INTERVIEW WITH MAK TAKANO by Lex McMahon
As combat sports such as MMA and K-1 continue to skyrocket in popularity and the availability of international fight organizations is expanded thanks to the internet and media outlets such as HDNET, I thought it would be worthwhile to learn more about the Japanese fight game. After watching Jose Canseco get brutalized by freakishly tall Hong Man Choi for less than a minute, I can’t figure out why Japanese MMA isn’t more popular.
In the U.S., one of the foremost experts on Japanese combat sports, Mak Takano, aka Big Mak Attack! Mak has trained and managed some of the top fighters in the world and has worked closely with the premiere Japanese fight organizations to promote truly epic fight cards.
How did you get involved with the Japanese fight organizations and which organization(s) are you currently working with?
I started out by training champion Karate fighters in Japan; I would work with them to improve their strength and overall fitness for competitions. Also, I’m a fighter myself; I train in Kenpo, Shoto-kan Karate, Judo, Kickboxing, Jui-Jitsu, and Aikido. As a result, I’ve developed some great relationships. One thing led to another and I got involved training fighters for K-1. As my relationship with K-1 grew, I began to help them promote fights. I’m now working with both K-1 and DREAM. Training fighters and promoting fights led to managing fighters; it was sort of a natural progression.
Who have you managed and whom are you currently managing?
I’ve been truly fortunate and am humbled to have worked with some great fighters over the years, including: BJ Penn and Ralek Gracie. Also, I am very excited about the current group of fighters I am working with which include: Gesias “JZ” Calvancante, Kazuyuki Miyata, Bibiano Fernandes, & Black Mamba.
Which professional fighters have you trained?
In one way or another I train most of the fighters I manage, so you can include their names on this list, but I’ve also trained some other amazing fighters such as the great boxing champion Oscar De La Hoya and Grand Sumo Champion Akebono for his fight against Royce Gracie.
As you know, I’m a huge Gesias “JZ” Calvancante fan. There are lots of rumors that JZ wants a fight with Joachim Hansen. Do you think that fight will happen, if so when?
JZ was set to fight Hansen last New Years Eve, but Joachim got medically disqualified the day before the fight. World MMA Rankings currently ranks Hansen, #5 in the world, so there is no question that JZ wants to finish the fight with this top ranked contender. However, JZ and I are currently trying to work out a deal to fight Eddie Alvarez, who is currently ranked #4 by World MMA Rankings and is one of the hottest fighters out there. Either way, JZ is looking to fight the best fighters in the world and is scheduled to fight again in early October of this year.
Mak, I know you’ve promoted some amazing fights in the U.S., can you tell us about some of those events? Will we see you promoting fights again in the future?
I have promoted a few fights such as K-1 Hawaii, which I promoted four times, with the most recent show being the best – that was the fight you came to for your bachelor party Gökhan Saki won the tournament with a series of vicious leg kicks and really launched his career as a K-1 fighter. (Editor’s note: Bachelor party – I’ve got no idea what Mak is talking about! The last thing I remember was eating some Kalua pig and drinking a Mai Tai.)
I’ve also promoted Rumble on the Rock with my friends BJ & JD Penn; we did several of these shows. In fact at one of the Rumble on the Rock events, I had Anderson Silva fighting Yushin Okami – it was a great fight that unfortunately resulted in Silva getting disqualified for an illegal up-kick to a grounded opponent.
Additionally, I promoted K-1 Dynamite at the Los Angeles Coliseum – this was the biggest MMA fight to date in terms of capacity. You were at that fight, if you remember, it was Brock Lesnar’s first MMA fight. It certainly is possible that I’ll promote more shows in the future, but I’ll most likely focus on MMA and not K-1.
As the overall popularity of MMA continues to grow, what role do you see for women in MMA – keeping mind that we are about one month away from the much-anticipated Gina Carano V. Cristiane “Cyborg” Santos super fight?
I am very happy that MMA and K-1 style fighting have evolved to a point where women can headline a show. In Japan there are quite a few female fighters. In fact, I think it is safe to say that Japanese women were the pioneers for women in combat sports. There are all women cards in Japan that are televised on the networks, it’s not primetime, but it is still being aired on the networks.
OVERVIEW OF JAPANESE FIGHT GAME
Currently, what are the major Japanese fight organizations?
