I helped Sherdog.com's Tony Loiseleur to research the aforementioned feature article on Shuichiro Katsumura.
After the catastrophic disasters of March 11, I penned an article on SKILL MMA that touched on how certain media outlets irresponsibly reported the event and its fallout. Today, however, I want to talk more about someone who actually lives in Japan that has put forth great effort to support the earthquake and tsunami victims.
Hayato "Mach" Sakurai, Enson Inoue, Ryo Chonan and many other fighters in the MMA community have done much to contribute to the aid effort for Japan's Tohoku region. In discussing with Tony a potential feature for Sherdog on fighters taking part in disaster relief, all these names came up as suggestions to whom I thought were suited for his article.
At the time, the various names above had already received some amount of press in the English MMA media. However, one person who had not received attention was Katsumura, whom I suggested to Tony because of his active and ongoing mission to make regular relief trips to Tohoku despite the closeness of his first Shooto featherweight title defense. The relief missions admittedly went on throughout Katsumura's fight camp, making his story an intriguing and unique one. Tony and I came to the conclusion then that, rather than other fighters in the news, Katsumura would be the best choice to focus on because his desire to help his fellow countrymen outstripped his professional desire to preserve his Shooto title and few people in the Western MMA community knew about him and his situation.
Katsumura is not a well-known fighter to Western MMA fans, but he has a unique career that is worth sharing. He started in Shooto where he struggled. Then, after losing to Marcos "Louro" Galvao in 2004, Katsumura was suggested and offered a move to the ZST promotion by Sustain promoter Kazuhiro Sakamoto, which he took. While Galvao went on to become a highly-touted prospect after that win, Katsumura left the Shooto circuit with a promise to the fans that he would be back.
He was later brought in to K-1 Hero's, thanks to FEG's discovery of his day job at a local orphanage. Naturally, FEG liked the image of Katsumura being a fighter who also worked for the public good. While the exposure made him famous among the casual television-watching audience of Japan, he fought opponents well above his weight in K-1 Hero's and lost, leading him to feel self-conscious about his position in the promotion.
"Why should I be getting famous in K-1 by losing and working in an orphanage?"
He withdrew from fighting after the losses in Hero's, though he continued working for the public good by becoming a school teacher. Soon after, through the encouragement of his friends and the support of ZST, he started his own gym with the intent of resetting his career after two years of absence. He made his comeback in Shooto in 2009 by beating So Tazawa. He unexpectedly submitted the young Shooto title contender with a Brabo choke, making it look easy. With that surprising submission victory, Katsumura himself was vaulted into the Shooto title picture.
Masakatsu Ueda was Shooto's 132-pound champion at the time and was thus considered a top-10 bantamweight, naturally making the returning Katsumura a huge underdog. No matter how stacked the odds or widespread the belief that Ueda would crush him, however, Katsumura pulled off a shocking upset by catching Ueda in his "Ninja choke"; a signature move that Katsumura developed on his own over the course of two years extensively studying Eddie Bravo's rubber guard system.
Though the story of his returning to Shooto after so long to win the championship was an inspiring one, it was not a story without turbulence. After the Ueda victory, he lost by TKO to Darren Uyenoyama in a non-title bout several months later. Recently, he lost by knockout to Koetsu Okazaki; thus relinquishing the belt to him.
Though Katsumura is no longer a Shooto champion, he is still an active and integral part of the Japanese MMA community. As a teacher, Katsumura has many students in the local promotions of Japan, helping them make their way up their own competitive ladders. It is this social aspect of Katsumura--of him being a teacher, and consequently, his deep desire to help people--that I believe makes him unique, and also what I would like to focus on.
One particular example that is interesting and telling about Katsumura relates to his gym, Reversal Gym Yokohama Groundslam, which does not take children as students. This is surprising given his history of helping and educating children as both an orphanage worker and school teacher. The reason for this, however, is due to Katsumura's childhood goal to become a teacher himself. The desire was reportedly born out of his resentment of his own teachers at the time.
