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.
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!"
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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!'"
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."
In fact, it's a 500-year-old combat discipline from Thailand known as the "art of the eight limbs" because it uses fists, elbows, knees, shins and feet to battle an opponent. He found a gym in North Hollywood, but he got lost in Van Nuys (who hasn't?) and wandered into a Muay Thai gym run by Vichai Supkitpol, known as Kru Rex to his students. Born in Thailand, Rex had started fighting when he was 14 and would eventually take part in more than 150 matches, winning the middleweight title in 1976.
Rex started working with Oyama and noticed the kid was smart and picked up things quickly. But he also knew the kid lived in Huntington Beach and figured he'd soon tire of the commute, especially since he was a full-time law student.
"But he showed up every night," Rex says. "Every night, that really surprised me."
Because Muay Thai teaches a person to use so many parts of the body as weapons, it leaves much of the body vulnerable to attack and requires an exceptional level of fitness to both attack and protect. Pain is an accepted outcome, and part of the training regimen is to toughen up the body through repeated punishment. The exposed midsection is pounded by and slapped at with leather gloves designed to toughen up the skin. The shin bones are hardened through cortical remodeling, a nice way of saying adherents kick a heavy bag countless times with their shins to cause calcification.
The pain didn't really bother Oyama as much as his impatience to fight. Rex preached "we get tired down here [out of the ring], so we don't get tired up there [in the ring]." Oyama just wanted to fight. Okay, Rex said, let's fight.
"We get in the ring, and I'm this guy who can bench almost 500 pounds, and this old guy is just kicking my ass," Oyama recalls. "And he's not really even trying. He's just toying with me, not even sweating hard. That's what brought me back—I wanted to learn."
What Rex taught him was that there were details and particulars to everything in life, even kicking someone's ass. These details could not be ignored or skated around, there was no "kind of." He taught him the gym was a place for attitude, but that attitude was not about talking trash.
"[It is] a place of respect and discipline," Rex says. "We're here to show how good we are, not to kill each other."
He taught Oyama to think of it as a sport, not a fight, so there would be distance, emotionally. One had to be relentless, but always under control. An angry fighter was a weakened fighter because he had lost his most valuable weapon: his mind.
"Angry fighters make mistakes," Rex says. "You don't get mad, and your mind is clear. You see things. I always tried to make my opponent angry. I told Colin, 'Be a nice guy in the ring; always give back what they give you.'"
Oyama still teaches much of what he learned those first few months with Rex, whether it was conditioning, mobility—"I don't want some big steroid monkey. Rex taught me if you're moving, you're not getting hit. All my fighters can move"—or controlling one's emotion. When he was on his own, he would encourage his fighters to smirk at their opponents to make their blood boil and turn off their brains.
In his first fight, Oyama "beat up [his opponent] pretty good," Rex says.
He graduated from law school and passed the bar in California and Hawaii in 1996, but he had soured on becoming an attorney. "No offense," Oyama says, "but I can't think of a profession where I could find a greater number of assholes than attorneys."
Rex asked if he would train an amateur named Rob McCullough who had a title fight coming up. Oyama agreed, and McCullough won. Oyama thought that began and ended his career as a trainer, but when he went to watch McCullough again, "he got his ass kicked." McCullough asked Oyama to work with him again, and he agreed. (McCullough would go on to success as a professional—winning a title with the now-defunct World Extreme Cagefighting—with a style in the ring that included a tendency to smirk.)
McCullough led to another fighter and another, until he had a stable of them, and then a gym. McCullough also led to Ortiz.
"Rob brought him in," Oyama says. "[Tito] was just this raw talent with no discipline. We worked on giving him structure, day after day. One thing he did well was listen, and he's good at executing the plan, and he worked hard. Toward the end, he stopped throwing up so much."
Ortiz would flourish with Oyama. It was while preparing for a fight in Big Bear that Oyama met Jackson, who'd been brought up to train with Ortiz almost as an afterthought. One night, bored with nothing to do, Oyama suggested everyone go to the gym. While there, he noticed Jackson and asked his name.
"He said, 'They call me Rampage,'" recalls Oyama with a bemused expression that rarely leaves him. "I said 'Oh, okay, what are you rampaging against?'"
People, Jackson told him; people "piss me off."
Oyama brushed off the encounter as one of those odd meetings that happened late at night in gyms. That is, until he saw Jackson punch. "This guy couldn't lift a weight to save his life, but when he started hitting people," he says, "oh, my God, we found out what he could do."
Though Oyama's pairing with Ortiz is notable for the success they enjoyed, his association with Jackson is notable for how opposite the two seemed. Jackson was every bit as brash as Oyama was understated. But both men say there was no period of adjustment. They liked each other from the start and found much common ground between them.
"Colin is quiet around people he doesn't know," Jackson says. "But he is a pretty funny guy. We joke around at the gym a lot. So when you get to know him, you will find that he is a funny guy, and he is easy to get along with."
Likewise, Oyama found that beyond Jackson's bluster, "he has a humble side. And he's a lot of fun. We both had a sense of humor, and we spent a lot of time making fun of each other."
