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Hayato 'Mach' Sakurai: If I Become Ordinary, Then I Don't Want to Fight

Once considered the best pound-for-pound fighter in the sport. Defended the Shooto middleweight title seven times. UFC title contender. Pride lightweight GP finalist. Hayato "Mach" Sakurai has 47 fights under his belt in a career dating back to 1996.

Now, Mach is on a two fight losing streak and at Dream.14 he will fight one of the sports elite welterweights in Strikeforce Welterweight Champion Nick Diaz. If he doesn't win this fight, Mach has said that he will retire.

In an exclusive, we sit down with one of the true legends of MMA and discuss the early days, his career and what Mach has planned for Japan when he is finished fighting.

Daniel Herbertson: Welcome back to Japan. How was the flight back?

Hayato Sakurai: The service was disgusting. I got hit by a stewardess. I don't know why but I wasn't treated like a normal customer. I don't know the reason. Do I look weird? Is that why I got hit?

A stewardess hit you?

Actually I got hit by some guy and I got ignored by a stewardess on the flight. I left my bag on a seat and went to the bathroom but someone took my bag. I asked where it was and for security reasons, they took my bag away. They asked me to show them my passport and I don't know why but as they gave my bag back they hit me for no reason. That was the first time I've been hit on a flight.

How was your training camp with Matt Hume in the States? I hope it was more positive.

Everybody was kind of like a dinosaur. It was kind of difficult for me to train with huge guys if I lost too much weight. I was trying not to get killed by the dinosaurs so I decided to lose the weight when I came back to Japan.

You have to train hard there otherwise you will get killed. I think I'm becoming stupid because my brain has been damaged. I forget things a lot and I cant remember things any more.

When this fight was announced you said you were going to retire if you lose. Is it there something special about this fight for you or is it just time?

O. L. D.

... What's that?

Old! (laughs) Really though, it's so many things. I don't want to become stupid from being punched too much.

Are you really concerned about it? You have mentioned that a couple times now.

Now, I'm OK in conversations like this but in the future, I don't know if I'll be able to hold conversations any more.

I have always thought about retirement but it's not everything to me. At this age though, I need to think. I've been punching opponents since I was 17. If I can't show my best then I probably need to quit. I've been thinking that for a long time. It's just a decision that I need to make. My cardio is getting worse as I get older and so is my athletic ability. I try my best in training, 100 percent or even 120 percent. But if I can't show 100 percent in the fight then I need to think about retiring. I said that if am going to retire if I lose but I'll probably need to think about it later.

If you win this fight with Diaz and don't retire...

I can win you know!

No, I'm not saying you can't win. If you decide to continue fighting, what would you like to achieve or do you have any goals left in your career?

There is so much I want to do. There are so many things that I can achieve when I'm fighting and so many things I can achieve when I'm retired.

So in your fighting career, what do you want to achieve?

A lot of things.

Will you be staying at welterweight or will you be going back down to lightweight again?

That's a totally different subject!

But you have a lot of history with lightweight fighters. Is there unfinished business there for you?

You're funny! But yeah, I want to do that. If I continue my career I'll go back down in weight. I was defeated by Gomi... but actually he isn't that good any more is he?

Where do you get your motivation to continue fighting?

I don't want to get beaten up by my opponent. I have to try to beat them up before they beat me up.

If you don't fight though, you won't get beaten up. What is your motivation for taking a fight in the first place?

I've never thought about that... (laughs)

Well why did you start fighting when you were young?

I felt like rebelling against society.

What didn't you like? What were you rebelling against?

Well what do you think, could I be a businessman?

Perhaps not...

I just don't like the way things are. I just like to fight, that's it. I just love fighting. I wanted to kick somebody, punch somebody or choke somebody.

When did that start? In school?

I was beaten up by some of the seniors at school so I wanted to do it too. When I did it though it was a huge problem for some reason. Me and Michi (Michihiro Omigawa) went to the same school and he got suspended.

You were friends in school?

Yeah, and Kazuyuki Miyata too. He was in the same grade in the next class but he never came to school because he was at pachinko (a Japanese form of gambling) all the time. He was in the wrestling club and he would only ever come to school after classes to train wrestling. I never saw him in classes actually.

But anyway, at that age I think I just wanted to explode.

What was it about that school (Tsuchiura Nihon University Secondary School) that made so many top fighters?

Practice was very, very strict. My teachers would beat me to death. The freshman were all beat up by the seniors. There are so many famous fighters from there now. Like (1988 Wrestling Gold Medallist) Takashi Kobayashi.

Where you training with those guys then?

No, I started at Kiguchi Dojo. I didn't know them through fighting then really. Omigawa rented a room near the school and me and Miyata used to hang out there.

You three have all gone your separate ways now. You never train together?

When one of us are in need, we will help the other out.

Just before you went to the UFC you were in a car accident. What was that like?

It was horrible. I had two herniated disks and a broken arm. I was in incredible pain.

What was recovery like? Do you think that it affected your career.

It was really very bad but it was easier to recover when I was younger. Now that I am older the injuries take a lot longer to heal.

Looking back on your career, do you have any favorite fights?

I like them all. They were all fun.

Even the losses? How about the fight with Akihiro Gono on New Year's Eve. What was that like?

I don't like the losses. I deserved that.


Strategy wise he was superior. We couldn't disclose everything, but I was injured. Although, I think he was injured too. I was exhausted going into that fight. My conditioning wasn't there.

