TOKYO -- “It doesn’t feel like I should say finally, but finally, I’m back in the UFC,” says a quiet, gravelly voiced Michihiro Omigawa between sips of coffee.
In a knit headband and wool pullover, Omigawa leans back in his booth at a café near the J-Rock Workout Studio. The only other inhabitants are senior citizens, garrulously chatting the morning away while one of their country’s best fighters quietly prepares for the day’s training. The scene is quiet and anonymous, and it suits the deadly serious Omigawa.
Even a fan that has never seen Sengoku Raiden Championship or Dream has likely seen Omigawa before. When he faces unbeaten blue-chipper Chad Mendes at UFC 126 this Saturday at the Mandalay Bay Events Center in Las Vegas, it will not be the first time he has stepped into the Octagon.
Omigawa is a man of few words; his only moments of voice-raised verbosity are in his infamous -- and often profane -- post-fight speeches. If he were an actor, it would be accurate to call his performances taut or restrained. Nonetheless, the relief in Omigawa’s voice is palpable. While some fighters go only as far as exclaiming the platitude of how honored they are to fight in the UFC, Omigawa is one of the few Japanese fighters who had the benefit of having been there, only to finally return.
“Somehow, I feel like there’s this strong bond between myself and the UFC. I’m really happy that I’m able to come back. Maybe it is God telling me that I have to return to the UFC, and that’s why I’m able to go back now,” he says.
Omigawa’s first UFC stint three years ago was brief, as he was cut after losing tough decisions to Matt Wiman and Thiago Tavares. The pairings were demanding, considering Omigawa entered the Octagon with a .500 record, a clear beneficiary of the fallout from Zuffa’s purchase of Pride Fighting Championships and his place within the Yoshida Dojo stable.
However, those challenges were not new for Omigawa. He debuted in the Pride ring of all places against gritty veteran Aaron Riley, who wielded eight years of MMA experience and nearly three dozen fights. His second fight came against a 7-1-1 Gesias “JZ” Cavalcante; he lasted just 49 seconds.
Omigawa says he holds the advantage in
his matchup with Chad Mendes (above).
Three years removed from his UFC debut and now a featherweight, Omigawa is not only equipped to make a legitimate UFC run but has exceeded expectations in his development as a fighter.
“Being ‘cut by the UFC’ sounds negative, but all the experiences I’ve had in other rings since are positive. I’ve learned and grown a lot. Before my return to the UFC, I was finally able to refine my ‘Omigawa style,’” the Hidehiko Yoshida understudy says. “Specifically, it’s a synthesis of judo and striking. It’s taken time to hone, and it’s nearly perfect these days.”
Amidst turmoil of a deteriorating fight industry in Japan, it comes as no surprise that fighters like Omigawa are looking abroad to test their mettle and get paid. However, despite having notched wins -- albeit highly contentious ones -- against the likes of major featherweight titleholders in Japan, such as Sengoku featherweight champion Hatsu Hioki, Dream featherweight titleholder Hiroyuki Takaya and former Sengoku featherweight kingpin Marlon Sandro, Omigawa has opted to return to the UFC rather than capture a belt at home.
According to Omigawa, he was never in title consideration, either. After his management company, J-Rock, effectively ended its relationship with Sengoku Raiden Championship, Omigawa turned in a first-round stoppage against Takaya on New Year’s Eve in 2009. Heading into 2010, the win over Takaya fueled speculation that he would challenge for the title on Dec. 31.
“I didn’t know anything about a Dream title match [at Dynamite], and no one was talking to me about one. I felt so isolated from Dream then. I was thinking, ‘Oh well, if that’s how it is, go ahead, I guess.’ I felt left out,” says Omigawa, recalling the Takaya-Bibiano Fernandes title fight Dynamite announcement with a wry smile.
“I remember saying publically at the beginning of 2010 that I desperately wanted the Dream featherweight title, but things went wrong, and I didn’t get an opportunity to fight Fernandes. I didn’t like that,” he laments.
However, Omigawa has taken this rejection slight as a sign of a greater purpose. While former adversaries like Hioki, Takaya and Sandro have excelled in Japan, Omigawa feels his opportunity to outshine them will come beyond the shores of his homeland.
“All three have belts because they’re so strong. All except me, however,” Omigawa says quietly. “I think the reason for that is because I have something to do outside of Japan. It’s like God has given me a task to accomplish, like I’m being told, ‘You’re not for here. You must go beyond Japan.’
“Just before the Takaya-Fernandes title bout was confirmed, the WEC and UFC merged,” he continues in hushed tones. “Since the timing was so perfect, I felt maybe this merger was happening for me. I always said I wanted to reach the top of the featherweight division, and I think it’s in the UFC now.”