What followed was great success for both fighters, and great success brought with it money, and money brings, well, you know. Soon enough, Oyama noticed that less and less of what he taught was getting through. When Jackson was training for the Rua fight, he complained that his sparring mates were grabbing his neck because they were too tall. Oyama told him they were grabbing his neck because he was putting his head in the wrong position.
"What did Rua do? Grabbed his neck and beat him," Oyama says.
More and more, it became less and less about fighting. There were so many other things that demanded Ortiz's and Jackson's time. What was more, Oyama noticed, was he was spending an inordinate amount of time training Jackson and Ortiz while other fighters were ignored. Having been brought up in the Thai fighting tradition, in which champions are treated no different than workaday fighters, Oyama began to chafe at the arrangement.
"You go to Thailand, and you'll see some of the greatest kickboxers in the world always helping out," Oyama says. "My mentality is if these guys can help each other, why can't you? I mean, dude, you're a world champ, very nice, now go clean the mat because you're the guy who dirtied it. I mean, if you can't do that, that's cool, but you're probably better suited for someone who is going to cater to you. I think [Ortiz and Jackson] got so big that it bothered them. Tito liked being the center of attention, and that's cool, but there are other people who also want to get somewhere."
Currently, Team Oyama trains five professional MMA fighters including Ian "Uncle Creepy" McCall, the UFC's No. 3 ranked flyweight—the nickname was given to him by a nephew and refers to McCall's mustache which is equal parts handlebar, awesome and, yes, creepy—and heavyweight Shane Del Rosario who also competes in the UFC and holds titles in the WBC Muay Thai organization. There's Carla "The Cookie Monster" Esparza, current Invicta strawweight champ and Romie Adanza, a Muay Thai fighter who holds multiple titles and whose ability to endure punishment Oyama attributes to the fact he was shot in the head as a boy in a gang-related shooting.
Most of the fighters also teach classes at the gym. Muay Thai champion Ron Scolesdang not only teaches, but helps with the daily operations of the gym as well. Team Oyama also trains two professional kickboxers and 10 amateur aspirants.
"Work ethic determines whether we'll work with someone," Oyama says. "If they're willing to put the time in, I'm willing to put the time in."
Ortiz and Jackson soon went somewhere else and seemed to have mostly positive things to say about their time with Oyama.
"He really improved my cardio shape," Ortiz says. "I learned a lot from Colin."
Oh, he says, he didn't much care for it when he got wind that Oyama "was talking about me, telling people that Rampage would kick my ass if we ever fought."
And of course, that was the draw of the Bellator match between Jackson and Ortiz—the great what-if. Oyama says it would have been really quite simple to predict what would have happened. If Ortiz, a grappler, got Jackson to the ground, he'd win. If Jackson, a striker, could stay upright and land punches, "he'd knock Tito into next year." Would Oyama have been watching? Most likely, he says, you know, "out of curiosity."
He says he may have even journeyed to Long Beach to see the fight in person, though the match he was really interested in was on the undercard, the one between Michael Chandler and Eddie Alvarez.
"Tremendous fighters," Oyama says. "Two young guys in their prime."
* * *
When he was a kid, Oyama had the occasion to go to work with his father. Richard worked with the Navy, and one of his duties was to work with college interns, many of whom fancied themselves as something other than engineers.
"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.
Then again: MMA parents.
"Kinda makes you cringe," Oyama says.
He'll probably think about that one, come the end of the year. There's a lot to think about. Where is all of this going, and does he want to go along?
There are so many good things about the fight game. The discipline and sacrifice, the pure simple truth of it all. Then again, there's so much that has showed up to spoil that. Money and agents and branding and clothing lines.
When he worked with Rex, he sparred in a ring half the size of a normal one. That was no accident: With nowhere to run, Rex's students were going to learn how to fight.
"That was his mentality: 'You're here to learn how to do this,'" Oyama says. "The greatest things I learned from him weren't the skills—you can learn skills any place—it was thinking. He instilled a way of thinking in me that was instrumental. The No. 1 thing that helped me succeed was the way he taught me how to think about fighting people, how to execute strategies. You know, this guy is built a certain way, and he's significantly better than me, but I can beat him. By doing certain things, I can lure him into a certain kind of fighting that favors me."
He'll have to find that for himself, for his career. His gym is starting to feel a lot like Rex's half-sized ring: The world outside keeps pushing its way in, taking up all the space with its money and what-ifs and excuses, crowding it with folks who are not fighters but like calling themselves such, like what fighting can provide for them while giving precious back. In little more than 15 years, his world has gone from something that felt separate and pure to something that could be losing its way.
He'll think about that, too. About engineers who fancy themselves architects and fighters who think they're above fighting. In every career, he says, you're going to run into those who should beat you, but somehow, you have to find a way to overcome them. Rex always said there was a way. Maybe that way is Richard Alarcon, and maybe it's some 10-year-old who will show up at the gym tomorrow. Regardless, what Oyama is liable to find when he takes time for himself—perhaps back home in Hawaii—is that the way will be how he has always found it: clearly marked, black and white, unequivocal, indisputable, and unapologetic.
Dude, shut up and fight.
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