I first met former Shooto Bantamweight Champion Shinichi “BJ” Kojima at Christmas Eve’s Vale Tudo Japan 1st. The flyweight legend wasn’t sporting his blond locks anymore, and looked a lot beefier than I expected – probably why he has only one loss by submission on his record. Larger-than-life is a silly term but it indeed fits him. We arranged to do an interview a few days later at his gym. I wasn’t sure what was in store for me.
I am not a morning person. I am also not a cold weather person. But on a nose-numbingly cold late-December morning, I awoke at the crack of dawn to start off on a journey that would take me to a southernmost part of Tokyo. My destination was BJ’s coach Shuichiro Katsumura‘s famed Reversal-sponsored Groundslam Gym in Yokohama, and I was going to watch the first pro fighter workout of the day. Of course this had to be worth a little bit of discomfort and missed ‘z’s.
At the station I met up with my gracious escort Go Matsuyama, head honcho of GONG Magazine. I learned two interesting things about him: he is a morning person, and he’s as much a lover of MMA as anyone – that’s probably the main reason his magazine is so successful. Go-san kindly gave me a few of the most recent issues of GONG. I was genuinely torn between conversing with him and flipping voraciously through the pages.
After a commute made shorter by the company, we arrived in Yokohama and walked along the canal to the gym, which was located in a mixed-use area on the ground floor of the Kyokushin headquarters building. We were a bit early and it was a bit cold, but fortunately sunny. One by one the fighters arrives on motorcycles and bikes, swathed in scarves and hats, and it was hard to tell who was who just from the eyes peeking out. Michinori Tanaka was first, and was almost unrecognizable with his freshly shaved bald head. He raised the garage bay door, revealing a deep swath of mats, with mirrors on one side and a cage against the other.
As the fighters began to show up, Go-san introduced them to me one by one, although BJ, Michihro Omigawa and Caol Uno really don’t need introductions. There was a wide array of weight classes on the mats. They did surprisingly little warm up drilling (shadow boxing and pad work) before diving into sparring. Omigawa was on the receiving end of some brutally aggressive rounds as he was in his final week of preparations before his match at DREAM 18 with Tatsuya Kawajiri.
I wanted to take photographs during the sparring, but it was near impossible as bodies were colliding back and forth from the cage to the matted wall and back. There were only 30 second rest periods between rounds which made for an hour of furious action. Honestly, it was one of the quickest paced and intense sessions I’ve ever seen. Michinori has an upcoming bout in PXC, and BJ is getting a title contender shot at ONE FC‘s first Flyweight belt so there’s a lot of work to be done. Many of the other guys there are regulars on the Japanese circuit as well, and Caol Uno was sparring as if his own title shot was impending.
BJ – when not sparring – was coaching each guy in a very positive manner. I was impressed with his intensity and focus: when he sparred, there was no instant when he took a breather in a good position; when he coached, he never looked away or spoke to anyone else. And BJ is strong for a flyweight.
The work ethic and enjoyment was reflected in every athlete on that mat. Groundslam is a remarkable team that integrates wholly. The sparring session flowed as each partner transitioned to another as if rehearsed. Gloves on, gloves off, round bell ringing, thwaps of kicks and heaves of powering through cage work… it was a delight to watch the high level of skill on display across the board, and the positive attitudes of everyone involved was very uplifting.
When the session was over, BJ immediately sat down with me to talk. In the background, Michinori carried on working for another hour, and Omigawa made a guest appearance – which was my first glimpse of his hilarious character. You can read his interview pre-DREAM here. Steve Brown, one of the pro team members and a coach at Groundslam, was kind to help BJ and I communicate. I stayed for his class after the sparring session and wished I’d dressed out.