Wednesday, March 7, 2007

The Life and Times of a Shooto Contender in Japan

By Antonio Carvalho

Full Contact Fighter is honored to have Shooto contender Antonio Carvalho on our writing staff. Once a month, Antonio will be sending in his "Carvalho Report", a journal of sorts, which will tell readers about his experiences living, training and fighting overseas in Japan. The Team Shah Franco fighter recently relocated to Japan from Toronto, Canada, to pursue more training opportunities in the Nation where many of his greatest career successes have come thus far, competing in Shooto. Readers can also look forward to interviews that Antonio will be also sending in with various Japanese fighters, in addition to his monthly "Carvalho Report."

Abe, Sensei Kazumi and I

Japan! The longer I stay here, the more I love this beautiful country. Waking up in the morning is such a treat. I am the kind of person that appreciates small details. Japan is certainly a country of small details. Just take a walk down the street and everywhere you look is a feast for the eyes. Every street corner looks different.

Nothing looks the same. Walk twenty feet and there is always something different to look at. There is this combination of the old with the new. It is quite fascinating. Then again, that is probably the reason why I get lost all the time! However, this morning, I would not get lost. It was 5:30am and I knew exactly where I was going. The day had come for me to travel to "Mitake" mountain with Hiroyuki Abe and the AACC kids wrestling team for some good "old fashioned" training.

We are going to meet up with former Kyokushin world champion Sensei Hajime Kazumi and his karate team. We are to take part in a traditional Karate class first. Then after, travel up the mountain to the waterfalls. This is something that most people only see in movies. But this type of traditional training is alive and well in Japan. Now what does this have to do with MMA you ask? Well, to many, nothing. But see, that is the problem in MMA today. In my humble opinion, with the emergence of MMA, this kind of training is sorely lacking. You just go to a gym, lift weights, spar, grapple and drill. Then you go home and do it again the next day.

While there is nothing wrong with that, I feel that what really makes the difference between world champions and other fighters is that they are mentally very strong people. At some point, from a physical level, every top fighter matches up well. Every fighter has strong physical and technical attributes. So at the highest level, being mentally tough is what many times make the difference in the end. How many times have we seen a fighter with all the physical attributes in the world never make it to the top? How do you explain a fighter with lesser physical attributes overcoming someone who is stronger, faster and more technical?

It is very important for a fighter to have this balance of the physical aspect with the mental aspect. This is something that I always felt that I have had trouble with myself. I had always trained my body, but not always my mind and I believe that is why I have faltered in several of my fights. I am very happy to have an opportunity to experience this kind of training and I am sure I will be better for it.

After a two-hour bus ride, we arrived at our destination. We immediately made our way towards an old gymnasium where we would take part in the traditional Kyokushin karate class. It was a great feeling to line up with everyone and throw punches, kicks and blocks. I had a blast "Kiaiing" all the way through. After about an hour or so, we finished the class and then it was time for the long hike up the mountain.

Official DEEP IMPACT Gym

The hike took at least forty-five minutes and was all uphill! The kids didn't seem to mind at all and fought through the fatigue. The waterfalls were unbelievable. But it was freezing out there! Being the higher ranks, Sensei Kazumi, Abe, I and the other black belts lead the example.

We took our gi off and walked straight into the water and circled under the falls. We got into our stance and began to "Kiai" and throw reverse punches. My initial thought was that it was freezing cold. But after fighting through the cold, my mind just stopped thinking about it and I just went into "automatic pilot" and continued to throw punches with the rest of the crew. Even though I am Canadian, I have never experienced cold like that. I could not feel my toes for at least a couple of hours after getting out of the water! I was quite proud of myself actually. After the higher ranks were finished, everyone else including the kids got in the water. Watching children between the ages of eight and ten battle the cold like that was quite incredible. Many adults could learn a lot from these courageous young samurai. They didn't cry or complain. They just endured and got through it. That is what the goal of such training is all about. You must carry through despite the hardship. It is certainly a trait every fighter needs to have. I believe that this is one of the reasons I am in Japan. I definitely need to work on "myself" so to speak.

In my last report, I mentioned something about an interesting training proposal that I had received from none other then Shinya Aoki and Masakazu Imanari. Both of these fighters are considered amongst the best in their respective weight classes. Imanari is a Pride veteran and the Deep Featherweight Champion.

