The boisterous expat sits down with Bloody Elbow to discuss his origins in the sport, as well as this weekend’s Pancrase 293 main event.
Stewart Fulton is not a name known to many fans, but his voice is one that resonates with anyone that’s watched a Pancrase show. A longtime resident of Japan, Fulton has had an odd sequence of events that led to him covering the sport for one of the longest-running organizations on the planet.
Stewart was generous enough with his time to talk about all of this as well as the main event of Pancrase 293, taking place this weekend from Studio Coast in Tokyo, Japan.
Victor Rodriguez: So walk me through this: how does a towering, dashing, energetic Scotsman with a booming voice end up in Japan of all places?
Stewart Fulton: (Laughs) Well, I wanted to work abroad and I wanted to teach English. That was my focus. I was actually considering going to Spain, so I spoke to my career advisor at university after I graduated and I said “I really want to teach, I enjoy it, I’ll get a lot out of it. What can I do?” And he said “Well, Spain is this, if you stay in the U.K., you’ve go this.” I was also talking about China as well, because I wanted to go somewhere completely different. So being a Brit, it’s very easy for us to travel around Europe and pick up the languages, you know? But something much more challenging, completely different would suggest the far east. So when I mentioned China he says “Well, there’s this and this and this… how about Japan?“ And that was when the light lit up, because I’d been watching VHS videos of PRIDE in my martial arts instructor’s house. So I’m watching (Kazushi) Sakuraba and I’m thinking “This dude is amazing!“ Look how relaxed he is, and he just takes these people apart with ease!” You know? And he doesn’t even look like a fighter. So when the career instructor said “How about Japan?” I was like “Yeah, that sounds good, ‘cause I can work and I can train.“ At this point in the UK, this was the late 90s, so MMA wasn’t much in the U.K. at all. I mean, there’s a couple of underground things, but nothing sanctioned. Nothing major, and you still had to go to a Muay Thai club, and train at a boxing club, and then go to a Judo club. There weren’t really that many MMA clubs.
So yeah, I went to London, had an interview for the job, got the job, a month later I’m in Japan. That’s January 2001, so that’s 17 years ago. I worked for a few months just as a private English teacher and by the luck of the draw, I knew someone that knew (Nobuhiko) Takada. I said to him “Look, can you ask him if I can pay Sakuraba for privates?“ and he said “Well, OK. How about you come and have dinner with us?“ So I sat down one night after PRIDE 12, Takada-san came and met us at a restaurant. I said “I want to train with Sakuraba,” and he said “Well… why are you into—“ he was calling it Vale Tudo then. MMA wasn’t really a catchword then, it was Vale Tudo because of the link with Brazil. I said “I just love it, it’s a challenge. It’s so difficult but it’s so rewarding, you just keep learning stuff.” He said “Do you want to compete?” I said “Yeah, I’d love to try it.” He says “Well, how would you like to come to the gym and train full time?” I’d only been in the country about 4-5 months. He says “Well, you have to take a physical test first. It’s a standard physical test all the new guys have to take. But I’m sure you’ll pass, you’ll do alright.”
Now, I’d read about these tests in Shooto and to get into Shooto gyms as a live-in student. And I think Ken Shamrock’s book — it was a terribly written book — but I read it because it was fascinating. He’d talked about taking the gym entry-level tests from Japan and he’d used it as his own sadistic way to separate the men from the boys if you wanna be in his gym, right? I show up and its five other guys. The six of us had to take this test and I’d heard that it was hard, but it was brutal. There’s no amount of physical preparation that can get you ready for that, because these tests aren’t designed for you to be able to complete. They’re designed so that they can see your heart, how far are you willing to go? How much do you want it? All of that stuff — 200 star jumps, 200 pushups, duck walk races across the gym, etc. Three guys quit, they just couldn’t do it anymore. You’ve got Sakuraba and at that point, (Daijiro) Matsui and a couple of other guys, and the last part is we’ve got to grapple each other and tap each other out. I had enough left in me to tap the other two guys out, so that raised the eyebrows of Sakuraba even though I had virtually no experience on the ground at the time. I came from Muay Thai and did a little bit of JKD (Jeet Kune Do). I’d only done a little bit of gi work, gi newaza in Scotland. I hadn’t done any grappling or submission wrestling at that point. So we finish the test, one of the guys quit halfway through and ended up crawling out of the gym, he couldn’t even walk. He crawled out on all fours.
They said “Yeah, you’re in.” Three of us passed, and I said ”I have a job, I have to give four weeks’ notice.” So I spoke to my family, I spoke to my old martial arts instructor, I said “This is a big chance, what do you think?” He said “Yeah, do it. Don’t regret it.“ By the time I entered the dojo, the other two guys that had passed had also entered and quit. The training was brutal. Takada, his approach was really old school. He respects the sumo-style lifestyle, and because he came up through the pro-wrestling gyms, he was really strict as far as senpai and and kohai, you know? Senior and junior, really old school. So there was only one other guy there, who’d been there for a while. That was my start of full-time training back in 2001.