As a youth, he took particular dislike to his teachers' philosophy of "I know the key to success. You must work hard like I did, and that is how you will succeed." As a result, students who stuck to these philosophies of discipline tended in theory to be favored by teachers. Katsumura's primary objection lies in the notion that while this philosophy might work for dedicated and obedient children like the type that might become "honor students," not all children are, in fact, honor students. There exists a whole range of personalities; good, bad, and in the middle. His concern lies with the care and welfare of children considered "bad" or "in the middle," who may not receive the kind of care and attention that honor students would.
He also finds an uncomfortable similarity with MMA fighters who teach children and trumpet similar ideas about "discipline for children." "Only a good-for-nothing can understand a good-for-nothing," Katsumura is quoted as saying. While he agrees that it is important to give children virtues such as "consideration for others," and for them to benefit from the physical conditioning that martial arts can provide, teaching martial arts to children can be dangerous, given its nature. Katsumura does not believe that he is a good candidate to be promoting similar lessons however, given his own past and understanding of children.
Katsumura claims that he wouldn't be able to continue running his gym if he started teaching children, primarily due to the fear that those he teaches could potentially use MMA techniques in brawls with their peers; the worst would be if he inadvertently taught a bully how to use MMA techniques. While he generally thinks that children are good, he understands that he cannot make that guarantee for every child, and that despite what problems a child may have, there is a possibility that Katsumura may never find out about them even if they are his students. Will his young students still be trustworthy once they are outside of the gym, beyond his guidance and supervision?
I acknowledge the fact that the teaching of martial arts is fraught with problems; it is understandably never an easy situation. The case of children in martial arts makes things much more difficult, as not every child can be expected to choose the moral and just way to act with such knowledge, nor can there be assurances that all children will learn these things from their teachers.
I imagine that most teachers watch their children in the hopes that they will improve their skills and that like school teachers, the ones that excel will receive the most attention. However, it must be remembered that teaching a child to know the difference between right and wrong and impressing upon them a sense of responsibility is just as important as learning martial arts techniques. Further, it is just as important to focus on children that are considered "underachievers"; overstressing "success" and "achievement" in martial arts is unimportant to Katsumura since he believes people should be able to make and learn from mistakes. He has those children in mind because they need equal attention.
This kind of education is also a long and difficult process, and martial arts teachers will have more difficulty teaching young students about responsibility over technique. This is how I feel in dealing with children even outside of the martial arts realm.
Katsumura does, however, teach wrestling to the children he has known during his time at the orphanage; all of whom he claims he can take better care of and responsibility for beyond the wrestling mat. However, he still refuses to teach them striking or grappling techniques. Of course, the children he teaches still have their problems, and admittedly, they still get into fights. Whenever problems arise, however, he meets with the parents and tries to resolve the troubles with these former orphans through discussion.
While I acknowledge that the most important thing in sports is determining who is the best, I'm often surprised by how many charming and wonderful people I meet in the fight scene despite how competitive that goal is. What troubles me is that fans tend to forget about these people when they lose, as if they are no longer relevant. This is the reason why I wanted to write and remind fans about someone like Katsumura. He is not only a talented fighter with a unique story, but he is also a socially responsible and charitable person that people should know about and never forget. He is an example that I think we should all strive to emulate.
I think that Tony did a great job in writing about these things that make Katsumura the person and athlete that he is. At the time, I even suggested to him that he should write about the idea that Katsumura "had become the real Tiger Mask," because of how his good works outside of the ring reflected those of the famous cartoon character. Tony smiled and said, "I know, and I already will."
In researching Katsumura, I was pleasantly surprised that Tony had the same ideas as I had, and that he came to the same conclusions. It is my hope that people read that article and not only enjoy it, but also understand what kind of person Katsumura is and why he is so important to our MMA community.
Further, if the story resonates with you and you can spare the expense, please continue to support the victims of the Tohoku quake and tsunami by donating to the Japanese Red Cross link below. Of course, it is what "the Real Tiger Mask" would do.
Japan／Earthquake Donation by Japanese Red Cross Society
Quotation Shuichiro Katsumura's official blog
Big thanks to Robert Sargent of MMARising.com and Chris Nelson and of Sherdog.com for their help in editing this piece.