Since 2001, Kawajiri has twice seen lighter weight classes nearly die out only to roar back to the forefront of the sport. He has seen Japanese MMA rise to the top and fall by the wayside. He has risked life and limb for a few hundred fans at a local hall, and in front of thousands at the Saitama Super Arena.
Only recently has he seen what it is like to fight in the UFC, but it's something he's enjoying so far. A veteran of MMA organizations Shooto, Pride, Dream, Strikeforce and One, Kawajiri's UFC debut was a long time coming, but it is where he belongs.
"I saw K-1 fights at the Tokyo Dome," he told Bleacher Report. "That inspired me to go into martial arts...I went to this kickboxing gym in my home state first and Hayato Sakurai was there and told me to come check out his fights. So I bought a ticket to see a fight between Sakurai and Jutaro Nakao...when I heard the sound of the ground and pound I realized maybe I should go into MMA."
Around the time Kawajiri was preparing for his MMA debut with Shooto, a major shakeup was occurring in the sport. The UFC, the biggest MMA promotion in the United States, was sticking a toe into fights at 155 pounds, a weight class previously exclusive to Japan.
When Kawajiri started training to begin his MMA career, the UFC exclusively featured heavyweight and light-heavyweight weight classes. As they expanded into lower weight classes, though, they scooped up Shooto's 154-pound champion, Caol Uno.
"When Uno and Jens Pulver did that title match, I started to recognize the UFC as the biggest competitor in America," he said. "Even though I was fighting in Japan, and for fighters in that country, the UFC was always a big competitor...a rival."
Kawajiri, in time, would win the Shooto 154-pound title. While that was a huge accomplishment, MMA's terrain had changed by the time he reached that summit.
"When I began doing MMA, I definitely felt, for the light weight classes, Shooto was the best place in the world...but by the time I became Shooto world champion, Pride began...so I couldn't be called the best in the world fighting there."
Kawajiri moved on to become a steady presence on Pride's Bushido cards, and it was there he became an identifiable name with many mixed martial arts fans. He won over the masses with one fight, which he is quick to label as his his proudest moment.
"I feel the fight between me and Takanori Gomi established a place in the sport for lighter weight classes. That got the fans' attention to the lighter weight classes. Even though I lost, I am so glad to have been a part of that fight."
Pride would eventually be absorbed by the UFC, but Kawajiri wouldn't make the leap to the UFC along with Wanderlei Silva and Mauricio "Shogun" Rua. From there, he would become one of Dream's top fighters. After the Pride successor closed shop, he would finally make his way to the UFC.
He made his debut at UFC Fight Night 34, demolishing fellow newcomer Sean Soriano. The dominant win and name value quickly moved Kawajiri up in the UFC rankings, but he is in prime position to jump into the title picture with a win if he can beat Clay Guida at UFC Fight Night 39.
"I am at my best now in every way: striking, grappling, physically...I am looking at myself as a 35-year-old man who is in here and still surviving," he said. "This is my last chance...the UFC is the most suitable place for me to pursue my dream."
His dream, naturally, is the UFC belt, and he is looking to keep moving toward that goal Friday, and to continue expanding his fanbase by popping the former top-10 lightweight.
"Clay Guida is ranked ninth in the rankings and is very, very famous and well-established. I will surprise anyone...who doesn't know about me."
We'll see if Kawajiri can add another big name to his lengthy resume, and if he can indeed vault into the thick of UFC title contention.
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