Despite speaking softly, there is no doubting Omigawa’s conviction in this belief. He is not particularly religious, but he truly believes something deeper or greater is orienting him toward the UFC.
I don’t think he’s
much of an MMA
fighter. He’s not
going to try to
finish an opponent. I
think I’m the one with
the advantage here.
-- Omigawa on Chad Mendes
“The ‘god’ I refer to is something that’s within me, I think. I don’t think there is such a thing as coincidence. I’ve always thought that when things happen, something or someone has given that experience to me,” he says with a self-deprecating chuckle. “It’s kind of spiritual and sounds religious, but I don’t belong to any organized religion. But I do believe there’s someone above me giving me tasks, like homework that I must do in my life.”
Omigawa’s spirituality sans religiosity is typical in Japan. Though the animist Shinto is the state religion and Buddhist temples abound, the majority of modern Japanese tend to be syncretic or atheistic. Christianity and the notion of a monotheistic, all-powerful god is thus something with which many Japanese like Omigawa are familiar and appropriate in their everyday lives in a distinctly secular way.
Fate and destiny notwithstanding, the undefeated Mendes has the kind of stellar wrestling and suffocating top game that can frustrate and shut down anyone’s offense. Omigawa, however, is unperturbed by the stylistic challenge.
“I don’t think he’s much of an MMA fighter. He’s not going to try to finish an opponent. I think I’m the one with the advantage here,” Omigawa says matter-of-factly.
Round 1 - Referee Herb Dean in charge. Mendes opens with a low kick. Omigawa holding the center as Mendes circles around. Mendes lands an overhand and tries to duck for a takedown. Omigawa defends. Mendes resets and tries a second time, but Omigawa stills tays upright. Mendes firing heavy hands, but he's a little short, and Omigawa waves him in. Mendes calms and resets. Another low kick from Mendes. He shoots again, but Omigawa is game in defense. Omigawa moving his head, looking for an opening, but Mendes catches him with a straight. Mendes finally ducks under and gets the takedown he's been looking for. Less than two minutes, and Omigawa works from guard. Omigawa looks for the straight armbar on Mendes' right arm. Mendes pulls it free and stands over Omigawa. Mendes kicks the legs once, but Omigawa scrambles up to his feet. Another low kick from Mendes. Mendes misses a few overhands in the closing seconds, but MMAjunkie.com narrowly awards him the frame, 10-9.
Round 2 - Big 1-2 from Mendes drops Omigawa early. Mendes pounces to finish, but Omigawa seems to have recovered well. Omigawa tries to secure a leg as Mendes stands over him, but the wrestler backs away and resets. Mendes shakes his arms out as Omigawa tries to move in. Omigawa's nose bleeding, but he's punching in the pocket. Mendes lands a few more right hands and tries to shoot, but Omigawa keeps his balance and backs up to the cage. Knee lands for Omigawa, and Mendes pushes in against the cage. Bit of a stall, but they break without Dean's assistance. Omigawa covers up as Mendes moves forward with punches. Mendes lands a few snapping low kicks. Omigawa not slowing, and he wants to unload in the pocket. Mendes covers up well and shoots. Omigawa sprawls, and Mendes goes to a knee before scampering away. Front kicks from Mendes. Omigawa still punching, but Mendes ducks under and scores a driving takedown. Round ends there, and MMAjunkie.com sees it again for Mendes, 10-9.
Round 3 - Omigawa has a massive cut on his left eyebrow, but it's not bleeding right now. Both fighters trading hands early. Omigawa seems to sense the need for a finish, but Mendes rolling well and returning fire. Mendes shoots in for a takedown, but Omigawa sprawls well and controls the head. He drops back for a guillotine choke, but Mendes jumps out of the hold and takes top position. Mendes controls from half-mount, through Omigawa is able to regain guard. Omigawa looks for a few short elbows from the bottom, but Mendes keeps his head tight to the chest. Not a lot of action, but Mendes eventually stands and tries to pass back into half-mount. Omigawa feels it and defends, but he's running out of time halfway into the frame. He finally scrambles back up and resets on the feet. Omigawa pushing forward with his boxing and lands a left hand to the body. He's tiring and bleeding, but he's not giving up. Mendes backing away well and avoiding damage, and with a minute remaining, he shoots in again and scores the takedown. A couple of big punches come form the top. Omigawa scrambling on bottom and looking for anything he can land. Mendes postures and delivers a few crushing punches in the closing seconds, and the round ends there. Omigawa is dejected, but he gave effort until the end. Nevertheless, MMAjunkie.com awards Mendes the round, 10-9, as well as the fight, 30-27. Chad Mendes def. Michihiro Omigawa (30-27, 30-27, 30-27).