Masato flirted with the idea of after winning his first MAX fight in 2000 and again after winning his first MAX championship in 2003. His peculiar timing in announcing his retirement on April 1 sent internet message boards into meltdown with speculation as to whether it was for real or a FEG April Fools joke. But the solemnity in his eyes and the truthful pitch of his voice indicated to all in attendance that day this time Masato was definitely set to hang up the gloves.
"An athlete can choose his own timing for retirement," said Masato, causing a lump to well in most every fan's throat. "There are three ways to (determine that timing). He can lose early in his career and give up on himself. He can enjoy the sport for as long as he can. Thirdly, he can quit when he is at the top level and at his strongest. I choose the third one."
Always a man in control of his own destiny, Masato added: "I want to be cool at any time."
With those well-constructed words succinctly explaining his reason for retirement, Masato promised to have two more fights and an exhibition match before saying goodbye to the K-1 ring Dec. 31 at Dynamite.
The exhibition portion of his retirement trilogy took place on April 23 in Fukuoka where Masato fought a three-minute exhibition match with the K-1 Under 18 Koshien Champion, Hiroya.
"I think Hiroya is the future of K-1 MAX," Masato said before the bout. "There are many things I want to teach him and I'd like to teach them to him in the ring with my technique. I want to show him the level of technique of the K-1 MAX champion and what level he should aspire to."
The first of Masato's two retirement fights took place on July 13 at the Budokan. The historic venue built for the 1964 Olympic Games and which played host to the Beatles Japanese debut and Muhammed Ali's mixed fight against Antonio Inoki, was the place where Masato last won the MAX Championship in October 2008 and a fitting venue for his final appearance on a K-1 card. That night he took on DREAM MMA star Tatsuya Kawajiri and put such a beating on "The Crusher" that Kawajiri's corner threw in the towel in the second round.
Masato's last fight is set to take place at Dynamite on New Years Eve against two-time MAX Champion and perennial arch-nemesis, Andy Souwer. The match was to have been against the current K-1 MAX Champion Giorgio Petrosian, but when Petrosian announced he had broken his hand in winning he MAX title in October, the runner-up Souwer was given the green light.
Now the stage is set for Masato to go to war for a third time with a man he has failed to beat in two previous outings. To add more juice to the joust, the fight is set for 5 rounds as opposed to the usual 3 rounds under K-1 rules.
Souwer will do no favors for Masato in the Japanese star's retirement fight. Both consummate professionals outside the ring with a marked respect for one another, there is no love lost between Souwer and Masato inside the square circle. Last time they fought in the 2007 MAX final, Souwer picked up where Buakaw and Kyshenko had left off earlier in the night and kicked out Masato's legs for a second-round TKO, handing Souwer his second MAX crown.
The third instalment of the Souwer-Masato rivalry promises to be one for the ages. Both men will come in injury-free and fresh, having never met in single-fight competition before but only ever in the final of the MAX tournament after having fought two fights earlier in the night. Indeed a Masato with fresh legs is a scary prospect, as is a Souwer with no wear and tear. This should shape into a classic battle of styles between Masato's phenomenal hand-speed and blistering combinations, and Souwer's extraordinary kick attacks, liver shots and counter-fighting – even though Souwer says he plans to "punch him in the face."
Masato is adamant that this really is the end of the line for his fighting career. By far and away Japan's most popular professional fighter (along with former boxing world champion Daisuke Naito), at 30 years old he is retiring at the peak of both his popularity and his powers. In true Masato fashion, it's all about going out on a high note and looking your best.
"In 2000, I defeated Morad Sari and announced that my era had come," Masato said recently. "On New Year's Eve, I will knock out Andy Souwer and proclaim that my era has officially come to an end."
Michael Schiavello is a guest columnist and is an announcer for HDNet's MMA coverage. For more information, visit www.hdnetfights.com.