For most sports fans, prize fighting is something truly glamorous, a battle of wills playing out before thousands in densely packed casinos with millions more watching in real time all over the world. It's a shared experience, a celebration of the primal, both a spectacle of masculine pride and a compelling demonstration of humanity's capacity for courage.
Kotetsu Boku, the former K-1 and Dream fighter, has seen that side of the fight game. The One FC lightweight champion has fought in the legendary Saitama Super Arena, on the same card as superstars like Mirko "Cro Cop" Filopovic and, yes, his opponent next month, Shinya Aoki.
He's also seen the dark side of the phenomenon, seen celebrity ravage a man, engulfing his teammate Norifumi "Kid" Yamamoto—girls surrounding the young fighter, high pitched screams greeting them everywhere they went, temptations often overwhelming training.
"It was a spectacle, that is for sure," Boku told Bleacher Report in an exclusive interview. "The team around him kept our heads down and just focused on the training needed to succeed in MMA. It was very easy to get distracted with everything that is going on, but we just stayed true to our fighting roots and dedicated ourselves to that. I owe a lot of my success to Kid. He started the Krazy Bee gym which has molded me into the fighter that I am today."
But there's another kind of prize fighting too. This kind plays out on Indian reservations or in National Guard armories. The lights are much less bright, if there are lights at all. There's a desperation there, a hunger.
Instead of men and women dressed in finery, low cut blouses and $300 jeans, the fans in the audience are either grim hardcore fanatics or family and friends. These aren't fights people come to in order to be seen. The participants are just as different.
These are no millionaire superstars taking time off of their busy St. Barts vacationing schedule to grace us with their very presence. The fighters are just as likely to be guys from the meat packing plant or your UPS deliveryman, fighters there for the love of the game or to test themselves for the first time, seeing just how much that love matters when they are being bludgeoned in the face.
Kotetsu Boku has seen this side of the fight game too.
His first fight wasn't at the Yokohama Arena. There weren't thousands of screaming fans waiting for him to make his way to the ring. There were 250, at most, in the Kitazawa Town Hall, a gaudy postmodern building on the outskirts of Tokyo.
Home to an administrative building, a bus stop and even an incongruous roof top garden, Kitazawa Town Hall was the venue of choice for Tokyo-based combat sports acts that couldn't quite justify the slightly larger and more iconic Korakeun Hall at the Tokyo Dome. This is where the second most popular women's wrestling outfit would wow with high-flying exhibitions and where out-of-shape fetishists would cut each other to shreds in "death matches."
It was also, more importantly for our story, the home of the world's best lighter weight fighters. While Nobuhiko Takada and Kazushi Sakuraba packed the Domes with tens of thousands of fans and dominated the back page sports sections in all the newspapers, anyone under 170 pounds was happy just to have an outlet to fight at all. Boku was right where he wanted to be.
"Shooto is a great promotion. For lighter weight fighters in Japan, it is the promotion that you most want to fight for. I was delighted when I got the call to fight for Shooto in my professional debut. Thankfully, I emerged victorious from that fight," Boku said.
Like many of the Shooto stars, fighting was a form of expression, something he did for the competition and the art more than the money. Which is a good thing, as the money was practically non existent. Even the top Shooto names, men like Kaoru Uno who went on to UFC fame, worked regular jobs (in Uno's case, as a waiter) before heading to the gym at night to hone their real craft.
"That is common for a lot of fighters, not just in Shooto," Boku continued. "We don't get as much money as people think. Most fighters fight out of passion and not with the intention of becoming millionaires. I wondered how Kaoru went to work after his face gets mangled though."
Twenty-nine times Boku has stepped into the ring, often for little more than pride. Twenty times he's emerged victorious. Not bad for a kid one or two generations removed from the kind of brutal prejudice that cost millions their lives.
The Japanese regime during World War II conscripted hundreds of thousands of Koreans during the war, dragging them to Japan and into forced labor camps where many didn't survive. Their own government was little better in the years following the war, cracking down on any sign of dissidence, forcing many to flee to Japan, just a decade earlier their great oppressor.
Today, tensions still exist. It's especially hard for kids, ostracized early in a society that is so homogeneous that even the slightest differences stand out. Boku found his escape in art and athletics and made his way.
"It is definitely better now. I cannot imagine what my parents must have experienced when they just moved here," Boku said. He found inspiration, not just from his parents but from other native Koreans who excelled. "(Former professional wrestling star) Riki Choshu is somebody I looked up to while I was growing up. Being a former Korean representative in the Olympics and becoming such an icon in pro wrestling is not an easy task for anyone. He set the foundation for athletes like me to compete now and I'm grateful to him for that."
He has eschewed the norm in all areas of his life. Fighters aren't supposed to be artists. And yet he he produces work in a variety of mediums.
"Inspiration comes from the weirdest places," Boku said. "Sometimes, a random image just pops into my head and I just get to work on it."
He's also made art a part of himself, using his own body as a canvas. And while tattoos are quickly transcending class and cultural barriers in the west, in Japan, a tattoo is still a controversial statement. Tied to Yakuza gangs, many proper citizens associate them only with crime and violence. In some places they are still a bar to entry. But Boku, himself a tattoo artist, believes that times are changing.
"Some people give me weird looks," he admits. "But it has generally been positive. I think the community might not be used to tattoos in general and not just my particular tattoos. I love tattooing because it gives me a pain which I must overcome for me to express myself and put my thoughts into art. It relaxes me. I am proud of my tattoos and enjoy letting people see them."
Most special is a tattoo right over his heart, an ode to the Korean warrior class from which he sprung.
"Yes the turtle ship pays tribute to my Korean roots. The turtle ship is a traditional Korean warship," Boku explained. "I also have a tiger on the right stomach area with Korean characters. I'm proud to be both Korean and Japanese and I want my tattoos to reflect that."
The Geobukseon, also known as a turtle ship, was used to fight the Japanese for centuries. Emitting smoke to mask its movements and striking terror into foes with its elaborately carved dragon heads, the turtle ships were psychological weapons, not just martial ones.
Today, Boku's psychological gambits take the form of words rather than smoke. And, despite reigning as champion, he believes that mentally it's his opponent, well known submission ace Shinya Aoki, who bears the brunt of the pressure in their upcoming One FC title fight, April 5 at Singapore Indoor Stadium and worldwide on streaming pay-per-view.
"The pressure is on him," Boku claims. "Even though I am the champion, he is the heavy favorite and he is expected to emerge victorious. I feel more at ease and I'm confident that I can cause the upset. I hope he doesn't underestimate me because that would be his biggest mistake. Shinya's a good submission guy but I'm confident that I can avoid his submissions and strike with him on the feet."
You can read more about Boku's opponent, Shinya Aoki, in our exclusive interview here.