I was on my way to meet Cristiano at Grips Gym for this interview when I coincidentally stumbled upon him in the street. Perhaps ‘stumbled upon’ isn’t the best description of what happened – more like recognized him, thought ‘whoa that guy is HUGE’, and stopped dead in my tracks. Of course this is Hong Kong and the 189cm HEAT Heavyweight Champion towers above most of the locals. His gentle and polite demeanor, molded by years in Japan, is an interesting contrast to his appearance. When he smiles, dimples come out, and it’s hard to imagine this nice could could ever knock anyone TF out.
We sat down to talk on the mats as fellow black belt Rodrigo Caporal’s evening class was warming up. I’d researched Cristiano, and there wasn’t much in English about him. Some Tatame interviews in Portuguese and links to his profiles in the organizations he’s fought in were about the extent of his online existence. He told me he’s never liked interviews or press; he doesn’t want to be talked about – he just wants to work and train and fight. Even so, he is kind and talkative, quite engaging. And he was THERE when PRIDE started; he was in Tokyo training at the advent of international MMA based in Japan. So I knew there had to be much more. What Cristiano shared with me took several days. His story is unique, and very special. I feel honored he shared his experiences with me and honored I can help share them with the English-speaking world.
For a little over his first year in Japan, Cristiano spent twelve hours a day working in a warehouse. “I loaded things; I unloaded things. I loaded more things.” In 1997, he took up Brazilian Jiu Jitsu at the Gracie Japan Academy – now Axis Jiu-Jitsu – under Taka Wantanabe. After spending less than a year training – only going to classes twice a week – he entered an All Japan tournament, won the Heavy division, then the Open weight. He was hooked. And he went on to win the tournament five years in a row.
When his new boss, a Brazilian importer, saw Cristiano’s trophies on his office shelves at work, he became intrigued. After all, what was this young Japanese-Brazilian kid doing in a land far from his home that was bringing him so much success? He made a bet with Cristiano. “I tell you what,” he said, “You bring me your championship award, and I will sponsor you – entries, supplements, everything.” And so he did. His boss even began to let him leave work early to train fifteen days prior to a competition.
This generosity showed Cristiano his true path, and he soon dedicated his life to BJJ. He moved to Tokyo where he slept, ate, and of course trained in the gym for a year. Along with his run of wins in the All Japan competitions (1998-2002), he dominated at the Copa da Amizade (1998), Copa East Japan (1999), and ventured to Hawaii for the Campeão Hawaiano (2000).
During the late ‘90s, MMA promotions in Japan were shaping into world-class events. They started bringing in Brazilian fighters like Wanderlei Silva, and the Carlson Gracie team, Ze Mario Sperry, Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira – Big Nog. But they couldn’t bring over lots of sparring partners and there weren’t too many big Japanese around. They needed help in Japan. Cristiano’s countrymen back in Brazil already knew of him, and said, “Look up Cris, look up Wantanabe.”
Because of this, it was timing and fate that brought Cristiano’s introduction to a man who would be the catalyst in his future career as a mixed martial artist: Big Nog. The two met when Nogueira arrived in preparation for the RINGS King of Kings tournament in 1999. Cristiano recalls that year. “He beat everybody. He beat Valentjin Overeem and the Russian. In the final it was him, and it was Dan Henderson. Nogueira had the best positions, he was winning the fight. But it was a bad decision; they gave it to Henderson a 2-1 split – the whole arena knew Nogueira should have won and they were shouting. The other side of the bracket was Tamura and Babalu. Babalu beat Tamura and then lost to Dan.”
In the next RINGS tournament, Big Nog blazed through to the finals, avenging his prior loss against Overeem in the championship by triangle arm choke. His accomplishments landed him a position in PRIDE. Cristiano was training with him every step of the way. I asked him why he didn’t take up MMA at the time. “No way,” he replied, “I was just a blue belt, a beginner, I didn’t know anything.”
But Big Nog saw the potential in Cristiano, and in 2001 invited him back to Brazil to train. Cristiano had now gone from being a winning blue belt in Japan to training with arguably the best team in the world – Brazilian Top Team. In Rio de Janeiro, he trained alongside both Nogueira brothers, as well as Ze Mario Sperry, Murilo Bustamante, Ricardo Arona, Paulo Filho, Carlos Barreto, Vitor Belfort, and Fernando Margarida. He received his purple belt that year, and his wins increased further: Campeão Central Japan Jiu Jitsu in Nagoya, Copa Gracie Barra, and Copa Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Club.
