Japanese MMA Legend Rumina Sato Talks JMMA, Shooto, And The Sport of Jiu-Jitsu

Back in the early days, submission specialists were rare at best.  Outside of the Gracie family who used sound, simple, fundamental jiu-jitsu, there weren’t many who were truly exceptional.  There were a few fighters who were way ahead of their time.  One of these fighters, Rumina Sato, established himself as one of the most exciting fighters of all time, hitting flying submissions and leg locks in MMA back in the 90s.

Sato made his MMA debut in 1994, winning his first fight by calf slicer, the first calf slicer in MMA history, and to this day one of very few in the sport.  Sato took his time amassing a record of 26 wins, 17 losses and 2 draws between 1994 and 2012, formally retiring in 2014.  His fought for Vale Tudo Japan and Shooto.

I recently had an opportunity to chat with Rumina Sato about his experience as a martial artist, his thoughts on grappling techniques, and his hopes/expectations for the future of Japanese MMA.

“I really never had too much interest in martial arts,” he told me. “But I was always thinking why there weren’t any mixed martial arts competition. I found out about Shooto in high school and I knew this was it. I was immediately determined to spread this new sport to the world, and wanted to make a living off of it.  I like to challenge new things that nobody has done, this was way before the UFC was born, a time where the word “MMA” never existed….”

Sato is still active on the martial arts scene, actively training jiu-jitsu, but also remaining true to his roots of Shooto.

There was a big internal incident a few years ago within the Shooto Association, and since I was able to speak to both, the older generation and younger generation and was forced into solving the situation.

I am currently living in my home town Odawara, running a Shooto gym and am the Chief director of the Shooto Association along with the Chairman of the Amateur Shooto Association. I hold seminars occasionally, but it is not high level and is meant for beginners to spread the sport of Shooto and grappling.

Shooto was the only organization putting on 100% real fights in Japan back in the day so all the good fighters were in Shooto, but now there are many other organizations to choose from so it has diluted the pool of fighters in Shooto. But this happens as time passes and the sport grows. But as far as the amateur structure, Shooto still has the biggest foundation and system for the amateur fighters. Most professional fighters fighting in other organizations have gone through the amateur Shooto system. I hope to continue to have Amateur Shooto the foundation for Japanese MMA competitors.

Watching Sato’s fights, it becomes clear that he is one of the most successful submission artists in history and he does it in style.  He pulled off some amazing flying submissions in his time as an active fighter, and it makes those of us who know how hard those are to actually hit. Wonder why the heck did he become so good at such a unique skill set?

I love flashy moves! It is better for the fans isn’t it? This applies to all fighters, but we all want to win with dynamic moves like you see in the movies. I don’t think there is a single fighter who wishes to win in a boring fashion. So why doesn’t everybody pull flashy moves? Because those moves have risks. I don’t have much of a talent, but I focused on that aspect. In return, I did lose quite a few fights lol.

I love flashy moves! It is better for the fans isn’t it? This applies to all fighters, but we all want to win with dynamic moves like you see in the movies. I don’t think there is a single fighter who wishes to win in a boring fashion.

Given that Sato has seen the ebb and flow of Japanese MMA, I was curious about his thoughts on the growth of the sport in Japan.

Back in the 90’s and early 2000’s, MMA just started to see daylight and everything was a new experience, the level of competition wasn’t consistent, but there was definitely great energy in the entire industry.

There are countless fighters who started to train MMA at this time. Since terrestrial television still has great influence in Japan, it is often said that the fall of PRIDE hurt the industry, however, the amount of people watching MMA may had decreased, but the amount of people competing didn’t.

The amount of gyms is increasing. The fighters who were influenced by my generation and the PRIDE fighters are starting to retire and open up schools, and now the kids who don’t know PRIDE are starting to rise and become recognized in the professional ring.

I think Kyoji Horiguchi is definitely the closest one to a UFC title. I had my eyes on him since he was an Amateur Shooto fighter. Bantamweight Shoko Sato, Fly weights Hiromasa Ogikubo, Takumi Tamaru, Hayato, and current UFC Welterweight Daichi Abe have a good chance to do well in the UFC.

Fans of the older generation of MMA fighters coming out of Japan know that there was a close relationship between MMA and professional wrestling; many of the greatest MMA fighters of all time were at some point also pro wrestlers.  I was interested in Sato’s thoughts on this correlation.

The good and bad parts of the history of being involved with pro wrestling… Leaning too much on the “show” aspect is preventing growth as a true sport.  It is not needed for the new and young generation, but it may be needed for the generation who are the decision makers and for the light casual fans. I have been cooperating with Mr. Sakakibara since he started RIZIN, doing commentary and operating amateur tournaments, but due to the requests from the television partner, there are many fights focused more on entertainment.

I feel the promotion’s agony in that aspect, but it may be necessary to put on “easy to understand” bouts considering the fact that Japanese television hasn’t seen MMA for over a decade.  In Japan, we need to start from there, and slowly shift towards pure competition.

Sato’s primary style for a long time was catch wrestling, I was curious about his thoughts of how Catch and jiu-jitsu relate to one another.

Catch wrestling is being aggressive and committing to a submission attempt. Jiu Jitsu has its roots from self defense, so you minimize the risk while you compete. My Jiu Jitsu style is catch-Jiu Jitsu lol

Sato is currently focused on honing his skills as a jiu-jitsu competitor:

I was always the smaller one on the mat, so I got hooked to leg locks, where I was able to submit larger opponents. As a grappler, I became a champion a few times for the combat wrestling competitions. Jiu Jitsu, I have lost in the first round 4 events in a row in the blue belt division lol I was finally able to win a small tournament on my 5th try. I am currently a purple belt!

It is relatively still a new sport, so I am sure that the sport will still continue to evolve. However, it is disappointing to see that the competition has become too much of a “game” and there aren’t as many grapplers who are aggressive in committing to a submission attempt.

I have no motivation on becoming a better and stronger competitor, so I haven’t really looked into the details of technique, but I know for a fact that the skill levels and techniques have evolved quite significantly from when I first started!  I am no longer a top competitor so if there are any tournaments in grappling or jiu jitsu that fits my skill level, I would be happy to participate. My current goal is to become a brown belt in jiu jitsu so I can start using leg locks.

Rumina Sato will always be considered one of the greatest submission specialists in the history of MMA; it will be interesting to see what he does in the sport of jiu-jitsu!  His shout outs go out to his sponsors Shooto, Inspirit, Roots and Ludwig Van (whose owner facilitated this interview.)  You can find Rumina on Instagram at @ruminasato.


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