Enigmatic champion of many faces

This story was first published in The Straits Times on March 31, 2013

March 20 is Shunbun no Hi, or Vernal Equinox Day. The Japanese celebrate this public holiday by appreciating nature and also regard it as a time for new beginnings.

Like the first of the cherry blossoms which have started blooming around the city, one fighter's defence as mixed martial arts (MMA) champion will soon begin.

Inside the legendary Krazy Bee gym, Kotetsu Boku is putting the final touches to his battle dance as he prepares to defend his One Fighting Championship lightweight (70kg) throne for the first time, under the lights of the Singapore Indoor Stadium on Friday.

He swivels around with fleet-footed ease, then throws combination after combination of punches at an imaginary opponent, stirring up a storm in the boxing ring belying the picturesque calm that night has brought to the streets of Ota, a suburb of Tokyo.

The quiet Ota alleyways are places Boku knows well. After all, it was only a few years ago, under the same cover of darkness, that he would get involved in fights, brawls, sometimes just for the fun of it.

It is a past that the 35-year-old does not like to speak of. But the streets were where he honed his battle skills, and developed his aggressive kickboxing style which many opponents fear.

He started boxing at 18 and made his MMA debut at 23 on Shooto, a Japanese MMA circuit. But the Shizuoka-born Boku, who holds both Japanese and South Korean passports, remembers getting into his first fight even before the age of five.

Throughout attending junior school in Gunma and high school in Ibaraki, he sheepishly admits that he would get into fights at least once a month.

Often, it was with schoolmates over who should pay for the martial arts magazines that they enjoyed reading.

Says Boku, through a translator: "Everybody hated me in school. I was not a good student and often made trouble.

"I didn't steal or vandalise anything. I just fought a lot."

The former Shooto champion blames the turbulent years on his impatience and quick temper, which he constantly expressed with his fists.

Then, a catastrophic event in 2011 changed everything.

Witnessing the widespread devastation wreaked by the Tohoku earthquake, which ravaged coastal cities like Fukushima and claimed more than 15,000 lives, he saw an anger infinitely greater than his own. And in its aftermath, he sought existential questions on life.

When asked about it, he clams up initially, then thoughtfully adds: "I felt so small. It showed us that human nature cannot compete with mother nature."

The episode changed him. He became a vegan, shaved his dye-coloured hair, and kept a thick beard which explains his nickname - "No Face".

Running a hand across his bald head, he mutters the word "Zen", then offers another of his affable laughs.

He adds: "I saw myself from the outside, and I didn't like the person I saw. I wanted to change, I wanted to turn over a new leaf."

Though he does not subscribe to any particular religion, this self-styled warrior monk says that he practises meditation and also tries to follow the teachings of revered Indian leader Mahatma Gandhi.

The reggae-loving Boku also discovered that his new-found calm helped him in the fight cage, saying: "I have to control my emotions in daily life, so that I can control them in a fight. I can move better and make better decisions."

He will need to keep his nerve against the impressive title-challenger Shinya Aoki, a former Dream circuit champion.

Boku, who carries a 20 wins-seven losses-two draws MMA record, might be the defending One FC champion. But many, including the fighter himself, regard himself as the underdog against a fighter six years his junior and boasting a superior 32-6-0 record.

It is the classic tale of stand-up brawler versus submission specialist.

The spider-like Aoki builds his game around a web of lethal locks. One of his most talked-about fights was in 2009 when he dislocated an opponent's arm with a hammerlock and then proceeded to taunt him with a middle finger.

But this is not the first time that Boku finds himself in an unfancied position.

Last October, Boku, who stands at 1.75m, stole an impressive victory over Aoki's Evolve gym stablemate Zorobabel Moreira for the ONE FC title.

Against the 1.91m-tall Brazilian, Boku took a beating in the first two rounds and was wincing from an aching left leg which withstood heavy damage from Moreira's kicks.

But in one inspired moment in the third round, Boku landed a devastating punch that floored Moreira for the knockout.

That powerful overhand right, so often the haymaker favoured by many men, might leave its user exposed. But the gutsy Boku will be banking on its potential as a game-changer against Aoki.

Mirroring the thoughts of many in the community, Yuji Shimada, One FC's head referee, feels that while Aoki is technically superior, Boku is still very much a threat.

He said: "Boku has fought a lot and he is getting old. His run in One FC might be his last and he has got nothing to lose.

"This is the last bite of the dying wolf."

This story was first published in The Straits Times on March 31, 2013To subscribe to The Straits Times, please go to