VR: So, you began your professional career in 2003, I believe? Is that correct?
SF: Yeah, I fought as an amateur in 2002. Won a tournament out in Osaka. Then I won a fight in… back then it was called Demolition. It was run by a network (of gyms), so I was training at some of their gyms and it was essentially through them that I met Genki Sudo and we formed a team. That was in 2003, then Demolition became D.O.G., then it became Cage Force.
VR: So you remained in Japan, you decided to make a life there after your professional career had begun, how did you get your start with Pancrase?
SF: Well, I was in Scotland on vacation. I got a message from Lenne Hardt. She said, “Pancrase is looking for English commentators, I think this job’s for you. Here’s the contact.” I spoke to an agent, actually, who I was dealing with at the time and she said “We’ll meet you.” We met up, sat there with the agent and they needed a pilot, basically to show UFC Fight Pass and what they could do, production-wise. So then I got a call after that and the agent said “It’s all about last-minute, they’ve chosen someone else. Sorry about that.” I was gutted. I was like “Naaaaah, this is my job, there’s nobody else here that can do that.” They’d have to fly someone in to equal what I had. What I felt I had for the job at the time. So I wrote a letter to the CEO, Sakai-san (Pancrase CEO Masakazu Sakai) basically explaining myself. I got a reply and I got a sitdown with him and he offered me the job on the spot. He said “Well actually, the guy that we brought in is a referee and we had no one else, so we had to bring him in quickly. He’s not a commentator.” So the pilot show went down pretty badly, actually. I saw it. I subsequently saw it (laughs).
VR: You’ve been doing commentary for Pancrase and we’ve seen the events that they’ve put on since they’ve been on Fight Pass have been… rather unexpected to put it plainly. It’s a very different flavor of mixed martial arts, and what do you think it is? Is it the training environments? Is it the way different fighters train? What is it that makes the type of fight that you see in Pancrase so singular or perhaps distinct from what we’re used to seeing elsewhere.
SF: Hmm, that’s a good question. It boils down to the roots of Japan as a country, really. Being an island nation that was cut off for so many years, they were very insular and always looked inward and they developed stuff by themselves a lot. So you have that base, and you have now, mixed with the younger generation who have YouTube and the internet, some of them are training abroad. Some of them are able to get techniques and ways of training from abroad but they still have the core of their own martial arts, because they grew up with Judo, they grew up with wrestling, with Karate. MMA is really nothing new to them, in the sense that it is in the west. So to answer your question more clearly, I think they’re very… very stubborn in a way, with their own styles. They develop very peculiar original styles. But they still have bases in their original art, whether it be Judo, wrestling, boxing or Karate.
VR: We have the upcoming event (Pancrase 293) with a flyweight title fight at the top between Senzo Ikeda and Yuya Wakamatsu. A lot of not just American fans, but perhaps fans that are not in tune with the Japanese scene may not be familiar with these names. I just want you to give me a general idea of what kind of challenges these competitors present for each other.
SF: Yeah, this is a — all main events are exciting. And all title matches have that special hype to them. The way Senzo has come from professional boxing, which is quite unusual for a Japanese MMA fighter, there’s only a few others. So he has that boxing base, but he’s adapted it really well with the footwork in the cage and the the distance, which is different from traditional boxing. You have that, and he’s also tall and he’s rangy, he covers the distance really, really well and his takedown defense is excellent. Then you have this young kid, Yuya Wakamatsu. He started training in MMA three and a half years ago or something. He’s been under the watchful eye of Ryo Chonan at Tribe Tokyo MMA, and he does an excellent job with his fighters, not just the way he trains the physically, but mentally, which is highly overlooked in my opinion, in a lot of gyms. So this kid, nine fights, eight KOs, his hands are fierce, he’s relaxed. He’s like a spring, but when he goes, he goes 100%. He’s accurate, he hits the button. It’s gonna be a striking match, but these guys aren’t brawlers.
VR: Final question – as someone that’s been living abroad and has roots in Scotland, what is that you miss the most about Scotland in Japan? What is it that you miss the most that you can’t equal or get your hands on over there?
SF: My first answer… yeah, that’s a difficult one. It’s not food in general, I miss pies. Meat pies, steak pies. The British steak pie, it’s something special. That’s not really something that bothers me hugely, because Japanese food is amazing. My main focus I guess, is my family. I don’t miss the weather. Yeah, I guess I miss pies and family.
Pancrase 293 will be live from Tokyo, Japan and streaming on UFC Fight Pass, starting Saturday night at midnight ET. The card features international talent such as Ricardo Tirloni facing Akira Okada, Takayo Hashi vs Barbara Acioly, and Kyohei Wakimoto vs Akihiro Gono.