By On the occasion of our 20th anniversary
By Gustavo Arellano
By R. Scott Moxley
By Alfonso Delgado
By Courtney Hamilton
By Joel Beers
By Peter Maguire
By Charles Lam
To Oyama, 44, the world is a fairly straightforward place, clearly delineated with very little shading. You're either a fighter or you're not, and more and more, he meets guys who say they are, but aren't. His impatience and disgust with this new breed has nothing to do with being tough; it insults him because there is a right way to do things. Life is not complicated. It is tough, and it is painful, and it requires sacrifice and focus and smarts, which is what MMA represented and is celebrated for. Now, it seems to him, it's a place where a lot of guys look to become famous, which pains him. No doubt, it also pains him that the blueprint for many of these guys is the two most famous fighters Oyama ever trained.
Jackson and Ortiz would soon parlay the success Oyama had made possible into a host of show-business ventures, complete with IMDB credits (Jackson was B.A. Baracus in the movie version of The A-Team; Ortiz's credits range from CSI: NY to Zombie Strippers!) and tabloid lifestyles that included porn-star wives—Ortiz was married to Jenna Jameson—and high-profile arrests. Though most would agree their best fighting days are behind them, their fame has persisted, so much so that when Newport Beach-based Bellator MMA, the second-largest mixed-martial-arts promotion in the U.S., was looking to stage its first pay-per-view event, it went hard after Ortiz and Jackson because, as Bellator founder Bjorn Rebney explained, "We had to have huge names, monster names, crossover names with big personalities, and these two guys are two of the four who you put on the MMA Mount Rushmore. I mean, how many guys are recognizable with one name? You say Rampage, say Tito, people know."
And so Rampage and Tito, who had sworn when each were members of Team Oyama they would never fight each other, agreed to fight each other Saturday, Nov. 2 in the Long Beach Arena. That is, until it was canceled due to a neck injury suffered by Ortiz little more than a week before the match. Still, it is a measure of how big MMA has gotten that it has become self-referential, able to trade on its history, the Ortiz-Jackson match being as much about "What if?"—what if the sport's two biggest names had met each other in their prime—as what was actually going to happen.
What-ifs seem to permeate the sport these days—What if I sign with this management company? What if I get my own clothing line? What-ifs make Oyama crazy; someone thinking what-if is less willing to accept the demands and pain of right now. Right now is what's important to Oyama. Right now is how it all began for him.
* * *
Oyama became a trainer, in part, because he was bad with directions.
As a student at Loyola Law School, he decided he needed something to relieve the relentless pressure of his studies. Sports had always been important in his life. Growing up in Hawaii, he played football and wrestled at Punahou Prep School, an athletic powerhouse that has won more state championships than any other school in the nation and counts as one grad a left-handed point guard named Barry Obama. He came to California to play football at Whittier College, the alma mater of Richard Nixon, then went on to enroll at Loyola Law School.
Keeping his body busy had always been important for him and his parents. Growing up in a rural area of Oahu's North Shore, he says, "I had a few issues," though he's reticent to get much more specific. "I got myself into trouble," he'll say. "If someone runs their mouth in Hawaii, there's going to be a problem. It's not like here, not one of those 'I was just kidding' situations. You run your mouth; you're going to get into a fight."
His parents—elementary-school teacher Jean and engineer Richard—were not ones to put up with the issues or ask why.
"My parents don't believe in gray areas," Oyama says. "What I learned as a kid was that life was pretty basic—black and white. There's a right way and a wrong way, no maybes. Did you do it, or did you not? I don't care about your mental health, your stress, all this other crap. Did you do this or not? My ass getting whipped depended on that answer. Nowadays, there's always a 'kind of.' That didn't work with my parents."
Oyama says the effects of his father's whippings usually lasted about six months before he required another. Finally, his parents had enough, and in their no-nonsense way, they informed their eldest son they were shipping him off to Punahou. The private prep school would prove a significant transition for a country kid; it was a place where "kids drove nicer cars than my parents." Sports helped him adjust, as it would at Whittier. But both had been school-sponsored. While at Loyola, someone suggested he try Muay Thai, a discipline he was so unfamiliar with he assumed the words translated into "from Taiwan."