Japanese MMA Gym Joining Test

In May 2001, 5 months after arriving in Japan, I met Nobuhiko Takada right after Pride 14 through a mutual friend. We ate yakiniku in Roppongi and I expressed my interest in training with Kazushi Sakuraba. He asked me why I was interested in MMA (although he used the term vale tudo) and I explained my minimal background in Muay Thai and no-gi jiu-jitsu. I told him I’d watched Sakuraba fight on some Pride videos that my martial arts instructor Rick Young back in Scotland had, and I was very impressed. The way he fought calmly, intelligently, and managed to submit larger, stronger opponents while earning himself the title “Gracie Killer” convinced me that if I was in Japan and had the opportunity to train with him, I should take it.

Kazushi Sakuraba

Takada invited me to take the standard test for all hopefuls wishing to enter as “deshi” or full-time students. In June, 2001, I arrived at Takada Dojo and found I was one of 6 said hopefuls taking the test, with the dream of being able to train every day, fully sponsored by Takada himself, working towards a professional debut fight. After a weight and height check, this is how it went:

  • A duck walk race back and forward across the gym 5 times
  • 200 star jumps
  • 50 jumps over a crouched person
  • 200 push ups
  • Writing the numbers 1 to 50 in the air with outstretched legs while lying flat on your back
  • A 3-minute neck bridge with your arms folded over your chest and nose touching the mat
  • Submission sparring with the other five members one at a time until tap out

My legs were jelly after the duck walk race so you can imagine how the rest went. I’ve never had any military experience and although I’d heard about such grueling tests in Shooto and Ken Shamrock’s Lion’s Den gym, I wasn’t prepared for the physical and mental torture that I endured that night. All the professional fighters affiliated to Takada Dojo were there and they were not there to make it any easier. They shouted at all of us, ridiculing one guy who said he had extensive boxing training experience and should’ve been in better shape. At that time I couldn’t understand any Japanese so it was all back ground noise to me, but because I couldn’t understand it the whole thing became more surreal. I’d come from Scotland where I’d had an excellent martial arts teacher, always enjoyed training, and suddenly I was in hell.

It was only after the test that I realised it was a test of heart, the will to continue in the face of defeat. The menu they’d devised was not physically possible, at least not with any style or panache, it was merely to see that you could continue even when your body had had enough. I tapped out all three I had to spar with at the last stage, not through skill but more because I was damned if I’d gone through that torture to give up to anyone! Two of the guys gave up halfway through, and one guy was told at the end that they would not take him (he crawled out of the gym); leaving 3 of us eligible to join.

I had a full-time job and would have to give four weeks notice before I could begin so I called my folks and Rick Young back in Scotland to seek advice. It was the chance of a lifetime so my mind was pretty much made up but I needed to hear what they had to say. By the end of July, right after Pride 15, when Sakuraba submitted Rampage Jackson, I’d arrived at the gym, no job, no Japanese language skills, my whole life in a couple of bags ready to go.

This is where everything was about to change. This is where I also met Hamanaka Kazuhiro who went on to fight for the Tokyo Sabres in the International Fight League.

Kazuhiro Hamanaka

Kazuhiro Hamanaka

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