Brian McGrath began his combat sports career as an amateur MMA fighter in the small town of Missoula, Mont. Now he competes as a professional kickboxer in his adopted home of Japan, where he has won several titles. On September 24, he’ll get the biggest opportunity of his career when he enters the K-1 World Grand Prix eight-man cruiserweight tournament. Here is his story of living and fighting as a foreigner in Japan, as told to MMAjunkie’s Ben Fowlkes.
The thing about being an American in Japan is that you make a lot of mistakes without really knowing it.
The first time I went to a kickboxing gym in Japan, I was teaching English in Gunma, which is about a two-hour train ride from Tokyo. I’d done martial arts most of my life and I’d had a few MMA bouts by this point, and I started asking around for some place to train. I didn’t think there’d be too many options. I was living in a pretty small village, so I thought maybe some kendo or karate or something, but I was up for whatever. A coworker told me about a kickboxing gym down the mountain from us, and offered to introduce me.
Pretty much across the board in Japan, having an introduction is very important. Not that I couldn’t have walked in off the street, but it would have been a different experience. The introduction gives you a sort of guarantor, someone who’ll vouch for you, and that’s an important relationship in Japanese culture.
But when I first walked into the gym they asked me to wait until the coach was free to speak to me. There were all these heavy bags hanging up, and I figured, hey, I’m a fighter, I know what those are for, so I got some work in hitting the bags while I waited. No one said anything about it at the time, and I didn’t think anything of it.
Much later, at my wedding, my coach got up and gave a speech where he said he didn’t know what to think of me at first, because I had just walked into his gym as a stranger and started hitting his heavy bags. He talked about how it actually took him a long time to revise his opinion of me after that, because it was such a breach of etiquette. The other Japanese people at the wedding, like my wife and her family, they also seemed shocked by it. Like, how could you do that? To me it seemed like a perfectly normal thing to do. And the thing is, my coach had never said anything about it before then. It was this thing he’d been carrying around, and here I had no idea.
Even after living in Japan for years and speaking the language fluently, that kind of thing still happens to me. It’s so easy to miss a social cue or misinterpret what someone is trying to say. The Japanese communication style is very indirect sometimes, but there’s also an elegance to it. The only way you really learn is to find yourself in those situations.
I first went to Japan my junior year of college. I was minoring in Japanese at the time, and my professor at the University of Montana really encouraged us to study abroad. That first time, it was so overwhelming. Just landing at the airport and trying to get to the university, which was in the heart of Tokyo, felt like almost too much to process.
For most of that year, I didn’t really know what was going on. I was studying Japanese, but I didn’t really speak it well enough to understand what was happening. It wasn’t until I came back as part of the JET (Japanese Exchange and Teaching) Program that I started to get it.
What really cemented my relationship with my coach, Akira Matsui, was when I injured my ankle in my first kickboxing match. I needed surgery, but even at the hospital, it’s like you need an introduction, someone to sign for you and be responsible for you. Usually it’s a family member, but I didn’t have any family there, so he was my guarantor, which was a very big deal. The Japanese really take those relationships seriously. Whether you’re indebted to them or they’re indebted to you, they’re going to do their part and expect you to do yours.
The medical care in Japan is great. I was covered through both the National Health Insurance and a private health insurance through my teaching job, so I didn’t pay a penny for my surgery. Even now, when I need medication for my asthma, it’s like $40. That’s for both the appointment and the medication, and they give you a lot of it. In the U.S., that would be hundreds of dollars altogether.
It was after I’d had surgery and done my rehab on my ankle that my coach said, ‘Hey, let’s do another fight.’ I did and I won, so then he got me another one. Things started to snowball from there. There are a lot of different styles of kickboxing in Japan, and some with very different rules. There’s one style that allows throws and headbutts, very brutal, and other more sport-oriented styles, like what you’d see in Thailand or The Netherlands.
One thing about Japan is that they’re very good at importing something from another place, another culture, and then refining it. That’s true with everything from kickboxing to food. You’ll hear about some great pizza place and think, no way am I going to get great pizza in Tokyo. Then you’ll go and it turns out the chef studied in Milan for years, then brought that knowledge back home and perfected it.
Just the other day I went to barbecue place thinking, there is absolutely no way this will be better than the barbecue I’ve eaten in the states. But I’m telling you, it was. There’s a meticulousness to a lot of Japanese culture that’s really great for putting something under a microscope and studying it until you get it just right.
The attitude towards sports in general, and martial arts in particular, is kind of like that. For most Japanese people, fighting isn’t some thuggish thing. And you don’t have to be especially good at it for them to recognize the value of studying it. Obviously not everyone becomes a pro fighter, but all the time I see businessmen on the streets with cauliflower ear. If you’re a high-level judo practitioner in college or something, even if you don’t go anywhere with it after that, a company might hire you just because they recognize your ability to commit to learning a craft, even if it’s totally different from whatever craft they do.
The attitude towards foreigners is still somewhat unpredictable, though. Sometimes it really freaks Japanese people out when a foreigner like me speaks the language fluently. They don’t know what to make of it, like this comfortable distance that they rely on has suddenly vanished. But that’s changing, too, as more and more foreigners speak Japanese.
Other promoters I’ve fought for in the past have really liked the fact that I can talk directly to fans. They’d always give me the mic after fights, and it helped me build up a fanbase. I don’t have a ton of fans by any means, but the ones I do have are so passionate and loyal. They’ll show up and support you no matter what.
For this K-1 tournament, however, they really want to promote me as the American. It’s eight fighters – four Japanese and four foreigners. I’m the only American, and they told me that I’m basically not allowed to speak Japanese at the press conferences. They even give me an interpreter. It’s kind of weird, but I get it. That’s what sells, in a way.
I know I’m a pretty big underdog heading into this thing. I’m probably the smallest fighter in the tournament. I’ve trained with pretty much all the Japanese fighters in the tournament, and most of them have fought at heavyweight before. This is a one-day tournament, so the winner will have to win three fights in one day. If I do that, it could really change my life.
I don’t know how long I’ll keep fighting. My wife is pregnant with our first child, and once the baby arrives in December, I know she’ll want me to slow down. I have a good job at a gym in Roppongi called Club 360, where I’m the boxing coach. I’ve met a lot of great people there, and it’s still overwhelming sometimes being a guy from Montana and walking around in Tokyo, where there’s always so much going on. But I love it. It’s been an incredible journey. And the barbecue is good, too.
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Source: USA Today – MMA Junkie
Read the full article here: What's it like to be an American fighter living in Japan? A K-1 kickboxer tells his story