What was the injury? Was that the cause of your conditioning problems?

Yeah, once I got injured I couldn't recover because I had to keep training for the fight. I just had no time to rest.

So we shouldn't take that fight as an indication of your current abilities then? That performance isn't the reason you are considering retiring?

I was defeated by Gono and I was defeated in the previous fight as well so my motivation was really low. Why are you so concerned with me retiring?

You said that you were going to retire if you lose, I want to know how serious you were with that comment. You are one of the legends of Japanese MMA so I think it is important.

I can continue to be a legend after I finish fighting too. I want to create a new generation of fighters, but I can't do that while I am fighting. I'd need to focus myself 100 percent on it. I am one of the people who made MMA big, but I have started to lose recently so I am losing my motivation

I really haven't decided if I will continue but my performance in this fight will definitely be an indicator for me.

If I can't be there, in great condition in the fight and I can't show my best, then I would rather show nothing at all. I've been at my peak for a long long time so I know my body. I don't want to be ordinary. If I become ordinary, then I don't want to fight.

What are your plans after you finish fighting then? If you are thinking about retirement you are obviously thinking about what you want to do after you finish fighting.

(In English) Anything, I'll be fine. Something fun! Everyday dancing, singing, alcohol!

Do you want to stay within the MMA community?

Yeah. You know in the past, there was no MMA community in Ibaraki. There is Kawajiri now, but when I started my career there was nothing. But I've become huge in this business so I would like to create something here to help grow the sport and develop up and coming MMA fighters.

Is there a problem with Japanese MMA that you think you need to help with?

Of course! Why is Aoki the only good, young fighter in Japan right now? Aoki is the only young fighter who has distinguished himself and the rest are all old guys. Look in America, there are so many young guys. In Japan, it's just Aoki. How many more years can the old fighters carry Japan?

I'm already old and most of the guys are in their 30's already. There is no one in their 20's who is good.

Aside from Aoki, no one impresses you?

There's no one! Who do you think is good?

How about Katsunori Kikuno or Takafumi Otsuka?

Kikuno? How old is he?


Hmm... That's it though! Before, it was the other way around. All the the good fighters used to be young. Now they are all old and no one has replaced them.

There has to be some program or campaign to create new fighters like The Ultimate Fighter for the UFC. There is nothing to develop fighters. The Ultimate Fighter is really a copy of an older Japanese boxing TV show, and we need that again in Japan for MMA otherwise the level difference between Japan and the rest of the world will become even worse. Japan is going to become weaker and weaker.

You are going to try to start something like that?

I do what I can. I have two gyms. I'm hoping to help fighters make it big. Each person has to work within their own abilities. While I am fighting I am restricted with what I can do but it is not just me, everybody has to help develop this sport. I've had a lot of fights

You know, Randy Couture is older than me but I've had a lot more fights. Everyone says Randy Couture is a great fighter there is no way he could reach the amount of fights that I've had. I have a lot of experience.

You seem frustrated by Japanese MMA.

Of course I am! It's hard for me to speak out loud about this but of course I am! What is with these guys who come from other sports and get so much money to fight. Three times as much money as any MMA fighter! If the MMA community has money like that to spend, they should be spending it on young fighters. Too many young MMA fighters cannot spend the time they need to on training because they need to work to support themselves and that takes too much time away from the gym.

If MMA has so much money for those people from other sports they have to spend it on the younger fighters.

For example, you know that girl Ai Fukuhara? The table tennis player? She is really big in the table tennis world. It would be like her going into tennis and getting three times as much money as Maria Sharapova. But then as soon as she gets that money she quits tennis and goes back to table tennis. You know what I mean?

That's what's happening recently. MMA isn't a part time job for other martial artists.

Are you talking about Judo? Like Satoshi Ishii?

Yes. Ishii, I mean what's that!? Even if he is a gold medalist, why do MMA organizations need to spend so much money just on one fighter? Even if he is good or bad, there are so many more young fighters with real passion and talent. We need to grow all fighters from scratch. Ishii isn't at a professional level but his pay is higher than anyone's.

So you think there should be lower pay for the stars of the sport and that the money should be spread more evenly?

No, the problem that I see is that judo and MMA are totally different sports. For example of GSP came to Japan to fight, then of course it is ok to spend that kind of money. But judo is a completely different sport, why are we investing so much money in a different discipline. This is the current situation of Japanese MMA. We will probably have table tennis players in MMA soon!

They get 10 times more money than anyone else and then disappear.

So you don't believe that we can find fighters in other martial arts?

If they are really trying their best to succeed in MMA, then it's OK but I don't see that with Ishii. If all those guys from other martial arts are looking at MMA like it is something that anyone can do, then it really degrades MMA.

How about Hidehiko Yoshida? He was a crossover athlete from judo.

He did his best and had some great fights but Yoshida is leaving MMA and going back to judo now. It is really a shame. We might as well start spending billions and bring in TV stars and actors to fight that even you could beat up.

But doesn't the sport need sponsors and promotion? For that, it needs names and it needs to get people interested. You don't think it's important?

But why are they spending that much money on these other people. That's why Japanese MMA is at this level now. Why can't those famous names be real MMA fighters?

It's a waste of time. It's stupid, I can never hope to get as much money as those people who come in from the outside. If you have that much money, then you have to spread it around to help people make a living in this sport.

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