FOX Sports Exclusive
Kawajiri ready to conquer the UFC
When Zuffa bought out Pride Fighting Championships in 2007 there were only a handful of fighters the promotion didn't land as part of the purchase. The biggest name at the top the list was former Pride heavyweight champion Fedor Emelianenko, but another that didn't make the move was then lightweight contender Tatsuya Kawajiri.
For years while competing in Japan, Kawajiri was considered one of the best lightweight fighters on the planet and his resume reads like a murderer's row of the top fighters in the division.
Following the collapse of Pride, Kawajiri didn't come to the UFC with the likes of former champion Takanori Gomi and instead opted to move to DREAM with a few offshoot fights to fill his schedule. Most recently, Kawajiri also decided to exit the lightweight division where he fought for his entire career and moved down to featherweight and the results have been astonishing thus far.
He's currently 4-0 as a featherweight with three wins via submission, and Kawajiri was quickly a hot prospect on the MMA free agent market. That was until last week when the UFC snapped him up with a multi-fight deal to finally bring 'The Crusher' to the Octagon.
It was just the kind of good news Kawajiri needed after a tough and tumultuous 2013 left him injured for part of the year and the rest without a single fight on the schedule due to DREAM's inactivity. He was in a state of complacency, falling out of love with MMA, when the call came in from the UFC that reinvigorated his spirit, his mind, and his body.
"I've been fighting for DREAM since 2008. However, this year, DREAM didn't promote any shows, and meanwhile, I was injured so, I had no choice but to take a break from fighting," Kawajiri explained when speaking to FOX Sports. "So, this year, my goal was to come back to fighting, and also I was hoping DREAM would come through with the show. My injury is healed, and I already began hard training. I am a professional fighter and in order for me to survive (in this business), I have to continue to get stronger. MMA is a sport that evolves everyday so I believe, in this sport, be on a plateau means retrogression.
"One day in August, I felt I am starting to lose a concentration towards MMA. It's not like I lost a fight or realized my limitation or anything like that, but I felt like I am getting weaker, and I felt, I couldn't sustain this situation anymore. Ever since I started MMA I've had one dream, which is "to become the strongest man in the world." I couldn't give up on this dream. Therefore, to achieve this dream, I've decided to challenge in the UFC because it is the highest summit in MMA."
The deal with the UFC was brokered in large part with Kawajiri's managers at Suckerpunch Entertainment, who have brought a number of fighters from overseas to compete in the Octagon in the past few years. Veteran manager Shu Hirata led the negotiations and hoped to land Kawaijiri in a place where his talents would no longer be wasted.
"We are very excited to be able to work with Tatsuya Kawajiri," Hirata said. "We believe, besides Shinya Aoki, he is the last Japanese superstar that hasn't fought in the Octagon. Ever since Kawajiri went down to 145 lbs division he is undefeated and he looks better than ever. When I saw Kawajiri easily taking down an Olympic wrester like Kazuyuki Miyata, I became a firm believer that he can be an immediate force in the UFC. Therefore, we are looking forward to see him doing very well in the UFC"
Kawajiri has long been on the radar of fight fans who have followed the sport for the last decade. The Japanese powerhouse faced just about every top fighter he could draw during his time between Pride and Dream including some epic wars with fighters like Gilbert Melendez, Eddie Alvarez and Josh Thomson.
Even during his best days in Japan, Kawajiri was always aware of the UFC and hoped that one day he'd be able to challenge himself against the top talent in the United States. Now he finally gets that opportunity and he wants to stay very busy.
"I was always aware of UFC when I was fighting in Japan. What would happen if I fight these fighters in my weight class? Some day I want to fight them, is what I was always thinking. And, I have been watching UFC in that type of a point of view as well. Now, finally, my wish became a reality. From now on, I am really looking forward to face fighters in the UFC," Kawajiri said.
"In order for a fighter to become stronger, the number one method is to fight. An experience from the fight, and hard training we all go through, that is what makes fighter strong. So, for me, being able to fight on a consistent pace is very important. In the UFC, I would like to fight three to four times a year. I want to fight a lot."
Kawajiri has already started sizing up the competition at 145 pounds where he'll make his home when he debuts with the UFC. Fighters like champion Jose Aldo, Chad Mendes, Ricardo Lamas and Cub Swanson are all matchups that intrigue a fighter like Kawajiri, and he's excited to finally face the kind of competition that Pride and DREAM once offered him.
No matter who is standing on top currently, Kawajiri believes he's got the kind of fire power and experience to give any featherweight nightmares and he looks forward to being their worst dream come true once he arrives in the UFC.
"I don't think there is any weakness when it come to top ten fighters in the UFC. All of those guys are amazing in any situations. And Jose Aldo, at this point, is the most outstanding fighter. His punches and kicks are beyond featherweight quality. Even wrestling and BJJ, I believe he can compete against anyone. My wish is to fight a fighter in the top ten. Like I said, these guys have no flaws so I know it’s going to be a tough fight. But, I don't think I am notch below these guys. I have many experiences under my belt," Kawajiri said.
"Do you see any top fighters in the featherweight division that has faced fighters like Gilbert Melendez, Josh Thomson, Eddie Alvarez, PRIDE champions, Muay Thai champions and K-1 champions? I have the experiences that today's featherweight fighters don't have. And I believe even in a very tough fight, these experiences would lead me to the victory."
Kawajiri isn't wasting any time gunning for the top of the division and he hopes to get into the biggest fights possible as soon as the UFC matchmakers give him a fight. This whole journey leads to one place and that's a shot at the UFC featherweight title, and Kawajiri is determined to get there.
"I want to be number-one man in the featherweight division,"
Kawajiri said. "My goal is to get that featherweight belt."