In 2002 Cristiano decided he would go back to Rio de Janeiro for an entire year to train and compete. As well as fighting all over Brazil (Paranaense, Copa do Brasil, Copa Surfight, and Silver at Campeonato Brasileiro de Jiu Jitsu), he was a champion at the PanAms in Orlando, Florida. Rounding out an incredible year, Cristiano received his brown belt from Murilo Bustamante and returned to Japan.
From the Tatame to the Canvas
Cristiano was now helping corner his BTT teammates in PRIDE. He attended a staggering twenty-four PRIDE shows and was a cornerman for Big Nog, Antonio ‘Big Foot’ Silva, Paulo Filho, Ricardo Arona, Ze Sperry, and even Minowaman. Then, following the Campeão Copa Koral de Jiu Jitsu in 2003, Cristano paused from competing in BJJ tournaments. “After three or fours years, Big Nog was famous,” Cristiano explained. “He told me ‘Cris why don’t you train to fight MMA?’ It was he who pushed me. He was the reason I started.”
PRIDE had begun hosting the Challenger amateur events, and they invited Cristiano to compete. “It was with headgear,” he remarked. “My first event, I won. My second event, I won. And I was MVP at the third.”
Then the gregarious DEEP owner Shigeru Saeki contacted Cristiano and signed him for his first professional fight at DEEP’s 16th Impact. Cristiano remembers the event well: “It was against the guy who was the top contender (for DEEP) Junpei Hamada.” One month earlier, Junpei had fought multi-promotion bulldozing winner Denis Kang and lost. Cristiano was able to extend that streak for him by defeating Junpei with a barrage of punches in just 1:58 of the first round. He remembers another fighter on the card. “Shinya Aoki was there too, and it was his first loss,” he recalls. “He lost Nakao, who won the tournament.” Cristiano continues with another interesting tidbit, “At a grappling tournament, I refereed Shinya when he was a purple belt.”
Cristiano went back to Brazil to train, this time specifically for MMA with the legendary Fabio Noguchi, the coach behind the phenomenal Anderson Silva (not the aikido guy with the pony tail from the movies). This coach harkens back to the time of Vale Tudo in Brazil, when Carlson Gracie Team-cum-BTT began and Wanderlei Silva was the Chute Boxe poster boy, and when many Brazilian and international competitions would see the two teams square off repeatedly in the finals. Cristiano returned to face Takahiro Oba in DEEP 22, and with his new skill set, the carnage he wreaked on his opponent caused the ref to stop it after just one round.
Then came a monumental year: 2006. Cristiano resumed BJJ competition in fierce form at the Campeão Asiático, Copa Viva, Copa AXIS, and the All Japan, where again he resumed his championship spot on the podium. He again fought MMA in DEEP against Gotoku Onda but was declared a NC due to a questionable soccer kick. In a final event marking a successful year, Cristiano received his black belt on December 16th from his master Taka Watanabe.
In 2007, Cristiano made his final appearance in DEEP, taking on the famous Henry “Sentoryu” Miller in what was to be the first of three bouts. Sentoryu was from the behemoth PRIDE. Cristiano KOed him with a head kick in first round. On that epic card were Katsunori Kikuno, Michihiro Omigawa, Satoru Kitaoka and Murilo Bustamante. Cristiano then fought on the MARS 9 card, and continuing his streak of quick finishes; he submitted Kim Ji Hoon via triangle choke in the first round.
TurningUp the Heat
Cristiano then transitioned from the ring to the cage, and found what was to be his permanent home in HEAT at their fifth event. “HEAT is the only cage event in Japan,” he states, “and you can use elbows and stomps and kicks to the head. I much prefer the cage.” He was matched in the Heavyweight division against Judoka Kazuhisa Tazawa, one of the better grapplers in the division; 50% of his wins were by submission. “My real division is Light Heavyweight, about 95 to 99 kilos,” he states, “but they always put me against bigger guys, at least 110 to 120.”
