KOJI ANDO: “THE COMMANDER” TALKS JUDO, JOBS, AND JADAMBA

Koji “The Commander” Ando will challenge for Jadamba Narantungalag’s Lightweight Championship belt at Legend FC 11 on April 27, 2013. It’s the biggest fight of his life, but it’s ‘all part of the job’ for Koji ‘The Commander’ Ando.

An interview by John Merva, Malaysian Correspondent

Koji Ando is a very nice man. So nice that he spent an entire hour talking with me without mentioning he had sent a message asking to push back the time of our interview, which unfortunately I’d not seen. So nice that he still met me at the originally agreed upon time even while cutting weight. Still nice and polite even though he is just about to challenge for the Legend FC Lightweight title. For a man who’s getting ready for the biggest fight of his life so far, he was almost ridiculously relaxed. I was curious if he would be grumpy during the weight cut period, but he calmly explained that he was going to start cutting that night, and had ‘only’ about five kilos to go. Part of his cool demeanor was his continued insistence that “It’s part of the job”, so he said with a trademark laugh and shake of the head.

However, when we talked about the constant willingness of fighters to look for bigger and tougher challenges, he lapsed into a moment of seriousness and admitted that he’s just a person like anyone else.

“Of course I feel pressure and get worried, occasionally even fear, but I’ve learned to deal with it. If I didn’t feel those things then I wouldn’t be normal and actually that’s my main way of not getting overstressed; I just think that it’s part of being human and then I just move on from those feelings. I’m not really thinking about the fight now, if I get stressed this far out, then there’s no way I’ll perform well in the ring. Anyway, once the bell goes, all the nerves just disappear.”

In the USA, a very common path into MMA is through wrestling. High school and college wrestlers often find that they have developed skills that can’t really be turned into a moneymaking career. While he grew up in Japan, Ando’s journey into MMA was in many ways similar.

“I started judo at Elementary School and carried on all the way through middle and high school. Once I graduated from university and was supposed to find a job, I realized there was nothing I really wanted to do. One of my old training partners from high school and before had gotten into MMA and, even though we’d gone to different universities, I still used to go and support him in his fights. From there, it seemed like MMA was a good path for me to take.”

Unlike many grapplers who make the move into MMA, Ando wasn’t too bothered about adding punches and kicks to his training.

“I’d always been interested in boxing, even though I hadn’t really trained it very much and I think it was just always there, really. In fact, in this fight with Jadamba It’s all part of the job for Koji ‘The Commander’ Ando – obviously I’m going to make sure I measure the distance well and I’m not going to push it, I’ll be ready to take the fight down at the right time!”

Mongolian star Jadamba Narantungalag, the current Legend Lightweight champion and Ando’s opponent on April 27th’s Legend FC 11, is a well-known name from K-1 and Sengoku. In K-1 he has had memorable fights with the likes of Buakaw, Masato and Alberto Kraus (who he took into extra rounds in a losing effort). In Sengoku he notched up a win over MMA stalwart Akihiro Gono. Ando is aware of the champion’s pedigree but isn’t too concerned, despite having looked up to him in the past. He makes it clear that he’s been looking for a clash with Jadamba since he joined Legend. Again, there’s another chuckle as he seems to briefly become aware of what he’s actually doing here in Kuala Lumpur.

“I used to watch him fight in K-1, but I never really thought I’d be fighting him.”

Jadamba’s K-1 resume almost makes this seem like a classic striker versus grappler matchup, but Koji insisted that this isn’t the case, pointing out Jadamba’s impressive Mongolian wrestling and judo background. Again, he mentioned how much he enjoys striking, especially using his tight jab to set up compact boxing combinations. This, he said, is basically his game plan for the fight.

“Like I said, I want to exchange with him for a while, maintaining my distance and then hit the takedown when the timing is right. If I shoot on him over and over again, I’m pretty sure I’ll just tire myself out. With his wrestling and judo background I don’t think it’s going to be that easy to get him down and I definitely want to stay on top. Once that’s been done, I’m going to look to pound on him until I think he’s ready for the submission – from the top or maybe heading to the back.”

As he said that, like all grapplers, he couldn’t resist wrapping his forearms over each other in the universal sign for ‘rear-naked choke’!

With the chat about his upcoming fight over, we got to more esoteric topics and more MMA. Neither of us could really think of a reason why Japanese audiences are so into combat sports and Ando eventually offered up the old truism about Samurai spirit – that the Japanese are just ‘more interested in fighting’. We lamented the decline of popularity of MMA in Japan, but he is very positive about the growth of MMA in Asia, and very happy to be able to travel the region doing the sport he loves. He especially praised the efforts of Legend in giving a home to Japanese fighters who may not have the options they used to during the heyday of PRIDE and DREAM. Oddly enough, he also revealed an admiration for Andre Winner – one of Britain’s lesser known fighters – as well as his mentor Yushin Okami.

Eventually the conversation turned back to judo and again, and for the only other time throughout our chat, Koji Ando lost a bit of bounce.

“With the constant rule changes to the sport, it’s just not the same as when I started out. In fact it’s becoming boring and I’m a bit disillusioned with it. When I started in judo, I really thought it was a sport that could give people a great chance worldwide, now it seems to just be becoming smaller and smaller. It’s nice to see stars like Ronda Rousey representing judo inside the cage though, I know firsthand how difficult it can be adjusting judo moves to MMA, especially as judo has now banned so many attacks – even touching someone’s leg is now an instant DQ.”

Finally though, it became clear that it was time to let the man get on with his business. He left some parting advice to those looking to start in MMA, emphasizing the importance of making sure you train in not just the various components of MMA, but making sure you learn how to combine them and then he reveals the source of his preternatural chill.

“I know a lot of people are expecting me to lose this fight and I’m clearly an underdog, however, great though Jadamba is, I know I’m better than him and my camp knows it too. I originally thought that this fight was going to be in October last year so I’ve basically been in camp for 11 months. On Saturday I’m going to let all of that time loose in the ring and I know it will be me that wins the fight. I want to get in there and put on an entertaining show to increase my recognition around the world. In the future I want to make sure that I’m a good champion for Legend and help be the face of an international promotion, but first I have to get past the champion and I know I’m good enough to do it.”

The man they call The Commander got the tough moniker when he chose the exercises for his camp, famed for the brutality of his workouts. However, Koji Ando is actually a very nice man. He is a very relaxed and funny man. I have heard (but did not check out) that he has incredible abs. But under that calm, cool, jovial exterior, there is a perfectly good reason he exemplifies his ring name. Koji ‘The Commander’ Ando is a very confident man, and at Legend FC 11 in Kuala Lumpur, he’s very ready to prove it. I, for one, can’t help believing in him too.

Koji Ando wanted to thank his team for preparing him for this fight, as well as his sponsor Fuji Sports, whose shorts he’ll be wearing into the ring. He also wanted to acknowledge the great work Legend FC has done on his behalf and to thank them for the titleshot.