Yusuke Kawanago is a featherweight fighter out of Akimoto Dojo, and the first and final Featherweight Champion of Legend FC. Kawanago fights at Pancrase 256 on February 2, 2014, his first fight on Japanese soil in almost three years.
Kawanago was a hot prospect coming out of Japan who was signed along with other top Japanese fighters to compete in Legend FC based in Hong Kong. While Kawanago’s striking was his diamond go-to, his grappling once tested in Pancrase by Champ Takumi Nakayama, was found to be lacking. He didn’t rest on his laurels, he learned from the fight and reinvented himself. Kawanago came back to face heralded Chinese grappler Ji Xian – who eventually became Legend’s Bantamweight Champ – and trumped him with his own trademark guillotine.
As Legend FC slowed and ceased operations in 2013, Kawanago was left without opportunities to defend his belt. When he was finally released from his contract, he was the first Legend FC title holder to be snapped up by a promotion. It was back to his old stomping grounds of Pancrase for his 2014 launching.
Prior to his match, Kawanago spoke to MMA-in-ASIA’s Kei Kumaki in Japan about his career in MMA, with his highlights and disappointments, how they made him stronger, and what his plans are for his new life in 2014.
MMA-in-ASIA: Please tell me how you became interested in MMA?
Kawanago: My hobby used to be watching MMA, including PRIDE, SHOOTO, Pancrase. While I was watching, I thought “I want to try MMA”.
MMA-in-ASIA: Your first 3 fights were in 2004, 2007, 2009. Why did you wait between each match?
Kawanago: If you research my MMA career, you might think I didn’t fight much. But actually, I fought in a lot of no gi matches and wrestling matches. I don’t think my fight schedule was empty.
MMA-in-ASIA: Can you talk about Akimoto Dojo? Why did you choose this dojo? Is your striking style from the school teaching or your own style?
Kawanago: The reason I choose Akimoto Dojo is simple. The gym is the nearest from my house! All of my striking skills I learned at Akimoto Dojo. My boss, Jin Akimoto, has constructed my striking style.
MMA-in-ASIA: Your first 2 years were very good. Then you met Takumi Nakayama. Did being submitted in that fight have any affect on your training afterwards?
Kawanago: I thought I was the best before I lost to Takumi. But I learned my weak point because of the loss, and it did affect my training. The change I made was to increase time practicing grappling.
MMA-in-ASIA: 2011 was your toughest year. After Nakayama you faced Kensaku Nakamura, then entered Legend FC, and had a very controversial loss to Mark Striegl. What were your thoughts and feelings at that time?
Kawanago: 2011 is the year I had 1 win, 2 losses, and 1 draw. That’s very harsh on a fighter. But my fight with Mark was highly appreciated, and I just focused on training, never looking back. I would like to rematch Mark, if I have an opportunity.
MMA-in-ASIA: In 2012 you completely rebounded with a great win over Ji Xian by his own move, a guillotine. Can you talk about that fight?
Kawanago: The fight with Ji Xian was huge for my career. I was satisfied by the content too, because I won by guillotine. I was very happy to prove that I am a fighter who can strike and work on the ground.
MMA-in-ASIA: Your battle with Rob Lisita was bloody and amazing. I think you really showed how fierce and powerful you are in that fight. How did it feel to become Legend FC Champion?
Kawanago: It was very important to become a champion in Legend FC. My value became higher because of being a champion. I also became more committed to fight.
MMA-in-ASIA: Legend FC did not give you a fight for a year, then closed. What were your feelings during 2013?
Kawanago: 2013 was a year I regretted a lot, because despite my plans to defend my title many times in Legend FC, I didn’t have any matches. But I kept training to be ready to fight whenever Legend FC offered me something.
MMA-in-ASIA: Why did you decide to return to Pancrase?
Kawanago: They pursued me aggressively and gave me a good offer.
MMA-in-ASIA: Other Legend FC Champs have gone to UFC and ONE FC. What will be your goals in this next phase of your career?
Kawanago: My ultimate goal is not defined at this moment. But my goal in this year is to get a new belt! I don’t know which new belt it will be, Pancrase or some other promotion’s?
MMA-in-ASIA: How do Legend FC’s champions compare with other Asian organization champions?
Kawanago: I don’t really know much about the other weight divisions, but Ando, at lightweight, is the top fighter and on a world level.
MMA-in-ASIA: How have you developed as a fighter in the last 2 years?
Kawanago: Well I realized that my physical condition was worse than non-Japanese fighters when I fought abroad. So I increased my physical training.
MMA-in-ASIA: Do you have any desire to fight in a cage? Does it matter to you?
Kawanago: I just fight to fight.
MMA-in-ASIA: Your next match is against “Hulk” Oshiro. What do you think of him as a fighter? Obviously he is a striker. Will you stay within your comfort zone for this match?
Kawanago: He is a good opponent, his comfort area is striking. I’ve prepared so that I can fight all situations, including standing and on the ground.
MMA-in-ASIA: Is Pancrase giving you an “easy” fight since you are coming back after a year, or do you think he is as talented as everyone says?
Kawanago: I agree he is talented, but now my level is higher.
MMA-in-ASIA: What are your thoughts on the new global developments that Mr Sakai has made to Pancrase (WSOF, cage, World Slam)?
Kawanago: It is wonderful. If I could, I would like to be involved in all of these plans.
MMA-in-ASIA: How has MMA changed across Japan, and Asia, since you started fighting?
Kawanago: Japanese MMA is decreasing. But Asia MMA is developing. However, there are many good fighters in Japan.
MMA-in-ASIA: What do you do for fun and to relax?
Kawanago: I enjoy jiujutsu as cross-training!
All photos courtesy Legend Fighting Championship website and Facebook.