I know what you are thinking.
This is Sokodju coming back with a more complex name.
Welcome Yoshihiro Akiyama – soon to be performing in an octagon near you.
It is more significant than it appears on the surface for the UFC. This is akin to the Yankees signing Hideki Matsui. Great news for the team but an even bigger statement as to who is going to be the dominant force in a global sport. The UFC.
The UFC’s plans for expansion have been well documented and certainly one way to lure a foreign market is to sign their stars to your team. Akiyama is just the right ingredient and his story is one of rags to riches to rags and back again. To treat his signing by the UFC as just another player in the mix would be an oversight of King Kong proportions. Let’s start with the basics before we get to how Sung Hoon Choo became Yoshiro Akiyama.
He is a top-ten middleweight contender with a black belt in judo who won a gold medal at the 2002 Asian Games. Please ignore his first MMA win being against former boxer Francois Botha – we didn’t know Botha was still alive either. Since then he has gone on to beat Melvin Manhoef, Denis Kang (by KO), Katsuyori Shibata, Masanori Tanooka and several others to run his record to 12-1. There, now the fun stuff…
- Sung Hoon Choo was a Korean living in Japan. For those of us residing in North America, that’s not the same as a Canadian living in the US. There is a history between Korea and Japan but let’s leave that discussion for another day. Suffice it to say Sung Hoon Choo wasn’t given a fair shot at his passion – judo – in Japan due to his roots. Eventually giving up hope in Japan, he returned to South Korea hoping the grass was greener… only to find that he was now no longer welcome in the South Korean judo system having spent his time training in Japan. Not only was the grass not greener, it was dirt.
- Without any options, Sung Hoon Choo packed his bags and returned to the only other place he had called home – Japan – in 2001. This time he decided to do whatever it would take to be accepted by the Japanese system. He became a citizen of Japan and took a liking to the Japanese name Yoshiro Akiyama. Again, for those of us in North America, that would be like waking up one day and dropping the name Juan Valdez and going with Bert McTwig. Better update your Facebook page. Less than one year later, Akiyama took the gold at the Asian Games in judo. Turns out he had some talent.
- Then the ironic turning point in an already interesting tale – Akiyama has a GSP-esque greasing scandal in 2006 against Kazushi Sakuraba. The Japanese turn on him as quickly as they welcomed him back in 2001 and basically run him out of town. To where? His newly found South Korean fans of course, who rally behind Akiyama in response to what they perceive as the Japanese targeting a South Korean. With hot potato-like exchange Akiyama becomes a South Korean celebrity – commercials, talk shows and most recently singing (yes singing) at the Korean 2008 Dream Concert. Can you picture Joe Rogan going to interview Brock Lesnar only to have Lesnar pick up the mic and give his best version of Thriller by Michael Jackson? If you can, don’t. But don’t be surprised if Akiyama were to pull it off.
Dana White just plucked one of arguably the biggest stars in the Asian MMA market to join the UFC. For many it is just another headline out of a successful organization and a name that has little brand recognition here in North America. For Sung Hoon Choo – Yoshiro Akiyama it is another step in an amazing story of resiliency, misfortune and making the most of an opportunity.
Welcome Yoshiro Akiyama – the octagon awaits your next chapter.