Fighting is very popular in Japan; as a result there are many organizations. However, the top organizations are: Dream, Deep, GCM, Shooto, Pancrase and K-1. K-1 is by far the biggest. Also, K-1 is behind Dream – you can think of Dream as the MMA branch of K-1, although they are separate organizations.
How does the Japanese tournament style of fighting help or hinder the progression of a fighter?
I like tournament style of fighting. Tournaments leave no questions about who is the best fighter – the best man is the champion. Also, another advantage is that it can take a relatively unknown fighter and put them on the map and make them a serious contender or a champion in a short period of time. A great example of this is JZ Calvancante, I had to practically beg the powers that be to let him compete in the Heroes Tournament a few years ago – he totally dominated that tournament – won the whole thing and was crowned champion, it turned him into a superstar in Japan overnight.
In the U.S. only a handful of fighters are making really big money, while the majority of the fighters do not get paid very well. How does fighter compensation compare in Japan vs. the US?
The main difference is that in the U.S. fighters are typically paid a split amount meaning they get paid one amount to show up for the fight and they get paid another amount if they win the fight. For example, in a smaller show in the U.S. a fighter might get paid $3,000 to show and another $3,000 if he wins. In Japan, fighters are paid one amount – win, lose, or draw.
Another point is that in Japan, the majority of fighters are established; they are champions in other organizations or countries. So when they do make it to Japan, they are able to command higher salaries than many of their U.S. counterparts. For example, when Chase Beebe came to Japan, he was already a champion with the WEC , so he was able to start making good money right away. Also, I’d say that the big stars in Japan make more than most of the big stars in the U.S., fighting is hugely popular in Japan, as a result fighters can make very good money.
What are the most significant differences in the rules of MMA in Japan?
The main difference is that in Japan there are no elbows allowed. There are a few reasons for this rule, with the top two reasons being to prevent premature stoppage of fights due to cuts and fights are shown on network TV in Japan, so they generally try to make it more family friendly by minimizing the amount of blood.
Another key difference is that knees are allowed to a grounded opponent, which is ironic given how devastating a knee strike can be.
What tips can you provide a fighter who wants to break into the Japanese fight game?
Make a name for yourself, win some tournaments, and make yourself a top ranked fighter. There really is no shortcut to getting in the Japanese fight game – you’ve got to be established, you’ve got to be a premiere fighter. The only other way is to find someone like me who knows how to scout talent and persuade the major Japanese promotions that you will make it. It has only happened a few times, once with JZ, and currently with Bibiano Fernandes. The bottom line is you gotta pay your dues and make a name for yourself if you want to make it to the pinnacle of the fighting world.
What are the differences between K-1 and MMA?
K-1 is a form of kickboxing; it is dynamic striking action that is non-stop. In contrast, as the name implies, MMA incorporates many forms of martial arts that transition from striking to the ground game in the blink of an eye. However, in MMA the pace is not always as fast as K-1 style fighting.
I love the dynamic striking of K-1 rules fighting, why do you think K-1 is not more popular in America?
That is a really good question; it is something that we at K-1 have been trying to figure out for several years now. K-1 is the top sport in Japan, but struggles in the States, it is puzzling, but it might be because many people think that K-1 is kickboxing, it’s not. kickboxing is not mainstream, and many people mistake K-1 with kickboxing. Also, because K-1 is all about striking, it most closely resembles boxing; boxing fans are somewhat resistant to the martial arts as being legitimate. However, I think the landscape is changing with all the great work being done by organizations like the UFC and Strikeforce. Also, the manner in which HDNET is covering K-1 is dramatically increasing awareness about the talented fighters and incredible fights taking place in Japan.
Of the current K-1 and DREAM fighters, who would have the best chance to make it the major American MMA organizations such as the UFC or Strikeforce?
There are many fighters that are fighting in Japan that could easily make the transition to fighting in the States for the UFC or other organizations.Some examples that come to mind are JZ Calvancante, Eddie Alvarez, Alistair Overheem, Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza, and Kazuyuki Miyata.In fact, Alvarez and Overheem are already competing in the States in-between their fights in Japan.
In Japan the fights are contested in a ring – what are the advantages and disadvantages of fighting in a ring as opposed to a cage?
Fighting in a ring is different than fighting in a cage because you can’t use the ropes to your advantage either defensively or offensively like you can the cage. In Japan, if fighters get near the ropes, they are either pushed back into the ring or the referee will stop the action and restart in the center of the ring. In contrast, fighters use the cage to leverage into a better position or to pin an opponent against the cage for some vicious ground and pound a la Tito Ortiz or Randy Couture!
