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Having overcome hard times, AJ Matthews living the dream by fighting in Japan

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Bellator

Back in the day, AJ Matthews caught a VHS tape of Kazushi Sakuraba fighting in PRIDE. He was living in South Dakota at the time, and he and his brother began learning jiu-jitsu almost immediately afterwards. Saitama, where Sakuraba was fighting, became hallowed ground.

A decade-and-a-half later, he’s one of the Bellator fighters crossing over to compete on the inaugural Rizin card, which takes place in Saitama, Japan on Dec. 29. Even with a disrupted camp heading into his fight with Anatoly Tokov, Matthews feels like he’s living the dream. To hear him tell it, he might not fly to Japan on an airplane…he might just drift across the Pacific on cloud nine.

"It’s almost indescribable, the feeling," he says. "I didn’t watch the UFC. I watched PRIDE. It’s so crazy. I grew up in Rapid City. My oldest brother, he didn’t live with us. He lived in California. And when I was a kid, I came out to visit him with my middle brother. He showed the VHS of Sakuraba fighting, and sixteen years later, I’m fighting on the same card as Kazushi Sakuraba in the Saitama Super Arena. You can’t even wrap your head around an actual dream becoming a reality."

Matthews has had some difficulties getting to this moment. Most recently, he was training at Top Team in Thailand for the express purpose of his upcoming fight — which he’d lobbied hard for — but was forced back to the States with a visa issue. He finished his camp with Ed Buckley in Oceanside, California along with Joey Beltran and others, and returned to his regular training grounds at Alliance in San Diego.

"You know, the thing about all that is, I feel like I’m a veteran now," Matthews says. "I feel like I know what I need to prepare. When I’m feeling good, I’m feeling good. And right now, I’m feeling good. I don’t feel like it was too much of a disruption. Maybe it could have gone a different way, but this is the way it went…I changed some things in my life this last year and the one thing that’s been helping me out the most is, ‘God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change.’

"It used to be, all this stuff would worry me. Now it’s like, who cares, man? I got to go home? Not a bad place to go. It’s all good in my world."

Matthews is 27 years old, and he fights as a middleweight. He’s gone 4-2 in Bellator, and has won his last couple of fights via first-round finishes. He has roots to Asia beyond just his affiliations to Thailand and his nostalgia for PRIDE. He is Irish-Filipino, the latter on his mother’s side. She was back in the Philippines doing humanitarian work for her home village in 2013 when a category 5 typhoon — known as Typhoon Haiyan — struck the area.

For nearly a full week, as reports came back of all the devastation and a rising death toll, his mother went silent.

"My Mom always goes out of her way to do nice things," he says. "She built an outdoor library with a bathroom for the. So she was out there doing that and then we started seeing on the news about this super storm was going to be in that … like… on top of her. To be honest with you, I didn’t deal with it for a long time. It was really something. Five days with no communication. You know what I’m saying? Five days. So the first time I heard her voice… you could hear that her vocal chords were shaken. She was still shook."

His mother, Emy Cajipe, not only survived the storm, but she wrote a book about it called Visible Darkness: Super Storm Yolanda International Name Haiyan. In it she recounts those days when the storm ruined the city of Tacloban, where she was. It was a rough time for Matthews, who essentially shut down during those days before news reached him that she’d survived.

"It was so gnarly," he says. "People would go…everybody cares, everybody has all these nice feelings. So they go, I’ll keep your Mom in my prayers, or in my thoughts. This was how much I didn’t deal with it. I would get pissed. I’d be like, dude, what the f*ck do your prayers do for me and my mom? But in the end, it’s like, thanks to all those people so much for even caring enough to say something to me. And god willing, we got my mom back. So she did write the book."

Matthews suffered a couple of losses in the Bellator cage, which bookended that episode between 2012 and 2014. He had to undergo the knife twice to fix shoulder problems, and he had a big secret. He admitted to being an alcoholic ahead of his last fight with Emiliano Sordi. That has long plagued him. As a kid who left home at 14, life has taken many twists and turns. These days he says he’s got his life back in control. As the mantra goes, he’s taking everything one day at time.

The singular thing that has kept him focused, he says, is training and competition.

Now he’s getting to fight in Japan, which for so many years was a Mecca for MMA. It feels like his journey has arrived somewhere, even if he’s not all that familiar with Tokov.

"I don’t know too much about him," he says. "I’ve watched tape just like every other professional who would like to know. And this guy…he’s good. He’s good everywhere. But he keeps one pace, and it’s not fast. I don’t know. He’s good everywhere. I’m good everywhere. And the fight’s going to be sick. We’re both not huge middleweights. So it’s a scrap, dude. The Russians don’t quit."

And, he’ll tell you, neither does he.