Alone in her dressing room just before the bout, mixed martial arts fighter Megumi Fujii lay down and closed her eyes, gradually focusing her concentration. Five minutes later, she set off for the ring.
On May 18 in Louisiana in the southern United States, Fujii, 38, was set to fight for the first time in half a year. It also marked her first bout outside of Japan in a year and a half.
"Pound for pound, the world-ranked number one, Megumi Fujii!" barked a ring announcer over the PA system. "Pound for pound" is a way of determining who is the best fighter by making comparisons in terms of ability regardless of weight class, lightweights and heavyweights alike. That is why Fujii, ranked number one in the world, can be said to be the best female mixed martial artist on the planet.
Almost anything goes in mixed martial arts, which allows fighters to use a wide range of techniques such as groundwork and grappling, as well as kicks and punches. It is a combat sport that amalgamates judo, wrestling, kickboxing, and other martial arts. One round lasts five minutes, and a bout can typically last as long as two to three rounds. Victory or defeat can be decided by tap outs when a fighter concedes, knockouts and judges' decisions.
At 159 centimeters tall and weighing 53 kilograms, Fujii may be relatively small for a fighter, but she sports "six-pack" abdominal muscles and her upper arms are considerably thicker than her calves. Using her well-conditioned body as a weapon, which has gained the respect of even top male fighters, she has faced off against much larger foreign opponents.
However, on this day she lost the bout by a decision to world-ranked number nine Jessica Aguilar. It was her second defeat in 27 professional fights. Fujii was convinced that she was the true victor, and even fans in the arena told her she didn't lose. "It's hard to take, but right now, at this point in time, I gave everything I had."
FROWNING ON THE IDEA OF WOMEN IN COMBAT
Fujii's late grandfather, Masaru, was a judo master, and so is her father, Kuniaki, 67. When she was little, it was natural for her to start taking judo lessons together with her older and younger brothers.
Olympic judo gold medalist Ryoko Tani (formerly Tamura), also known by her nickname "Yawara-chan" in Japan, is one year Fujii's junior. She set out to become an Olympian herself after watching Tani's exploits on the international stage, but the best she could do in her time at university was placing eighth in a national student tournament.
"She wasn't hungry enough," says her father. Her tendency to worry that her opponent would get in trouble if she defeated her and other such unnecessary niceties worked to her detriment.
Fujii quit judo in university. She found a job with a talent agency, and without training or dietary restraints, her weight ballooned before her very eyes. To slim down, she began training in the Russian combat sport of sambo. It is similar to judo but has fewer restrictions, such as allowing leg locks. That year, Fujii was victorious in the national tournament, and also won a silver medal at the world championships. This was followed by a string of silver medals that only put a damper on her spirits, making her wonder if she would ever be able to become the world number one.
Around this time, she accepted an offer from mixed martial arts gym president Hiroyuki Abe, 42, who asked her to quit her talent agency and become a gym instructor. This was her entry to the world of mixed martial arts. She was 30 years old.
The "anything goes" style of mixed martial arts was liberating, and it suited her. "She took everything I taught her and made it her own," says her coach and former boxer Joji Nogi, 52. "She was determined not to let a single minute or second go to waste."
"Even so, I was afraid of hitting and getting hit," says Fujii. She still has a fear of kicks and punches, so in training and bouts, she empties her mind and focuses on the fight at hand. When a match approaches, she believes that she must avoid entering a gentle frame of mind, so she takes a break from teaching children at the gym. When she steps into the ring, her usually laid-back personality metamorphoses into a fierce persona that even her fans find unapproachable. Compared to the years Fujii spent practicing judo, she has a greater ability to switch between mental states.
Her aptitude for grappling brought her a string of victories that enabled her to turn professional, still a rarity for a female fighter. Currently, no one can rival her in Japan.
Fujii's opponents were all ranked lower than her. She began to ask herself why she was doing mixed martial arts. Gradually, she struggled to find the motivation to keep fighting.