Personally, I love the entertainment factor associated with Japanese fights, but I think a lot of people would like to know why the Japanese fight organizations place an emphasis on creating a spectacle?
In Japan, the fighters are also entertainers, fighting is the highest form of entertainment. The pre-fight celebration is an important part of the Japanese fight experience, the fans expect it, and the fighters love it!
How popular are combat sports in Japan such as MMA and K-1? And how does that compare with the US?
Combat sports in Japan are huge! Fights have been shown on network T.V. in Japan since 1993, the whole family is involved in watching the fights – it cuts across all demographics. In the U.S. a really popular fight for the UFC will sell at most 15,000 tickets. In Japan, fights held at venues such as the Tokyo Superdome and Saitama Super Arena routinely sell out with 80,000 and 40,000 seats sold respectively. Fighting is just huge in Japan, that’s the bottom line.
Organizations like the UFC, Affliction, & M-1 Global are clearly pushing to make MMA a truly global sport on par with soccer in terms of popularity – do you think that will happen?
Fighting sports are trending up in terms of their popularity; I really think we are at the beginning of something really big. Fighting has grown so much in popularity in the last five years, thanks in large part to the efforts of the UFC; I think they have more than doubled their audience in the past five years. MMA in particular and fighting in general have all the potential to be as popular as soccer on a global basis.
I know there are a lot of great fighters fighting in Japan, who do you think is going to be the next super star?
I think someone like Bibiano Fernandes , come early October when he is scheduled to fight Joe Warren at DREAM 11 which will be broadcast on HDNET to a huge international audience, will most likely be fighting for the featherweight championship and will become a huge star! But there are also some other fighters that are putting on some great fights and making huge names for themselves such as Jason “Mayhem” Miller and Joe Warren, they could easily be the next super star.
In Japan, an environment where fight fans are both savvy and zealous – why are marginal fighters such as Bob “the Beast” Sapp & Hong Man Choi so popular?
It’s really no different than what the UFC did with Brock Lesnar and what Strikeforce or one of the other notable organizations is most likely going to do with Bobby Lashley. Hong Man Choi was a Champion of Korean Sumo, he was hugely popular so we thought why not leverage his popularity. Also, there is a bit of a novelty factor because Choi is truly a giant. Sapp is no different. Not to mention both of these fighters are great athletes, so we figured we could train them to be high quality fighters.
I know you’ve worked with fighters from many camps, what do you think are the best MMA camps to train with?
There are so many now, but I’d say that some of the best are: American Top Team, Revolution Fight Team in Canada, Brazilian Top Team, Team Quest, Chute Boxe, and Jackson’s Submission Fighting.
How do you go about finding new fighters to manage or train?
Word of mouth mostly, but I do watch the smaller and regional shows to see who is hot. I also watch amateur fights. I can spot talent, so it’s better to find them before anyone else does.
So what’s the real story on the use of performance enhancing drugs such as steroids and HGH by fighters in general and by fighters in Japanese fight organizations in particular?
There is no question that some fighters are using these substances, just look at some of their physiques, it’s obvious. Unfortunately, performance-enhancing drugs are a part of the sport. The testing currently being used is the IOC standard, which is not very effective at detecting HGH. I presume that fighters are using HGH as a result.
BIG MAK ATTACK & THE MILITARY
Over the years, I know you’ve supported the military, tell us about some of the ways you’ve supported the troops.
It has been an honor to support the troops. Over the years, I’ve given as many free tickets as possible to military personnel. I’m sure the number of tickets given away is in the thousands. The military has always helped me to promote my events, particularly in Hawaii.
As I understand the primary audience for “Ranger Up” is in the military, I wanted to take this time to honor all of you for keeping our country safe and free!
Through my friends like you, I have gotten to experience and see the close camaraderie which I had previously only experienced from my traditional martial arts background in Japan with the clear distinction of code, manners, honor and respect of ranks regardless of age, color or class in society. I have not seen this code replicated in contemporary society until now, with the military. I regard these characteristics to be very special in this day and age.
I want all of you in the military to know that you to have chosen to serve and fight for our country and that you are all very SPECIAL , thank you from the bottom of my heart!
Mak, thanks so much for taking the time to talk with me and share some of your insights about the Japanese fight game with the Ranger Up community.