A Rendezvous at T-Grip Gym, Tokyo
Gaining in notoriety and reputation, Tokyo’s T-Grip gym sits in a prime location just a short walk from Takadanobaba Station. Founded by ardent Martial Artist Taro Obata, the gym houses stand out Bantamweight veteran Takafumi Otsuka.
After witnessing the spectacle of UFC 1, Obata headed to Wajutsu Keishukai gym to train under the late Yoshinori Nishi. A Karate stylist, Nishi was also a student of the legendary Masahiko Kimura and his gym played a pivotal role in the development of Mixed Martial Arts in Japan.
Roughly 25 years later, Obata put his wealth of experience to work and became the proud owner of his own gym. While founding T-Grip was a decision made in part to assist his own progress as a Martial Artist, a key element was to support his students, the highest profile being the world class Takafumi Otsuka, who is thriving in the environment.
Arriving at T-Grip Lively and energetic, Otsuka sports medical tape across his forehead, a consequence of a clash of heads during tough training. The “stiches are out” and the “cut has healed” he notes, assuring that there will be “no problems” fight night as he vies for the Shooto Bantamweight Belt. Not taking his foot of the pedal for a moment, Otsuka enthusiastically mentions more arduous training lies ahead, and the workhorse will revel in every moment of it
Champion Level Training
T-Grip has an extensive network of connections spanning a host of gyms and fighters. Fighters and coaches are regularly exchanged to bolster training. Otsuka in particular frequents other gyms to teach and train and the relationship has payed dividends.
“I am splitting my time between T-Grip and Pancrasism Yokohama. ” Otsuka informs, “I do one on one training with Featherweight One Championship fighter Koyomi Matsushima. As he belongs to Pancrasism Yokohama I go there once a week and he visits T-Grip once a week in return”.
While a Kyokushin Karate black belt with devastating striking, One Championship top ranker Koyomi Matsushima is perhaps best known for his outstanding wrestling game. It is easy to see how the 155lb fighter complements Otsuka’s training perfectly.
“We practice MMA training, wrestling, scrambling and working against the wall,” Otsuka states while keen to point out that “It is more than just 2 people training”, he has other sparring partners and is also honing his striking “training with Karate coach Tatsuya Iwasaki”
Full Contact Karate master Tatsuya Iwasaki and Otsuka have a history of working together. In his prime, the legendary Kyokushin Karate practitioner tore through the All japan Open Weight Karate tournaments. After transitioning to MMA, Iwasaki now runs his own Karate school as a coach and mentor. Passing on his unique and astute understanding of distance and striking for MMA, Iwasaki has helped polish the striking of many world class fighters.
A Change of Path, the Start of a New Journey
A stalwart competitor in the DEEP organization where he has fought the vast majority of his 46 matches, Takafumi Otsuka’s switch to Shooto raised more than a few eyebrows. After almost 15 years, many were curious as to what prompted the sudden change of heart.
“Fundamentally Shooto has contests, fighters go from amateur to professional status,” Otsuka states, pointing out that “they do not take in pro wrestlers,” as further proof of Shooto’s legitimacy.
Taro Obata, also in attendance, elaborated further, “under the DEEP org, Otsuka was facing the same opponents a lot”. In a similar vein he also commended their set up, “they have rankings with top fighters, strong fighters, overseas fighters”.
Shooto offered uncharted territory, new ground to cover, and with it came interesting opportunities. A wide array of proven talent, fighting to stay afloat in deep divisions, Shooto presented fresh and exciting challenges. When further taking into account Shooto’s connection to One Championship and a global stage, the motivation behind the move becomes clearer.
Matched With a “Monster” Opponent
For his sophomore Shooto appearance Otsuka drew a formidable opponent. Tatsuya Ando battled tooth and nail to take the Bantamweight Champion Ryo Okada to a split draw. After coming a hairs breadth of claiming the Bantamweight strap, Ando seized the Pacific Rim title in emphatic fashion.
“I knew Ando was talented, a good fighter,” Otsuka reflects, “a comparison with Kid Yamamoto might be going too far but he has that 1 punch power.” Ando trained at Krazy Bee gym under the late Kid Yamamoto and follows in the footsteps of his mentors destructive style.
Recognizing that southpaw Ando is “a little different from other fighters” Otsuka was fully aware of the deadly skill set of his unorthodox foe. “After his previous match with Tamura Takumi, I thought he is a dangerous fighter” acknowledges Otsuka, “he can put you down with one shot”.
A perennial top contender, Takumi Tamaru possessed an impressive 11-1 record entering the Ando fight and had derailed many top fighters careers. With a multi-faced, technical game and high fight IQ, “Fighting Genius” Tamaru had a history of making great fighters look average. Ando dismantled the wily tactician with strikes inside of a round. With the stunning performance the fighter dubbed “the Monster” collected the Pacific Rim Championship Belt and delivered a strong message to the divisions elite.
