05-21-2008, 08:06 PM
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| | UFC 84 Profile - Yoshiyuki Yoshida
UFC® : Ultimate Fighting Championship®
| Yoshiyuki Yoshida – ‘Zenko’s got a secret |
By Thomas Gerbasi
The list is long and distinguished – fighters who made a good living among the elite in Japan coming to the United States and the UFC’s Octagon and struggling in their early bouts in the organization.
Feared Croatian striker Mirko Cro Cop was 1-2 in the Octagon last year. Heath Herring, Marcus Aurelio, Ryo Chonan, Dokonjonosuke Mishima, Kazuhiro Nakamura, Michihiro Omigawa, ‘Shogun’ Rua, Sokoudjou, and Fabricio Werdum all lost their UFC debuts.
And while each fight is different, with varying circumstances dictating the end result, in a lot of cases, fighters claimed that getting used to the switch from a ring to the Octagon played a big role in the difference between winning and losing.
So 34-year old Yoshiyuki Yoshida - 9-2 in MMA and Japan’s latest export to the UFC - now faces a daunting task when he makes his Octagon debut against Jon Koppenhaver this Saturday night.
Or does he? Does ‘Zenko’ have a secret?
Most think he does, especially since he comes with a background in the Cage Force organization, where he fought in – you guessed it – a cage.
“Well, my last three fights were in the cage so I am familiar with it and I should be okay,” said Yoshida through manager / translator Shu Hirata. “In fact I actually feel more comfortable fighting in the cage than the ring because I can utilize my judo skill to stabilize my opponent up against the fence.”
Yoshida, a fourth degree black belt in judo and a member of the Japanese national team in 2002, surprised a lot of people in Cage Force in 2007 as he won four fights in a row to win their welterweight tournament and establish himself as a fighter to watch not only locally, but internationally.
“I think I surprised everyone,” he said. “I think no one expected to me to even pass the first round. But ever since winning that tournament, everything has changed. I defeated former Shooto champion Kikuchi, then former King of Pancrase Inoue so everyone started to recognize me as a legitimate force in the industry. But more than anything, signing with the UFC completely put me in a different level of recognition.”
The knockout win over Katsuya Inoue in the March 2007 qualifier was followed by a TKO victory over Matt Cain in May, and a first round stoppage of Akira Kikuchi in September. The win over the now-retired Kikuchi was a particularly eye opening one, especially for Yoshida.
“He is a former world Shooto champion and he couldn't do anything against me,” said Yoshida, who ended the bout with strikes at 4:33 of the first round. “Then I realized, hey, maybe I have what it takes to become the world champion.”
But what was expected to be a fireworks-filled final between Yoshida and Dan Hardy last December ended up with an anticlimax as Hardy was disqualified for a low blow that left Yoshida unable to continue. And though a win is a win, with Hardy now joining Yoshida in the UFC, a rematch is certainly something ‘Zenko’ is interested in to truly prove he is the better fighter.
“Yes for sure I would like to fight him in the UFC,” said Yoshida of a second bout with Hardy. “In the last fight against Hardy, I consider that being "unfinished" so I think we need to settle the matters in the cage once again. But I am telling this for the record, in the last fight against Hardy, I knew I could submit him in the second round.”
Sounds like a little rivalry is brewing, but first things first. For Yoshida, that’s Saturday’s bout against The Ultimate Fighter alumnus Jon Koppenhaver - who gained a legion of fans for his gutsy performance in stopping Jared Rollins in the TUF finale last December.
“He looks like he is a very aggressive type,” said Yoshida of his foe. “He always comes forward and has good conditioning too.”
To get ready for the bout, Yoshida has split his time between the Tokyo Yellow Mans team and the team of standouts at the Yoshida Dojo, home to some of the game’s top Japanese judo-based fighters.
“The main reason why I train at Yoshida Dojo is that I get to spar with top fighters such as Hidehiko Yoshida, Ryo Chonan, Kazuhiro Nakamura, Ryan Bow, Michihiro Omigawa, and the others,” said Yoshida. “All of these guys have fought in top MMA shows and most importantly it is beneficial for me to spar with not only just bigger guys but more experienced fighters like Hidehiko Yoshida and Kazuhiro Nakamura.”
And while there is no cage in their gym, Yoshida’s past experience has helped give him an edge many debuting international fighters don’t have.
“When I fought in the Cage Force show last year, that was my first experience fighting in the cage, but I never did any special preparation, and it worked just fine,” he said. “Yes, I do understand that the UFC is completely different from Cage Force in terms of the level of competition, so I have been working on utilizing the cage to avoid takedowns, reverse from the bottom, and other techniques. But since we have no cage in our gym, I only worked on the matted wall.”
Mainly though, the man steering the Yoshida ship is Noboru Asahi, a Shooto legend who is one of the sport’s true pioneers. The man who once reigned as champion for four years isn’t a shouter in the gym though, so Yoshida is forced to learn by watching the master at work.
“Asahi-san is a type of a trainer who really doesn't tell me much,” said Yoshida. “His philosophy is "always learn by looking, hearing, and doing. Not by asking." So I think he has helped me tremendously in terms of me gaining mental strength.”
It’s something Yoshida needed when he retired from judo and looked for something to continue his competitive life.
“In Japan's judo world, it’s hard to continue competing in the tournaments after graduating from college. I needed to get job, and there are a limited number of tournaments for non-students. So I decided to move on to the next step, which is MMA.”
That meant leaving a job as a physical education teacher at Seijo High School in Tokyo to pursue his dream. For him, the decision was an easy one.
“I can only do MMA right now,” he chuckles. “I can always become a fifty-year old PE teacher but I can never be a fifty-year old UFC champion, right?”
Right, but does that make explaining his choice to his family any easier?
“I actually didn't tell my parents about doing MMA,” said Yoshida. “I just did it. Then I made a decision to continue fighting as a pro, and I called my mother and told her my decision. So I never gave my parents a chance to even think about me becoming a pro fighter. I just did it. But my parents are very supportive though. Both of them are coming to the UFC this weekend so I am also excited to be able to fight in front of my parents.”
And Yoshida is excited not only to be showing what he can do in front of his parents, but to be competing in one of the sport’s toughest divisions – welterweight, the home to Georges St-Pierre, Jon Fitch, Matt Hughes, Thiago Alves, Matt Serra, Josh Koscheck, Diego Sanchez, Karo Parisyan, and a host of other standouts.
“It’s the toughest division,” said Yoshida of the 170-pound weight class. “It’s full of talented world-class fighters. I think GSP is best in the world at this weight class. Matt Hughes is still up there, so is Karo Parisyan. Everyone is just awesome.”
This weekend, Yoshida gets his shot at not only joining the aforementioned names but of joining Yushin Okami as one of the few Japanese fighters since Caol Uno to make an impact in the UFC.
“If I wasn’t confident, I wouldn't have signed the contract with the UFC,” said Yoshida. “I am here to make a huge impact on the American fans. I am going to prove to everyone that a top judo player can knock out a fighter with one judo throw. The throw is as lethal as any punch, kick or submission.”
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