Japanese MMA veteran Hideo Tokoro is set to make his Bellator debut this Friday on the Spike TV main card against WEC veteran L.C. Davis. Time to get to know the Human Octopus.
When I tell people that Hideo Tokoro is one of my favorite MMA fighters, the reaction is usually them asking me who the hell Hideo Tokoro is or why I’m so into a relatively obscure Japanese fighter with a barely-above .500 record. My answer revolves around arguing that Tokoro is (or was, if we’re being honest) one of the most entertaining and fun fighters to watch on a fight to fight basis. Furthermore, he’s a pretty interesting dude with a compelling backstory, so let’s start with that.
Tokoro started fighting in the year 2000 while working as a janitor in obscure promotions like Titan Fighting Championships (not related to the current American MMA organization of the same name) and ZST, a promotion probably most famous for running tag team MMA fights. He also had a few fights for RINGS, a promotion that started out as a professional wrestling organization and transitioned into holding real fights in the early 2000’s. In many ways, Tokoro’s style can be traced back to that promotion and to one man in particular.
Rings started out as a shoot-style promotion, a particular style of professional wrestling that can be described as worked MMA and that focuses on portraying the action in the squared circle in a realistic manner based on legitimate martial arts techniques. Outlining the fascinating relationship between (shoot-style) wrestling and MMA in Japan would require an article of its own, so let’s just say that JMMA emerged from professional wrestling and that many famous Japanese MMA fighters like Kazushi Sakuraba, Tsuyoshi “TK” Kohsaka and Kiyoshi Tamura started out as pro-wrestlers. If you want to know more about this topic and style, I’d recommend this article).
Rings was founded by professional wrestler and all-around scumbag Akira Maeda and was notable for hiring many (Eastern) European martial artists without any background in professional wrestling. One of these men was Volk Han, a combat sambo master who was a phenomenal wrestler right from the start, using his vast grappling knowledge to thrill audiences with compelling matches featuring unique leg and arm locks in particular. When RINGS turned into a real MMA promotion in the early 2000’s, the aging Han had a brief* but respectable MMA career including a decision loss to a young Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira.
In order to understand Hideo Tokoro, watching a few Volk Han bouts can be very illuminating. And I’m not talking about his real fights.
In his worked wrestling matches, Han was an absolute master of turning his opponents into human pretzels, unleashing a never-ending number of ridiculous and awe-inspiring leglocks and other submissions. This would never work in a real fight, of course, as evidenced by Han’s MMA fights in which he had to be much more cautionary and methodical. But that never stopped Tokoro from trying. Watching Tokoro at his peak is probably the closest approximation to Han’s pro-wrestling style as Tokoro constantly attacked with low-percentage submissions no matter his position, creating incredibly entertaining fights as a result.
The best example of this is probably his fight with Daisuke Nakamura, a fighter with a similar stylistic approach, resulting in a spectacular grappling exchange:
If this fight seems too good to be true, then you might be onto something, as this exact finishing sequence has also taken place during at least two worked pro-wrestling matches, one involving Volk Han. Be that as it may, Tokoro has carried out this style of grappling throughout his entire career.
During his run in DREAM, Tokoro adopted the moniker of “Little Volk”and his love of Han was emphasized in several promotional videos. Tokoro seems to have fully embraced a philosophy common among Japanese first-generation fighters such as Kazushi Sakuraba who see themselves as entertainers and performers first and athletes second. As such, putting on an exciting show for the fans is their main goal rather than winning at all costs. Knowing this, Tokoro’s 27 career losses do not come as much of a surprise as such an exciting and risky style comes at a high cost.
Tokoro first entered the spotlight in 2005 as one of the stars of the K-1 Hero’s promotion. He knocked out Alexandre Franca Nogueira with a spinning back fist in a thrilling fight after surviving his patented guillotine. This was back when ‘Pequeno’ was regarded as one of the world’s best featherweights. Other notable fights for K-1 include a quick submission win over Brad Pickett and a loss to Japanese legend Caol Uno. Hero’s was clearly invested in pushing Tokoro, putting him against both Royce and Royler Gracie – he went to a draw with the former and beat the latter by decision.
This stint also included one of my favorite fights of all time against Ivan Menjivar. To me, this fight sums up Tokoro perfectly – a non-stop and thrilling grappling-fest in which Tokoro had to overcome a lot of adversity, came oh so close to winning in brilliant fashion, but ultimately lost.
Tokoro was also an important figure of DREAM, having exciting fights with the likes of Abel Cullum, Hiroyuki Takaya, and Darren Uyenoyama. But as has been the case throughout his career, Tokoro was never able to string together more than a few wins and constantly encountered setbacks, often in the form of devastating knockout losses. One notable exception was his 2011 run, winning the Fight for Japan tournament with three wins, including one over leglock master Masakatzu Imanari**.
However, he followed up this big moment in typical Tokoro fashion, losing a close and debatable decision to Antonio Banuelos and then getting knocked out in brutal fashion by a slam against a relative unknown in 42 seconds. Since then, Tokoro has compiled a 2-2 record, with the most notable fights being a quick knockout win over Japanese pioneer Rumina Sato and a close decision loss to Will Campuzano. Tokoro was signed by Bellator in the summer of 2014, and is finally set to make his debut this Friday.
Even as a hardcore fan, it’s easy to forget about Tokoro or to have never heard about him in the first place, which I think is a real shame. While Tokoro had some very good wins over the span of his career, he was never consistent enough to be considered a great fighter. His striking defense and chin have always been liabilities, and his risky and entertainment-first style of fighting ensured that he could never quite reach the top. Nonetheless, he has delivered consistently excellent fights and should be remembered for that. Personally, he played a significant role in my MMA fandom and has been responsible for many of my favorite fights. As a fan of both MMA and (shoot-style) pro-wrestling, his and my love for Volk Han has guaranteed that he will always hold a special place in my heart. So it would mean quite a bit to me if you decided to check out some of the fights and gained an appreciation for the guy.
Now Tokoro is making his debut for a major US promotion in a big fight. Am I looking forward to it? Not really. Being a Tokoro fan has been quite a struggle over the years, as almost every great performance was matched by a brutal loss. Tokoro is now 37, has been fighting professionally for fifteen years, compiling over sixty fights in the process, and he has been knocked out a worrying twelve times. Even if he were to win this upcoming fight, I feel that it’s too late for Tokoro to make another real run, so it feels like even a win would ultimately result in another disappointment. I’ve wished for Tokoro to hang up the gloves many times before, but of course I’m not the one to make that decision. So once again, I will be watching with feelings of both dread and anticipation, hoping for another great fight – or at least not another knockout loss. But either way, Little Volk will always mean a lot to me.
* Don’t trust Sherdog on this, their assessment of RINGS bouts is frankly embarrassing. Han’s real record is probably around 6-1 or 7-1.
** As an aside, the Imanari fight was hyped by a video centered on Tokoro and Imanari both entering the same store to look at porn because Japanese MMA is weird. It also uses the phrase “Proof of Mickey Mouse” to describe Tokoro.