was slightly more muted, to say the least.
"If that is so, I will be happy," he said and shrugged. "If this opens the gates to the UFC, I will be happy."
In these uncertain times, maybe it's best to take it one step at a time.