One of the top stars in Japan’s Jewels promotion, Shizuka Sugiyama, is four months into a year-long trip to Australia and she is training diligently for her return to MMA. The karate black belt is learning Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu at the Gracie Oceania Training Centre in Marrickville, New South Wales.
Sugiyama made the trip south from Yokohama, Japan after suffering the first stoppage loss of her MMA career in December. Believing that she needs to add more tools to her game in order to become a stronger and better fighter, Sugiyama will continue her training in Australia until March of next year.
Born February 11, 1987, in New York City, Sugiyama (6-3-0 MMA) learned English during her childhood in the United States before moving with her family to Japan at age five. She adapted to a new language and culture in Japan and took up sports, but it was not until her time in university that Sugiyama found an interest in martial arts. While enrolled at Tokai University, she began training in judo and karate and quickly earned her karate black belt.
On November 16, 2008, despite having no formal background in fighting disciplines such as wrestling, jiu-jitsu or boxing, Sugiyama made her professional mixed martial arts debut for the Jewels promotion at its debut event, “1st Ring.” She won her first two fights for Jewels by stoppage at identical times – 2:55 of the first round – and earned three more victories before the end of 2009. Along the way, Sugiyama drew attention for her looks and exciting fighting style and quickly became one of the faces of Jewels.
Sugiyama continued to take gradual steps up in competition until a September 2009 fight with German standout Alexandra Sanchez. The bout with Sanchez was part of the 60kg bracket of the 2009 Jewels Rough Stone Grand Prix; a prospect-driven tournament designed to establish new stars. Prior to the fight, Sugiyama expressed uneasiness at the height and strength of her opponent, and her concerns proved to be valid as Sanchez would hand Sugiyama her first professional defeat.
After rebounding with a win later in the year, Sugiyama looked to carry the momentum into 2010, but struggled in a bout with veteran fighter Miki Morifuji and suffered her second loss. A broken collar bone and dislocated shoulder forced her out of action for much of the rest of the year and she was upset by Mongolian wrestler Esui, a much larger opponent, at Jewels: “11th Ring” in December. The loss, via corner stoppage early in round two, marked the first time that Sugiyama had ever been finished.
At the suggestion of Kinya Hashimoto, an agent for Jewels who handles public relations and fighter interviews for the promotion, Sugiyama opted to travel to Australia this year for courses in English and to learn new skills for her fighting career. Feeling that changes were needed, and with the state of MMA in Japan in flux following the devastating earthquake in March, Sugiyama flew to Sydney and quickly found a new love in the form of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.
Since starting out at the Gracie Oceania centre, Sugiyama has trained under judo and BJJ black belt Mario Sergio Yokoyama and Australia’s first Senshido representative, Clive Girdham. Laura Ng, a friend of Sugiyama’s who holds the rank of blue belt in BJJ, also trains at the gym but she has recently been sidelined due to injury. Sugiyama, who speaks highly of training with Ng, currently trains only with men at the gym in Ng’s absence, but that has not slowed her progress.
Having now been living and training in Australia for four months, Sugiyama’s confidence is growing. She recently finished a course in English that required her to attend classes five times per week and her fluency in the language continues to improve. When not at the gym, she has been working part-time at a Japanese restaurant near her residence in Sydney and currently lives in a house with a group of ten other women, including roommates from Taiwan. She also pens articles for a Japanese magazine and keeps a running blog that documents her training in Australia.
Sugiyama’s training currently consists of jiu-jitsu only and she has begun competing in local grappling tournaments. She won gold in a New South Wales competition in July. As she improves and learns new techniques, Sugiyama believes that she is becoming a stronger and better overall fighter. She will soon be moving to the Gold Coast region of Queensland, Australia, and hopes that she may be able to train in kickboxing and MMA in addition to jiu-jitsu after the move.
The trip to Australia may not be a one-off for Sugiyama, who has also expressed interest in training in Canada or the United States in the future. She believes that boxing skills are very important in MMA and feels that she could learn new techniques outside of Japan. Sugiyama will not fly home to Yokohama for another seven months, but she is excited about the prospect of showing off her new abilities and looks forward to competing for Jewels again; possibly as early as March.
As is common in Japan, though, the idea of women competing as fighters is not accepted by everyone. Last year, mixed martial arts lost one of its top female fighters when Miku Matsumoto announced her abrupt retirement; a decision that is believed to have come as a result of pressure from family to move on to a new career. Despite Sugiyama’s popularity in Japan, many of her family members have no idea that she fights.
“My parents don’t know that I am a fighter,” she says. “They just think that I train for my health.” Though her parents are unaware of their daughter’s success in MMA, Sugiyama’s older brother knows about his sister’s fighting career.
Prior to leaving for Australia, Sugiyama worked as a gym teacher at a school in Japan and she hopes to continue teaching upon her return. As her English greatly improves, she has developed an interest in teaching the language to others. However, she says that her decision to improve her own fluency in the dialect came from a desire to be able to communicate with friends and supporters of her career who live outside of Japan. She has recently begun posting in English more frequently when using social media and seems honoured to have fans following her career in countries around the world.
Still just 24 years old, and having taken initiative in travelling to a new country to develop new fighting techniques, Sugiyama’s future in mixed martial arts remains bright despite her struggles in 2010. And while she normally competes at or near 61kg, Sugiyama remains content with the prospect of facing larger opponents. She believes that her improvements as a fighter will show.
“I don’t [care] what weight [I fight at]. I just want to fight!” she says with a laugh.
Fans of Jewels can look forward to Sugiyama’s return next year, as she continues to develop from a striker into a well-rounded mixed martial artist.
(Photo Credit: GBRing.com)