Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images
For viewers in the US the UFC Fight Night: ‘Hunt vs. Nelson’ card began very late on a Friday night but it got off to the best possible start when Maximo Blanco and Daniel Hooker went to war in the opening fight.
It was a memorable three rounds for anyone fortunate enough to be watching on Fight Pass but the significance of the moment was even greater for Maximo Blanco who, despite being born and raised in Venezuela, is more familiar with Japan than his native country.
The 30-year-old featherweight was one of the fighters amalgamated into the UFC roster when Zuffa acquired Strikeforce but Blanco’s MMA journey dates back to day he left his friends and family in South America behind to start a new life in Japan.
“The chairman of the Japan Wrestling Federation, Mr Fukuda, recruited me from Venezuela so I transferred to Ikuei High School in Sendai. I was 15 years old,” he told Fightland.
To be uprooted from a country and a culture, which he had known all his young life and transplanted to Japan, was a traumatic experience for Blanco who says he was ill equipped to cope with some of the challenges that lay ahead.
“Back then, I didn't think too much about what it would be like to move to Japan, I was just looking forward to seeing another part of the world. For example, my Mom told me to study Japanese but I didn't because I thought everyone speaks Spanish so when I got to Sendai I was so shocked that no one understood my language!”
In these types of situation a teenager will either sink or swim and Blanco would eventually immerse himself in the Japanese language, life and culture.
“Well, no one spoke Spanish but one of the assistant coaches at Ikuei High School was from Venezuela so that helped me a lot and now I actually speak, write, and read much better in Japanese than Spanish,” he said.
After enjoying a successful stint with Japanese promotions Sengoku and Pancrase, winning the lightweight title with the latter, Blanco signed with Strikeforce in 2011 and was immediately thrown in with one of the best fighters in the division, Pat Healy.
Despite suffering a second round submission loss Blanco was soon offered a fight with the UFC, which by this stage shared a parent company with Strikeforce. He has competed six times in the Octagon at the time of writing but last month’s bout with Hooker was his first time fighting in Tokyo since 2010.
It was an emotional homecoming for the South American who says his management needed to do a bit of work to ensure Japanese fans realized who the familiar looking face belonged to.
“In Japan, I was known as ‘Maxi’ not Maximo Blanco so I believe my management and Dentsu had to do little bit of extra PR to make fans in Japan realize that ‘Maximo Blanco’ is the same ‘Maxi’ who used to fight in Sengoku and Pancrase,” he said.
After finishing his education Blanco was at something of a loose end and having grown up in Japan during the heyday of Pride he didn’t need too much encouragement to give the sport of MMA a go.
“After I graduated from Japan University, Chairman Fukuda suggested that I do MMA and I said ‘ok’. At the time I was watching Pride and the other MMA events so I knew what MMA was, and I thought ‘I can do this’.”
Despite spending four years fighting exclusively in the West he has never been tempted to relocate his training to a more convenient location and Blanco still fights out of Japan,
“I usually do all my training camp in Japan, mainly at Alliance and with the Japan University wrestling team.”
Blanco only won two of his first five pro MMA bouts but then went on a six fight winning streak which would culminate in him being offered a spot on the Strikeforce roster and a fight with Josh Thomson, who would suffer an injury and ultimately be replaced by Healy.
In the same way that Blanco got his career off to a slow start back in the Pancrase and Sengoku days he failed to make an immediate impression on the UFC. The Venezuelan went 1-3 in his first four fights to leave his future on the roster looking a little uncertain.
He has turned things around emphatically with wins over Andy Ogle and Hooker and says the latter performance would have been even more impressive were it not for a slight error of judgment with his weight cut.
“I did make one mistake in cutting weight, I was on weight the day before the weigh-in so I didn't eat much for one full day and I believe that is the reason why I had a problem with my cardio on that fight. Apart from that, I am happy because that was my second win in a row.”
The fight with Hooker was sufficiently action packed for watching fans and members of the media to speculate that both men would take home a bonus but UFC Fight Night: ‘Hunt vs Nelson’ turned out to be one of the best cards of the year with plenty of stoppages and some memorable wars.
It meant that Blanco missed out on a ‘Performance of the Night’ bonus which on any normal card he would surely have picked up but it’s not something the featherweight is losing any sleep over.
“I actually didn't think about that ‘till you asked me. Yeah I would be happy with and extra 50K but I think I will have another chance to win bonus so I am OK.”
MMA in Venezuela is very much in its infancy so it is probably safe to assume that Blanco is the best pound for pound fighter the country has ever produced. He says he would like to fight there one day but isn’t really following the scene in South America,
“I have been living in Japan for almost 15 years so I don't keep up so much with Venezuela's MMA. Right now I think the country has many other issues to deal with but sure if UFC is doing the show there I would love to fight in Venezuela.”
It’s unlikely Blanco will ever find himself offered the opportunity to compete on a UFC card in Caracas but after back to back wins he is firmly established in the featherweight division and says he’s still basking in the glory of his recent victory in Japan.
“I feel extremely good because it’s very difficult to win two in a row in the UFC. It’s good to be back!”
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