Colin Oyama Wants to Fight

The former trainer of legends Tito Ortiz and Rampage Jackson on the champions, his career and MMA's future

Colin Oyama Wants to Fight
Oyama photo: John Gilhooley | Additional art: Bellator MMA | Design: Dustin Ames

"Shut up and fight!"

Colin Oyama never said that.

Not that night in Osaka in 2005, when Quinton "Rampage" Jackson, one of the two most famous mixed-martial-arts (MMA) fighters Oyama has trained, climbed into a ring and in a matter of minutes had his rib broken by the then-relatively unknown Mauricio "Shogun" Rua. Those sitting ringside knew something had happened, saw it in Jackson's panicked, 100-mile stare. Rua knew what had happened, had felt his knee lance the bone and reacted with a controlled frenzy of activity that included quasi-bicycle kicks trained on Jackson's head, conjuring up images of a big cat taking down a wildebeest that would have done well to lay off the starches.

John Gilhooley
“Shut up and fight!”
John Gilhooley
“Shut up and fight!”

Mike Tyson once said, "Everybody's got a plan . . . until they get hit," and Jackson, who'd been encouraged by Oyama to take Rua seriously but declined to even watch tape of the kid because he believed he was destined to win the fight, went to his Plan B: clutching at Rua while mouthing to Oyama, "My rib's broke." He said it again, and then, pushing Rua off him for a moment, repeated it a third time, at which point, the story goes, a seething Oyama, his coaching ignored, his warnings disregarded, barked back, "Shut up and fight!"

Never said it, Oyama says.

Pretty sure I never said it, Oyama says.

I don't think I would have said it, Oyama says.

After all, he's not a jerk. He is intelligent, respectful and plain-spoken, and his gym, Team Oyama in Irvine, reflects that: a clean, well-ordered place where professional fighters work out next to and with regular folk looking to stay in shape. It's the kind of fighting gym at which a mother would feel comfortable dropping off her kids, which they do, the kind of place that same woman can work out while getting hit on less than at the local 24 Hour Fitness.

No, he's not a jerk, and although Team Oyama's unofficial motto at one time was "Team Oyama's got something for yo mama!" he's more businesslike than macho, which is why it has the kind of buttoned-down feel of a fighting gym an attorney—which is what he is—would run. So, it's doubtful Oyama would have expected Jackson to fight, let alone win, with a broken rib. Can't be done, and indeed, Jackson went down a couple of minutes later amidst a hail of Rua fists and knees.

"To be honest, I think what I said was, 'What did he say?'" Oyama says.

It's likely the story has stuck to Oyama because it sounds like something he would say. Something he does say. He's saying it right now, sitting on a couch at Team Oyama, recounting how tired he is of all of the excuses—"I ask a guy to work out, and I get 'No, I gotta do this photo shoot.' 'Photo shoot? Jerk-off, you're 1-0!'"—and all of the entitlement—"I hear them say, 'I should get this; I should get that.' 'Get something? Dude, the only thing you should get is a job.'"

It sticks because it's how he thinks. How he lives. It's the reason he was attracted to MMA in the first place. It was simple, clean, well-ordered. Fight or tap. Able to endure the pain or not. His gym and his reputation as a trainer was made on that. An Oyama fighter was not going down because he hadn't done the work, was not going to lose because he wasn't in condition. When Tito Ortiz, the other most famous fighter he has trained, came to him, he was an accomplished and seasoned fighter who'd already fought for titles, yet the initial workouts were so rigorous that Oyama remembers saying, "Dude, you throw up a lot, don't you?"

By 2000, Ortiz, who'd lost a memorable title fight to Frank Shamrock when Ortiz wilted in the fourth round, defeated Wanderlei Silva for the UFC light heavyweight crown by absorbing all the pain and punishment someone dubbed "The Axe Murderer" could throw at him, outworking Silva for five rounds. That performance became a hallmark of the Oyama-trained fighter, never to be outworked having come from a system that designed workouts leading up to a match to be so much harder than the match itself.

It was the type of attitude that attracted people to the sport; MMA fighters were seen as hungry and pure, dedicated to their craft, workmanlike as opposed to the "Make it rain!" world of boxing. But now, more than a decade later, Oyama sees the dark side of that success. As MMA has exploded in popularity, leaving boxing well in its wake, it has become a sport known to resonate with young adult males, which resonates with corporations, which means money. And things change. Money has brought all those things that money brings: poseurs and hangers-on, guys calling themselves agents, girlfriends, management meetings and branding, and everything but fighting.

"I'll get 'Sorry, can't get to the gym; I've got a sponsorship meeting,'" Oyama says. "I'm like, 'Dude, who the hell is gonna sponsor you? You have one fight!'"

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