Not to mention a human highlight reel for leg lock finishes. If you have not had a chance to watch him in action, go to "Youtube" and watch a couple of the fan made highlight videos. Then you will fully understand what I mean. Aoki is the Shooto Middleweight Champion. Lately he has created quite a stir in Pride with his fantastic submission finishes off of his back. I certainly didn't want to miss out on such an opportunity to train with some of the best in the sport.

Well, it was Tuesday and it was time to meet up with them at the official Deep training facility. The main instructor there is Masakazu Imanari. Every Tuesday and Thursday at noon, Imanari holds private training sessions for professional fighters. The fighters come from many different gyms and the goal is just to get some good hard training done. It is not a class. You pair up with someone and you grapple until the five minute round is up. After that, you square off with another person and do it again. The session would last for two hours straight. Usually in a regular class, where most people are recreational grapplers, it is sometimes okay to drop your guard a little and catch a breather while grappling. Normally I am quite a bit more experienced and can get away with it. Not with these guys. Any opening that was there they would take it. Your mind must stay sharp the whole time. Anytime you lose a little focus, you are caught.

This is the kind of training that will improve your skills by leaps and bounds. Everyone at some point got "tapped". The room was full of very talented fighters. Not only did I get to train with the two mentioned before, but I also got a chance to train with Ryota Sakurai. People in Japan know him as the bigger Sakurai. Ryota is a Pride veteran and the former Deep Middleweight Champion. At the time, he was preparing to rematch Ryo Chonan to whom he had lost the belt too. When I got paired up with him, I thought for sure he was going to crush me. He is incredibly muscular and looks more like a body builder. He actually turned out to be a very gentle "roll". He only used technique and was playing very soft. It was like playing a fast paced game of chess with our bodies.

It was nice to see such a big guy move around like that. After we were finished our "roll" I thanked him for being very gentle with me. There is no question he could have manhandled me if he wanted to. He smiled and very humbly told me that he is rolling soft because he really wants to better his technique. I certainly wasn't expecting that from him. He was a very soft spoken person and he turned me into a fan for sure.

After having a rough time with the heavyweight All-Japan Sambo champion, it was finally time to roll with Aoki-san. He is tall and lanky and has incredibly flexible hips. Everywhere I would move he would entangle something. His technique is beautiful to watch, and in my case, feel.

There is no muscle being used when he rolls. He is pure technique and has so many tricks up his sleeve. I found out quickly that he is quite comfortable passing someone’s guard as he is playing from his own. I would chuckle at how he would use his long limbs and just lift his hips up, sprawl his legs out as far as possible, and proceed to walk around my butterfly guard like it wasn’t there. I knew it was happening the whole time, but I just couldn't stop him from doing it. I had a really good time rolling with him. He kept it intense, but was not afraid to take risks and try things. This kept the game open and I got a chance to try some fancy techniques myself. One time though, I failed miserably at a flying triangle and landed with my back flat on the mat. When I hit the mat it made a loud sound that caught everyone’s attention. Everyone had a good laugh including myself. Right after that, they applauded my efforts for at least trying.

Out of all the guys, Imanari-san was the one I was most interested in rolling with. He was the only guy who was actually my size! Imanari turned out to be a fun roll. The one thing you cannot do against him though is stand up in his open guard. If you do, consider yourself foot locked, heel hooked, reverse heel hooked, knee barred, or any other variation of foot lock or kneebar that may exist. The amazing thing is that this is something he does train. It is no fluke when he does a sliding tackle into a foot lock and catches his opponents. He actually has an instructional DVD where he explains in detail his techniques and tactics.

If you love the foot lock game, I highly recommend that you check it out. Don't get me wrong though, while he is famous for his incredible leg locks, he does possess a complete game of grappling skills. It's just that his leg locks are so good that it overshadows the rest of his game. When I mentioned to him that people recognize him as the best foot locker on the planet, he was very modest and didn't seem to want to take such a moniker. In the end, I had a fun time training with such great fighters. My only concern was that they didn't think I was worth having around as a training partner. My concerns suddenly turned to joy as Aoki and Imanari were very pleased with my work ethic and invited me back to the gym to train with them every Tuesday and Thursday. Fantastic!

Every weekend in Japan, there is always some kind of MMA or grappling event going on. In the next few weeks, I will have the opportunity to watch several of these MMA shows live. I will attend a ZST, Deep and Shooto event within a span of two weeks. These three organizations have been feeders for the bigger shows such as K-1 and Pride. For my next report, I will give you the lowdown on how each event differs and what kind of experience I got from each. I will also continue to report about my training experiences with some of the very best fighters of Japan and any other exciting experience that is MMA related. Until next time!

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