Karate master/father of UFC champ washed Akira Maeda’s bones

Monday, December 28, 2015

Modern mixed martial arts was born at UFC 1, when Rorion Gracie and his partners showcased the challenge fights that had gone on without international attention in Brazil for generations. Those matches were started by fighter Mitsuyo Maeda, who engaged in challenge matches across Europe and the USA before settling in Brazil.

The Yomiuri Shimbum (Japan News) correspondent Yoshinaga Azekawa looks back.

Belem is a port town in northern Brazil that serves as a gateway to the Amazon River, which runs across the South American continent. It was there that I headed down a street lined with tropical mango trees and arrived at a quiet cemetery. A marble gravestone located in a corner of the premises marks where Mitsuyo Maeda, who was called “the fighter of Amazon,” rests beside his wife, May.

Martial arts fighters from all over Brazil are said to visit the grave. According to the male groundskeeper, “this is a sacred ground for men who live to fight.”

After developing his skills at the Kodokan, Maeda became an instructor and left for the United States in his mid-20s to spread judo overseas. He then traveled to Latin America and Europe and took on bouts against fighters trained in other martial arts, such as boxers and wrestlers, to “prove the power of judo.”

Despite the fact that Maeda had a small build and was a mere 1.64 meters tall (under 5′ 5″), his skills and fighting spirit put him on a winning streak. Legend has it that he was undefeated for 2,000 matches, which he fought wearing his judo gi.

Once he reached his 40s, Maeda settled down in Belem, partly due to his fascination with the Amazon and the emotional connection he felt with the local Japanese-Brazilian community. He opened a training hall in Belem and took on students. One of them was Carlos Gracie of the Gracie family, which became known for advancing Brazilian jiu-jitsu.

The Gracie family continued to hone their skills for generations, even after Maeda’s death.

As the Gracie family achieved worldwide fame as the most powerful fighters in the martial arts, Maeda, who was nicknamed “Conde Koma,” was also thrust back into the spotlight as their mentor. Carlos Gracie Jr., the 59-year-old son of Carlos Gracie, has claimed, “Maeda sensei is undoubtedly the one who planted the seed of martial arts in Brazil.”

He displays photos of Maeda at the 400 training centers that he manages at home and abroad, and continues to carry on the spirit of the martial artist.

Aiding Japanese immigrants

During the last half of his life in Belem, Maeda showed a commitment to supporting Japanese immigrants in areas near the Amazon River. He became a mediator for the Japanese government and negotiated with state governments. He also helped provide job-seeking assistance to immigrants who had failed at farming in the settlement.

“There wasn’t a single Japanese living in the Amazon who didn’t rely on him. On top of being a martial arts star, he gave moral support to all the Japanese who were struggling in a foreign country,” said Gota Tsutsumi, 67, who lives in Belem and studies Maeda’s life.

Maeda became a naturalized citizen of Brazil and died without ever returning to Japan. It is said that his grave once collapsed due to heavy rain and was left unattended for a long time, but was rebuilt by volunteers about 30 years ago.

A local karate master, 69-year-old Yoshizo Machida, then carefully washed the bones and placed them back into the grave. “Each bone was thick and heavy,” he recalled. “I could almost feel the strength and vigor of that heroic fighter from abroad.”

About 1.6 million people of Japanese descent now live throughout Brazil. Opportunities to reflect on the history of emigration are increasing, and Maeda is receiving recognition again for the large role that he played.

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Apartment in Belem where Maeda lived.