After Success in Japan, Tatsuya Kawajiri Is Determined to Make His Mark on the UFC
Tatsuya Kawajiri’s UFC contract was a long time coming. The 36-year-old has been at the pinnacle of his profession for over a decade, fighting on some of the biggest promotions in Japan and going up against stellar opponents such as Takanori Gomi, Gilbert Melendez, Eddie Alvarez, Shinya Aoki and Josh Thomson.
‘Crusher’ has been around long enough to remember the days when the best fighters in the world were competing in Japan and UFC matchmakers would take covetous glances across the Pacific Ocean as Pride, K-1 and Dynamite put on some of the biggest events of the era.
Since the Zuffa acquisition of Pride there is no doubt that Japanese MMA has been in a steady decline so, given Kawajiri’s status as one of the finest fighters of his generation in both the 145 and 155 lbs divisions, the only surprise was that it took him until 2014 to make a first appearance in the Octagon.
In 2005, some rankings had him as the #1 lightweight in the world: after Pride’s demise Kawajiri became a big star with Dream but he still regards the UFC as the final frontier for his career ambitions,
“I knew UFC was interested in me when I was still fighting in Japan. To me fighting in the UFC is the last challenge of my career so when I got the call I felt fired up just like it used to be when I was a youngster.”
Kawajiri made his promotional debut at UFC Fight Night 34 in Singapore and was thrown in against Sean Soriano. He probably had a point to prove against an undefeated American over a decade his junior and the Japanese featherweight did so in decisive fashion with a second round rear naked choke that sent the prospect to sleep.
The win saw Kawajiri instantly crack the official UFC rankings and left a few fans wondering what he might already have achieved if he had signed with the world’s biggest promotion a few years earlier, but ‘Crusher’ says he has no regrets,
“Do I regret not joining the UFC earlier? Not at all because I was performing well in front of the Japanese fans and I was also satisfied with the pay I was getting at the time.”
Like so many of the top Japanese fighters Kawajiri began his career with Shooto where he won 14 fights out of 18 and became the organization’s lightweight champion, but the fights for which he is best remembered mainly took place under the banner of either Pride or Dream.
Kawajiri fought on Pride’s last ever event in Japan, dropping a unanimous decision to Gilbert Melendez on New Year’s Eve 2006, and six years later he outpointed UFC veteran Michihiro Omigawa on the final Dream card—he was heavily involved with both promotions right up until the end and says he was sad to see them go,
“Pride changed my life and in Dream I was able to perform with everything I have got and to grow as a human being. Now they are finished I do feel despondent but those were very good memories for me.”
Kawajiri’s reward for the win over Soriano was a matchup with Clay Guida at UFC Fight Night 39 in Abu Dhabi three months later. It presented an opportunity for him to take on one of the most established fighters in the division but ultimately it was ‘The Carpenter’ who prevailed, winning every single round.
The only consolation for Kawajiri was a $50,000 ‘Fight of the Night’ bonus and this cash windfall would prove particularly significant as he subsequently suffered an injury in training which would keep him out of the Octagon for an entire year,
“That money did help me a lot because during sparring I got hit with a high kick and the foot came though the headgear and landed on my eye. I suffered a torn retina and went through a vitreous surgery to recover from this injury, if it hadn’t been for that bonus I may have retired from the sport.”
Fortunately for fight fans who are still curious to see how Kawajiri fares in the UFC’s featherweight division he has made a full recovery and says he expects to be back in the Octagon again before too long,
“I did the surgery at the end of July. In September I began cardio work and right now I am in full training just like before I sustained this injury.”
Kawajiri has won six of his last seven fights so there is no indication that he is starting to slow down or has already passed his prime, but after 15 years as a professional fighter time is probably not on his side and he is in a hurry to relaunch his UFC career by taking on a top tier featherweight,
“In terms of my next opponent, the tougher and stronger he is the better as far as I am concerned. I want to fight someone who is in the UFC ranking.”
Kawajiri acknowledges that the eye injury was a setback but says it has only made him more determined to show that he could return and show he was ‘better and stronger than before’. It’s by no means the first stumbling block he has encountered and the Japanese fighter recalls another pivotal moment which occurred at the very start of his professional career,
“I started martial arts aged 20 because I watched K-1 and wanted to be like those fighters but I lost my pro debut. At the time I was already a senior in college and after the loss I did go through a fraught period though wondering ‘should I just get a job and consider MMA as hobby or should I just get a part-time job and concentrate on MMA?’ In the end I didn't get a full-time job and decided to dedicate myself to MMA.”
It was a decision that has been vindicated over the course of 43 fights as Kawajiri has established himself as one of the fiercest competitors on the Asian scene. He has saved arguably the greatest challenge for last but with his eye finally healed ‘Crusher’ will be looking to launch an assault on the UFC featherweight rankings in 2015.
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