Yushin Okami was part of the generation of Japanese mixed martial artists introduced to the sport by Pride. He has fond memories of the promotion, having attended as both a fighter and a fan.

Okami is now on the ONE Championship roster and has also fought for the UFC, PFL, Pancrase, Deep and M-1 in a career spanning 50 fights across nearly two decades.

The 6’2″ star rose to prominence in his native Japan during the glory days of Pride. The now defunct Japanese promotion has a special place in Okami’s heart,

“I had been a big fan of Pride since I was a student. I will never forget that passion and I still remember that happy moment when I finally got a ticket. Unlike the MMA of the present era, Pride was undiscovered, unexplored territory because it was not established as a competitive sport.”

Fond memories

The sport has evolved since those days. Okami would go on to challenge for titles with both WSOF and the UFC but sill has fond memories of the Pride era,

“In MMA at that time, and it was hard to imagine what to expect in the ring. The conflict between Kazushi Sakuraba and the Gracies and Mirko, Fedor, Nogueira, Naoya Ogawa, Kazuyuki Fujita and Hidehiko Yoshida were also great in the heavyweight class. At the time, there were many fighters that fans could entrust their support to. I think an incredible relationship was born and the fans kept chasing Pride because all fighters were competing against the greatest opponents.”

Fedor Emelianenko was arguably the biggest star of the era. He fought at some of the biggest events like Pride: ‘Final Conflict’ 2005 and Pride: ‘Shockwave’ 2006.

Okami never got to fight on the same card as Fedor but an image of the Russian backstage before a Pride bout is ingrained in his memory,

“I had the opportunity to see Fedor Emelianenko backstage just before his bout, and I will never forget that moment. Fedor’s back was very muscular and looked like a bear. Steam was coming off his body, and the feeling of tension just before the bout transferred over to me, which was surprising, and I felt a strong aura. I still have a very vivid memory of that scene. He was just like a bear!”

Lofty ambitions

Okami’s record currently stands at 36-14 but he has no intention of hanging up his gloves. In fact the 38 year old still has lofty ambitions,

“I want to win the welterweight and middleweight belts at ONE and become two-division champion,” he said.

Okami snapped a three fight losing streak with a split decision victory over Malaysia’s Agilan Thani at ONE: ‘Century’ last year. The UFC and Pride veteran admits the feeling was more of relief than euphoria,

“As I was able to bring back the win at ONE for the first time, I was happy that I was able to fulfill my responsibility. For the fans who support me, for the friends that train with me, and for the family that always supports me. The word ‘relief’ may be the perfect expression.”

Slow start

He had dropped a decision to James Nakashima at ONE: ‘Dawn of Heroes’ and been stopped by recently crowned welterweight champion Kiamrian Abbasov at ONE: ‘For Honor’. It was not the start to his post UFC career that Okami would have envisaged,

But the Japanese fighter remains philosophical about these experiences and has some fond memories of making his ONE Championship debut in Indonesia,

“I visited Jakarta in Southeast Asia for the first time because I used to fight in North America. The people in Jakarta were very kind and hospitable and the venue was wildly enthusiastic, unlike any other place I’ve been to. My debut at ONE allowed me once again to experience the privilege of being able to visit various places as a fighter, and to have a variety of opportunities by competing.”

Okami is keeping a close eye on Abassov. The welterweight champion earned a decision win over Zebaztian Kadestam at ONE: ‘Dawn of Valor’ to snatch the title from the Swedish fighter.

He is hoping to secure a rematch and Okami doesn’t see Abassov relinquishing his title any time soon,

“He is young and has grown stronger with every bout. He has become even stronger by defeating me and defeating the ex-champion Zebaztian Kadestam. I think he will be champion until we fight again.”

Proud man

Okami won two fights out of two for Pride. He also beat Hector Lombard at the Saitama Super Arena on a UFC card in 2013, a performance he is particularly proud of.

As a keen student of MMA history Okami has witnessed the rise and fall of Japanese MMA. Pride is long gone but he fights on and is coming off a win in Tokyo at ONE Championship’s historic centennial event.

Pride is also an emotion the 38 year old feels strongly. He is on a mission to prove that fighters from his homeland are still among the best in the world,

“I want them to remember that there are Japanese fighters who are big and strong, and that can fight against the world.”