A head turning Shooto debut
With a speciality of setting a pace opponents struggle to keep up with, the wrestling-heavy approach of Otsuka blends tremendous heart and fighting spirit with relentless tenacity. Utilizing excellent footwork, technical wrestling, positional dominance and an endless gas tank, Otsuka typically controls the fight pace and rhythm, grinding opponents down. In Tatsuya Ando he faced a powerhouse, an explosive wrestler with dynamite in his hands. As the 2 contrasting styles clashed in the main event of Shooto 2020 volume 7, the fight did not play out as expected.
The main plan was “to tire him out with take downs” the elite wrestler admits, while additionally maintaining, “we did a lot of practice with kicks, inside and outside low kicks”. Leg kicks against the low stance of Ando were part of the strategy, but their effectiveness defied expectations.
“I could really feel the contact, bone to bone. I was okay and at the time and didn’t know the damage I had done (to my opponent). When I shot for a takedown and he defended, I noticed his knee seemed separated. Knowing the low kick had damaged his knee, I remained calm and used more inside and outside low kicks.”
Each vicious low kick took its toll as Ando grimaced and struggled to bear weight on the leg. After breaking down Ando’s mobility, Otsuka went for the kill, blitzing his foe against the cage while seamlessly blending in a double leg takedown. Maintaining the intensity Otsuka locked up the neck and smoothly transitioned to the back as Ando defended. At that point Ando gestured to the referee, pointing to his knee, the damage was visible and fight came to an end at 2:12 of the first round.
The jaw dropping finish sent a statement. The intrepid wrestler is still developing, adapting, growing as a fighter and his striking is not to be taken lightly. While officially ruled a TKO due to injury, there was no doubt that it was the low kicks that finished the fight, something Ando himself confirmed as he was carried out on a stretcher.
A Showdown with the Bantamweight Champion
Caring little about the belts, Otsuka simply had his sights set on the divisions very best. “After the Ando fight, I took the mic and called out Shoko Sato or (Ryo) Okada, whoever” he casually says. A fighter that never backs down, Ryo Okada accepted the challenge and confidently laid his Bantamweight strap on the line for their showdown, March, Saturday 20th at Korakuen Hall.
“Not surprised” by the short route to the title, Otsuka knew the implications of a win over the Pacific Rim Champion. “After talking with Shooto, Otsuka was also offered a short cut to a title shot” Obata reveals. While confessing it may seem unfair, the T-Grip owner is known for looking out for his fighters and their careers. A highly experienced veteran, with an impressive resume, it is hard to deny the consummate fighter Otsuka a shot at the top. Especially considering the way he toppled The Pacific Rim Champion Ando.
Otsuka would appear to have a mountain to climb to dethrone the Champion Ryo Okada, yet much of the T-Grip wrestlers strength has been forged through adversity. With and indomitable spirit the tenacious grappler has a penance for turning up the heat late in the fight. When it comes to predictions on how the match will unfold however, Otsuka is refreshingly straightforward.
“I have no idea, if I get a finish quickly it is good!” he jokes. Whatever course the fight takes he is prepared. ”Going all 5 rounds is ok, a quick finish is ok. For example, the Ando fight turned out quick but the strategy was to tire him out through the 5 minute rounds, I was prepared to go the full distance” asserts Otsuka.
Sharing some of his fight philosophy he continues, “(you) have to deal with everything. If you get a lucky break you have to change your direction, respond differently. You make sure to fight at every step of the match, every situation. There are times when something is not working out, so you think of different things to try.”
Understanding that wrestling is his strong suite, Otsuka is again prepared for the the long hall, to win the battle of attrition if need be and 5 rounds may tip the scales in the relentless dynamo’s favor. Respecting Okada’s 7 fight unbeaten streak, Otsuka does not expect the Champion to go down easily. “I plan to go for 5 minutes 5 rounds, score take downs and keep top control. I do not think Okada will be finished in rounds 1 or 2,” he predicts.
“(Okada) hasn’t faced anyone like Otsuka,” Obata contends. He then briefly considers Okada’s previous opponent, a title fight with decorated Greco Roman Wrestler Kazuma Kuramoto. A short, pin point punch and ground and pound from Okada brought an end to the meteoric rise of the undefeated wrestler. “They have a wrestling base but Otsuka is not like Kuramoto. When it comes to wrestling for MMA Otsuka is better”, Obata confidently concludes.
Despite the sensational 1st round stoppage of the Pacific Rim Champion in his Shooto debut, Takafumi Otsuka feels he has a lot more to show. His MMA style constantly revamped, fine tuned and polished, the T-Grip representative is eager to display the fruits of his hard training.
“I hope that the Okada fight will show people that I have changed even more.” he contemplates, “I am confident that I have changed, I am confident that I have gotten stronger, and I want people to see that I’m different from before.”
Catch the not to be missed clash for the Bantamweight Shooto Title at Shooto 2021 vol 2, Saturday 20th March. Coming from Korakuen Hall, action starts 18:00 JST