Heavy underdog Okami ready for Silva test at UFC 134 in Brazil
TUALATIN, Ore. -- Is Yushin Okami listening?
Hard to tell. He seems there. He's shadowboxing, bopping around the ring, throwing combinations in the cavernous gym. But he's flatfooted. He's not moving his feet enough. A little stiff in the shoulders. Clayton Hires, the boxing coach pulled out of a local Police Athletic League, the guy who once beat Floyd Mayweather Sr. and sparred Marvin Hagler, yells after him.
There are two weeks until the biggest fight of the 30-year-old Okami's life, a middleweight title bout with reigning champ Anderson Silva at UFC 134 that takes place Aug. 27 in Rio de Janeiro (9 p.m. ET, PPV).
Here in Oregon, the language gap is painfully obvious between the Americans of Team Quest and a small contingent of Japanese behind the challenger. There's not a lot of interaction, and Okami's gentle presence can give him an air of invisibility anywhere but outside the ring, despite his broad face and leonine frame.
So Hires yells, because if he doesn't, he gets nothing back.
Okami's demeanor acts as a cloaking device in public. Nobody noticed when he walked into a local restaurant to watch UFC 133. Halfway through the show, a few realized, "Hey, isn't that the No. 1 middleweight contender?" Nobody did late on a weeknight in Portland as he labored on a 24-Hour Fitness treadmill, where I first saw him. And few do when he walks the streets of Tokyo. The UFC isn't very popular there, anyway, says trainer Gen Isono.
Yet UFC president Dana White believes Okami is the best fighter to ever come out of Japan, a place where he says "mythological" records betray true talent. The rest of the world seems indifferent. For all his talent, Okami wouldn't know marketing if it hit him on the head, which is why others have to sell the fight with Silva. Unsurprisingly, a bout between them five years ago that ended in disqualification for Silva has been trotted out, the old revenge/unanswered question plot line.
Truth be told, just about everybody would rather see Silva once again fight the man bopping around the opposite end of the ring, raconteur Chael Sonnen. The California State Athletic Commission rained on that parade.
Hardly an odder couple could be found. Grating, boastful, hilarious Sonnen, locking up with the prim, reserved Okami. No words are being exchanged. The only sound is the thwap of gloves hitting headgear. Okami's straight left is doing Sonnen no favors. But he's stalking forward, trying to take it to the mat, not having much luck. The round ends, and it probably went to Okami. He looks no worse for the wear. In fact, he doesn't look like anything, really. A blank, blinking stare reveals nothing. In the other corner, Sonnen's mom, Claudia, gives her son a squirt of water.
They met almost two years ago at UFC 104 under live-fire conditions; Sonnen beat Okami at every turn en route to a unanimous decision. That gave way to a friendship forged by fighting and solidified when Okami asked if he could train at Team Quest during the ride back from the arena to the hotel. Sonnen sometimes wonders how he won that fight on one of Okami's good days. Lately, he says, that's about every day.
"Speaking just from an athletic standpoint, he pushes so hard every day," Sonnen tells SI.com. "He was hurt yesterday, thought about taking the day off, and then he ends up showing up and we end up sparring hard for three rounds."
This is Okami's third time visiting Oregon. A very generous sponsor has footed this bill. Isomo says they've been coming to learn the "American way" of training. It's more intense, more practical. They're loving the weather of Portland (it's summer, after all) and the space of the gym. Back in Tokyo, things are cramped. There are still people living in gymnasiums as the result of the Tohoku earthquake, Isono says, and they were at times forced to change schedules. Here, they train with one of the top middleweights in the world, unfettered by everything but their native tongue.
"In Japan, there is a kind of tradition," Isono says. "Like longer is better, harder is better. I found that it really works for younger fighters, but as [Yushin] managed to step up the ladder, a fighter gets older, and they need to learn smart ways to train."
It goes much deeper than that, though. Sonnen says that at times, it's like starting over again. Okami doesn't drill. They go over positions, and he flounders, unsure of what to do. Sonnen gets up to illustrate your average shadowboxing routine and says that's still a work in progress for his training partner. All the fundamentals he takes for granted, they have to revisit.
"They don't jump rope in Japan," Sonnen says.
Most would say that's a severe cause for concern, if not a recipe for disaster. How are you supposed to understand fighting if you can't break down its mechanics, make improvements and reintegrate the pieces back into the whole?
But confusion somehow turns into virtuosity when Okami straps on his gloves and goes live, Sonnen says. He literally morphs into a different person; the basics come flooding back, and suddenly, he is one of the world's best middleweights, if not its best. And this training camp has brought him to a new level of intensity.
"He's never been like this, ever," Sonnen says. "And that will happen if you put a guy in a title fight. Because it is different, physically and mentally. You've got to rise to that challenge. And he has risen. You can just feel it."
Certainly, nothing looks out of place in the ring. Okami is sharp. Isono films the session as Tatsuya Mizuno, a light-heavyweight who fights for Dream, rotates in and does his best Silva, dancing lightly on his feet, reeling off high kicks and glancing punches.
"He's perfect for [Okami]," Hires says. "I'm glad he brought him here. You've just got so see that stuff, that way it's not a mystery when the fight starts."
This is the danger. If Okami can't close the distance, or can't keep moving, he's easy pickings for Silva's rangy, unpredictable striking. The front kick that leveled Vitor Belfort in the champ's previous fight came in a brief moment of pause from his forward attack. At best, Okami has a few moments before Silva begins to pick up his timing and put together combinations.
"He has to go fight," Sonnen says. "He cannot be enthralled by Anderson's athleticism or dance techniques. I don't think Anderson is a really great striker. I think he's a really great setup guy. It's remarkable that he can dance in front of somebody and they freeze in stone like he's the Medusa. They just freeze and look at him, and that's where he lands his strikes.
"Good for Anderson. I'm not giving him an insult. It's amazing that he's got as far fooling people as he has, and he's fooled Yushin before, too. I watched their first fight 10 times -- at least five times when I was getting ready to fight Yushin and five times when I was getting ready to fight Anderson -- and Yushin was fooled that night. Yushin stayed on the outside. And if he stays on the outside, he can't fight. He has to step in there an engage.
"(Mirko) 'Cro Cop' (Filipovic) used to get that same kind of respect. And the first guy that walks out there and gets in his face head kicks him and knocks him out with his own move."
Sonnen took the fight to Silva when they fought one year ago and dominated until a bottom-of-the-ninth submission attempt forced a tapout. Okami tells me he's not trying to reproduce the Oregonian's ground-and-pound success, yet there's clearly a precedent for such a tact. Silva's takedown defense has never been his strongpoint. Okami took him down five years ago before the the fistus interruptus of the upkick. But it's impossible to get any sense of what he's going to do. There are dozens of components to a fight, like colors on a palette, and he could draw on any number of skills to be the guy that brings to a halt Silva's record-breaking run. You just don't know.
The Americans won't know whether they've gotten through, either, until those feet start moving. Hires is concerned, but having been in boxing for 30-odd years, hey, a fight is a fight.
Okami's session ends without fanfare. A few well-wishers bring the first big smile of the evening as he stretches and gathers his gear. It's just about the last of the loving looks he'll get before he walks into hostile territory. Silva is a national hero in Brazil, a legend, the pound-for-pound best. Okami is an impossible underdog. But he's dying to show everyone why he's not, and that underneath his stoic exterior lives a champion.
"It's a huge thing for me getting a title, but this time, I'm going to fight Anderson Silva in his home country, and this should be the first and last chance to do it," Okami says. "So I'm going to spend everything for that fight."