It was to be his first and only loss to the more powerful man, who was 120 kilos. The loss made him rethink his entire training regime. “I had only trained with my friends,” he said, “and there was really nobody my size at the gym.” He stopped all BJJ competition and focused solely on MMA, which led him to the American Top Team in Florida, USA. Why ATT? Cristiano stated, “All the UFC, WEC, Strikeforce, Elite and Bellator guys were there. Big Foot, Thiago Silva, Little Nog.”
After training at ATT, Cristiano felt much-improved. “My confidence in my technique and in my skill grew,” he stated. So in 2008 he returned to HEAT and avenged the loss with a decision win over Minoru Kato. He began cementing his dominance in Heat 9, winning a decision over prolific fighter Lee SangSoo from Team MAD. And in Heat 10 and 11, he met Sentoryu two more times, first to a no-contest and then TKOing him in the third round by punches. Thus he became the HEAT Heavyweight Champion.
Cristiano had been speaking with PRIDE’s BTT fighter manager Matoko Uchida and was finally invited to fight in PRIDE, but their purchase by Zuffa and subsequent demise was very untimely for him. It gave him reason to pause and focus on his jiu jitsu once again. He went further abroad to coach in Shanghai, China at the newly-formed Alavanca BJJ Academy. “At first, they didn’t have a great location and it was a little slow,” he states. “Then they moved to a better place, and I saw more students begin to come. It is a big place! BJJ can really grow, and they should organize more and more competitions in China. I went to some MMA shows: the Art Of War – that was really good – and UMAC and some others. Being in China was a really good experience. I will go back to teach there soon.”
In 2010 Cristiano returned to BJJ competition for the first time in almost 4 years at the All Japan Jiu Jitsu competition and once again claimed the gold – his seventh in the event.
In that same year he defended his HEAT Heavyweight title against the giant Myles Tynanes. Harkening back to his very first MMA fights, he won in the first round via arm-lock. It was to be his last MMA fight to date, as he began concentrating on the upper echelons of BJJ competition around the world: Paranaense de Jiu Jitsu in Curitiba in 2010, and in 2011 multiple medals at both the Europeans in Portugal and the PanAms in the US.
These competitions brought Cristiano an impressive record of more than 140 fights in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. He amassed victories over current and past world Champions, among them Romolu Barral, Braulio Estima, Roberto “Cyborg” Abreu, Marcos Broa, and Fabio Trindade. He competed regularly against the top in the sport: Fabricio Werdum, Tarsis Humphreys, Robert Drysdale, Andre Galvao, Roberto Godoy, and Fabio Leopoldo.
Then, a training accident momentarily halted his schedule. He went for a leg lock and his opponent pulled hard – Cristiano heard and felt a pop in his shoulder. An MRI confirmed he’d pulled a tendon connecting his shoulder muscles to his chest along with possible muscle tears. “After I train for a while, you can see the hole where the tendon has come unattached,” he nonchalantly informs. “I will go to Brazil soon to get the surgery. I expect about four months’ recovery time – I have a friend who had the same surgery – and the earliest I can fight again will be August (2012).”
This affected his MMA aspirations for the end of 2011. “I was supposed to have a September title defense against X-1’s Lolohea, but they switched opponents” he states. “They set another one for December, but of course I told them I had to cancel that. They finally asked about March in Nagoya, so I volunteered to vacate my title. HEAT has agreed to start a new division for me when I come back, a true Light Heavyweight division.”
Cristiano’s MMA record stands at 8-1-0, and he is eager to increase his winnings post-rehab. “HEAT will allow me to fight anywhere. I want to fight in Japan, but I want to fight in other places also,” Cristiano confides. “Since being in Hong Kong, I’ve talked to Legend FC and RUFF in China – I cornered Caporal at their last event. They need more time to build up the heavier divisions.”
As for his return journey to his homeland, it may be happening sooner than he thinks, while still continuing on his MMA journey. “I don’t want to stay in Japan,” he admits. “There are many academies, but for me the MMA training is not so good and there are no cages. I would like to live in Brazil or the US soon, and fight in Japan, and I would definitely like to fight in the US.” As the saying goes, Cristiano is ‘big in Japan’. Watch out for his return to international MMA in latter 2012, and try to catch him at a seminar as he travels around Asia now.
What’s your favorite submission? “Armbar!”
For more information on Cristiano Kaminishi, visit his website.