Phil Baroni isn’t just Riki Fukuda’s close friend and longtime training partner. Baroni also moonlights, rather proudly, as Fukuda’s English teacher.
So while Fukuda, a Tokyo native, relied on an English translator for a recent UFC.com interview, the “New York Bad Ass” insists it was totally unnecessary.
“His English is fine! He’s my number one (English) student,” Baroni said enthusiastically, all kidding aside. “I’ve had a couple others.”
Leading up to his UFC 127 bout against middleweight Nick Ring, the 30-year-old Fukuda spoke exclusively in Japanese to UFC.com. Curious at what I was missing, I pressed Baroni to describe his buddy’s English.
“He has a New York accent,” Baroni said, “and he uses all the same words I do.”
“Fugetaboutit,” Baroni offered.
Baroni, wife at his side, brainstormed a bit more for the lessons he had imparted. After a short pause, two more Baroni-isms jumped to mind as staples of Fukuda’s fast-evolving second language:
“Yeah, right” and “nice, playa’, nice.”
English lessons aside, Fukuda (17-4) is best known for a seven-fight win streak that includes a unanimous decision victory over Murilo “Ninja” Rua, older brother of UFC light heavyweight champ Mauricio “Shogun” Rua. A revealing measure of Fukuda’s valor can be traced to his pro debut back in 2004 when he battled Joe Doerksen in Hawaii. Fukuda’s record was 0-0; Doerksen was 25-5.
Baroni was one of the men working Fukuda’s corner that night.
“He fought his a—off,” Baroni recalled. “He was a former wrestler and Doerksen was a black belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu who kept catching him in submissions and then Riki would escape and the crowd would go crazy. He showed a lot of heart and guts. I knew then that he would be a star if he ever had the right training and opportunities.”
While the bulk of Fukuda’s training has been in Japan, often with sparring partners Yushin Okami and Yoshihiro Akiyama, he has also traveled with Baroni for stints at the American Kickboxing Academy in San Jose, California, and Xtreme Couture in Las Vegas.
“All of the U.S. gyms are huge compared to Japanese gyms and they have a nice environment for training,” Fukuda said through his translator, Fumihiko Ishii. “All of the American fighters are very serious about reaching success and are more committed compared to Japan.”
That dedication, Fukuda indicated, is what has elevated his game over the past few years.
“I’ve put more effort in,” said the former collegiate wrestler, who also earned a college degree in law. “I committed to train harder than before.”
Fukuda, who also developed a fondness for yoga, MTV, reggae music and burritos during his forays in the U.S., surmised that many Japanese fighters have not fared well inside of the Octagon because they don’t cut weight or focus only on finishing a fight, rather than strategy. The Japanese fighter expects to have his hands full when he faces Ring, a member of the Ultimate Fighter season 11 cast who is 10-0 as a pro.
Baroni, a UFC veteran, sensed that his good friend was battling jitters as his UFC debut inched closer.
“He’s really nervous because this is his big chance; it’s do or die,” Baroni said. “I told him to fight and enjoy it. Go out there with a smile on your face, don’t put a lot of pressure on yourself. Not a lot of guys get to fight in the UFC. I’ve been there before and froze and fought tight and not to my potential. What happens is what will happen. The outcome will take care of itself.”
Fukuda Learns from an Unlikely Mentor
At UFC 127, Japanese middleweight Riki Fukuda makes his UFC debut against TUF11 veteran Nick Ring.