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
"They'd come in with their architectural drawings, and he'd say straight to their face, 'What, are you an artist? You do know that this damn thing has to stand up, right? This is a building you're making. If you want to be an artist, go take a painting class. This thing has to stand up; people are going to be in this thing. If it falls, they're going to die.'"
The lesson was simple: Know who you are; don't try to be something you're not. Oyama wonders why that message he picked up so easily as a kid has been so hard for him to communicate to grown men. And yet, for many of them, it isn't enough to be a fighter; they—or their agent or their girlfriend—want to be a brand. It wasn't long ago that one of his fighters told him he wanted to be the next Kelly Slater. That's nice, Oyama told him, but you do know Kelly Slater is a surfer, right?
Oyama gets a bad feeling when he hears things like that, gets an awful twinge that MMA could be going the way of boxing, that things have gotten "convoluted." To that end, he says, he is going to take some time at the end of the year to get away and have himself a good think. To reassess not so much how he does things, but who he does them with.
"I've talked it over with some of my assistants," he says. "I told them I wanted us to stop trying to fix these people. If they have it, let's work with them. But if you have to fix people, it just kills it for everyone else. It was getting like an orphanage around here, like the Oakland Raiders. But we realized that doesn't solve anything."
Not that there aren't fighters who make it worth coming to work every day. After all, there is Richard Alarcon. Oh, to have 10 Richard Alarcons, Oyama says. An amateur from Lakewood, Alarcon is everything that Oyama wants a fighter to be—namely, a fighter. Completely and totally dedicated to his craft while completely being true to his responsibilities.
He is positively glowing as he recounts Alarcon's daily routine: "This kid works all day as a fence contractor," Oyama says. "He builds fences all day, carries stuff, builds stuff. Then he comes in here, trains for three hours, goes home, eats dinner, goes to the 24 Hour Fitness to lift some weights, goes home, goes to sleep, wakes up and does it all over again."
Oyama is somewhere between giddy and reverent when he relays the story of how Alarcon went to a job one Saturday morning, excused himself, drove down to San Diego to weigh in for a fight that night, drove back to Orange County to work the job and drove back to San Diego to fight. And win.
"I love that guy," Oyama says. "When it matters, he's going to find a way to get it done. He's not gonna come up with some bullshit excuse about what happened. The guy is money. If he loses, it'll be because he got stopped, not because of unnecessary drama."
Alarcon, 22, doesn't talk about branding and doesn't take meetings. He had wrestled at the Citadel and had been looking for a gym for some time when everything "just clicked" with Oyama. He likes that Oyama is "all about discipline," likes that if you're not training hard, "he'll let you know about it," likes Oyama's calm and emphasis on working hard.
"If you put in the work with him, by the time the fight comes around, you're very confident," Alarcon says. "The workout is the hardest part—usually a lot harder than the fights themselves."
Oh, Oyama repeats, what he could do with an army of Alarcons! As thrilling as it seems, he knows it's a pipe dream, a fantasy that experience tells him will never happen. Experience—and his eyes—tell him what will, and it scares the hell out of him: parents.
As MMA continues to find not only an increasingly mainstream audience, but also mainstream practitioners, Oyama has noticed more and more kids showing up in the gym. Why they come may have something to do with parents who are concerned about the effects of football on the brain. Then again, it may have to do with MMA highlights showing up on SportsCenter and all that money folks keep talking about. Whatever, the advent of kid MMA fighters figures to have long-reaching effects.
Consider that nearly all MMA fighters begin their combat career as the adherent of a single discipline: wrestling, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, Muay Thai, etc. When they make the decision to try MMA, they must learn other disciplines, which requires enormous amounts of time and accounts for the fact it's not unusual to find many MMA champs in their 30s. But think if a kid begins learning all MMA disciplines at the age when they would usually begin Little League, say 8 or 9; within the decade, Oyama says, we will start seeing champions in their early 20s.