Yuya Wakamatsu has grown a lot since he moved from Satsumasendai, Kagoshima Prefecture, to Tokyo — both as a fighter and a person.
Wakamatsu, who now competes in the 135-pound ONE Championship flyweight division, had a difficult time staying out of trouble in his hometown in Kagoshima Prefecture, with little more than the surrounding nature and occasional soccer game to distract him.
“Nature was always with me; the ocean and the mountains,” the 25-year-old told The Japan Times from Tokyo. “I wasn’t familiar with the martial arts. I was playing soccer back then.
“When I was in a bad mood, I would just beat up someone I saw at the convenience store,” he added. “I drove a motorbike without a driver’s license. I wasn’t in the mob or anything, but I admit that I was a bit crazy. I was athletic and powerful since I was a kid, so I was good at punching people too.
“I just wanted to make myself look tough and strong.”
Wakamatsu’s life took a turn when his mother and sisters moved to Tokyo. While he initially stayed in Satsumasendai to work as a carpenter, he eventually followed his family to the metropolis. It was there that his martial arts journey really began.
He’d been interested in MMA for some time but lacked the confidence to start training. After some consideration, he convinced himself to take the plunge and signed up for classes at Tribe Tokyo MMA, under the tutelage of Japanese MMA legend Ryo Chonan.
“I thought MMA was even tougher than boxing or kickboxing,” he recounted. “I became so into MMA. The bloody fights were very fascinating to me.
“At the time (I arrived in Tokyo), I had a feeling that I was useless, because I was always making trouble in Kagoshima. I thought maybe it was not worth pursuing MMA, but eventually, I changed my mind.
“Mr. Chonan was one of my favorite fighters. I liked (Takanori) Gomi and (Norifumi) ‘KID’ Yamamoto too, but when I saw a magazine describing Tribe as a tiger’s den, I made my decision to go there.”
The martial arts had an immediate, positive effect on Wakamatsu, as the fighters at Tribe, such as former Pancrase champion Kiyotaka Shimizu, became his role models.
“Kiyotaka Shimizu was the King of Pancrase back then,” Wakamatsu said. “He was so nice to me, even though he was a champion and had a longer career than me. He was always very polite and humble. I didn’t realize you could be humble and strong at the same time.”
As Wakamatsu’s skills and attitude improved in tandem, he began picking up his own professional victories under the Pancrase banner. Eight of his nine wins in the respected, Tokyo-based organization came via stoppage. That success was enough to earn the attention of ONE Championship’s ever-vigilant talent scouts.
Despite initially hoping to land in the UFC, he quickly decided ONE would make a good home.
“Mr. Chonan was working with ONE and he showed me footage of ONE and I began to think ONE is one of the top promotions in the world,” Wakamatsu said. “ONE was getting bigger and its name was reaching Japan. Then I was invited to a show in Manila. I loved the atmosphere. I suddenly thought ‘this is it.’”
Wakamatsu lost his first fight in ONE Championship, giving up a decision to Danny Kingad, but was subsequently given a huge task: welcoming former UFC flyweight champion Demetrious Johnson, widely regarded as one of the best fighters ever, to the organization. Although he came up short against the American, losing via second-round submission, he flaunted unbelievable toughness in the fight, winning the respect of fight fans the world over.
“Although I lost to Johnson, (ONE Championship CEO) Chatri (Sityodtong) told me ‘you have the potential to be the champion,’” Wakamatsu recounted. “People around me made compliments about that fight, so I try not to be negative about the loss.”
After losing to Kingad and Johnson, the pressure was on for Wakamatsu. For all the potential he’d shown in defeat, there is no substitute for victory. Thankfully, things went according to plan in his third ONE Championship bout as he scored a stunning knockout win over the former champion Geje Eustaquio. He then followed up that victory with an impressive decision over Kim Dae-hwan.
Now riding two consecutive wins, Wakamatsu has earned the No. 4 spot in the official ONE Championship flyweight rankings. He’s honored to be ranked amongst the promotion’s best flyweights, but isn’t satisfied yet. He still feels he has much more work to do, particularly after becoming a father, and is hoping to earn a ONE flyweight title shot by defeating Reece McLaren or Kairat Akhmetov, or by avenging his losses to Kingad and Johnson.
“I’m not satisfied at all,” he said. “This is just a beginning. I never imagined myself becoming who I am today, but even when I had bad days, I always believed in myself and told myself ‘you can do more, this is not your limit.’
“I want to be a champion.”