"This wouldn't happen if I was a man." Fujii felt stuck in rut.
Men's mixed martial arts have an established popularity, and tournaments are sometimes broadcast on television in Japan at peak viewing times. However, women's combat sports barely register in the media. There is even an atmosphere within the mixed martial arts industry that frowns on the idea of women beating on each other. Fujii was frustrated that she would not be recognized fairly for her achievements, no matter how strong she became.
Two years ago, a junior fighter who was regarded as a great prospect ended up quitting the sport. Her reasoning was that she couldn't see a future in it. Fujii was unable to stop her.
Could she herself go on like this? As she kept asking herself that question, another goal entered her sights. Not only did she want to become stronger, she wanted to make female mixed martial arts a more major sport. She would take pride in the fact that she was forging history and her own era, and become a guiding light for women in the sport.
BRINGING AN END TO HER FIGHTING CAREER
Fujii makes a clear distinction between her "on" days and "off" days. She never trains on Sundays. They are set aside for reading, watching movies, meals with friends. ... At the movie theater she eats caramel popcorn, and at restaurants she also orders cakes, parfaits and other desserts. "It's amazing how normally she eats," says junior fighter Rina Tomita, 27. "So I wonder how she achieves a body like that."
Fujii also makes an effort to stay fashionable, decorating her fingernails and dyeing her hair. Romance is not out of bounds either. "Relaxing when I have time to take it easy helps me focus more during a bout."
Toshiyuki Mitsugi, 48, editor of mixed martial arts magazine Yamato, suggests there is more to Fujii's success than her martial arts ability. "The top professional fighters aren't only preoccupied with winning, they also put a lot of thought into the way they present themselves to fans. She has a talent for that." Mitsugi says Fujii takes great pride in her status as a pro.
After winning a match at a tournament at Saitama Super Arena on New Year's Eve 2011, Fujii was handed a microphone while in the ring. "I'm Megumi Fujii. I'm 37 years old!" It was a performance to convey a message to fans that women can also compete in this sport at an advanced age.
In April, Fujii became another year older. She can feel her physical strength waning and would like to have children. Aguilar, her opponent in the match in Louisiana, is an upcoming fighter who has modeled herself on Fujii. The Japanese trailblazer senses that it might be time to pass the baton to the next generation.
The question for Fujii now is how to bring an end to her mixed martial arts career. In order to find the answer, she intends to keep fighting on for a while.
* * *
Born in 1974 in Ibara, Okayama Prefecture. Studied at Shukugawa Gakuin in Hyogo, famous for its girls' judo program, and Kokushikan University. Reached the top eight in the All-Japan Student Judo Championships during her university days. Retired from judo after graduating, then began training in the Russian combat sport of sambo, winning silver medals at the world championships on four occasions. Her mixed martial arts record stands at 25 wins and two losses. Ranked the number one female mixed martial arts fighter in the world pound-for-pound (regardless of weight class) by U.S. television network NBC's sports department and others.
Cats: Fujii's favorite animals are tigers and cats. She was born in the year of the tiger, and loves the suppleness of felines. She lives alone in an apartment with four cats, and would like to open a cat cafe when she retires from the sport.
Time capsule: In junior high, Fujii walked to and from school with three close friends and engaged in lively discussions about boys they liked. They still get together every time she returns to her hometown. Upon graduating from junior high, she buried a time capsule in the school grounds that contained the name of a boy she liked, but when she tried to dig it up 10 years later, it was nowhere to be found.
Disaster relief: She has volunteered on four occasions in places damaged in the Great East Japan Earthquake such as Ishinomaki and Minami Sanriku, clearing mud and debris. "Such a terrible disaster befell my country, and for a while I lost interest in mixed martial arts, wondering whether it was appropriate for me to keep on fighting like I've always done. However, I changed the way I thought about it, that the only thing I can do is what I'm good at, to the best of my ability."
- « Prev
- Next »