Megumi Fujii - WMMA Pioneer
Yes, not only did Megumi Fujii have more armbars than Ronda had victories, but she did it in a deeper division, against stronger opposition. If there was any doubt that Megumi Fujii was UFC calibre, know that late in her career she defeated Carla Esparza, inaguaral and two time women’s strawweight champion. In her entire career, she lost to only two women, both of who were nearly a decade younger than her.
Today we’re going to look at Megumi Fujii’s career, expert grappling and why she might be pound for pound the best women’s MMA fighter to ever do it.
If Sambo Were Easy, It Would Be Called Jiu Jitsu
Much like Ronda Rousey, Megumi Fujii started out in Judo and was specifically inspired by the Last Emperor, Fedor Emelianenko. There is much that can be said about Fedor Emelianenko but for now we will leave it at these two points. First, his detractors, as detractors often do, outright lie about his career and second, he is probably the greatest mixed martial artist of all time.
Megumi Fujii started training at age 10, and at that time women training martial arts was still quite rare, meaning that Fujii had to hone her technique against bigger, stronger judoka every day. This was a double edged sword however, as despite attaining a black belt in Judo, it was much harder to have a true career in the martial art.
It was when Fujii went to University that she first encountered Combat Sambo. Sambo is a martial art that you will probably be familiar with. A Russian martial art heavily derived from, and using the same techniques as judo. It can perhaps best be described as judo without the banned moved, and combat sambo allowed for strikes and chokeholds.
If this sounds an awful lot like MMA in a jacket, that’s because as far as rules are concerned it mostly is. Despite making up for only a small amount of mixed martial artists, sambo fighters disproportionately dominate at the top of the sport, with fighters like Fedor Emelianenko, Khabib Nurmagomedov, Islam Makhachev and indeed, Megumi Fujii being among the best fighters in their division at the time.
It might be more appropriate to call Fujii a specialist in sambo as opposed to Judo, as the two martial arts are so very similar, and when push came to shove, Fujii didn’t compete at the top levels of Judo, but she competed in four World Sambo Championships, winning Silver each time. Her process of actually training for these competitions are what first put her into an MMA gym.
One of the downsides of taking up sambo later in life were that her wrestling style takedowns were far weaker than her throwing skills. Judo teaches you to throw all day, every day, but single and double leg takedowns are usually prohibited in judo. Sambo allows for these techniques and sambists have to be familiar with them. She went to Abe Ani Combat Club (AACC) to train her wrestling with MMA fighters, and it was probably there that she started thinking about competing in MMA after her sambo career.
MMA, BJJ, ADCC
If Megumi Fujii has one particular skill, truly it must be learning. We don’t usually think of learning as a skill but it truly is. It’s also, ironically, probably the hardest skill to learn. Everyone has their own process, but Fujii in particular just seemed to be able to learn and change to whatever ruleset she was competing under.
Fujii started her MMA career in 2004, the year after her final Sambo championship performance. The joke has always been that if sambo were easy it would be called jiu jitsu, and Megumi Fujii makes the meme almost factually correct as while training in MMA, she would also compete in both the Pan American Jiu Jitsu Championship and Abu Dhabi Combat Club – two of the most prestigious grappling tournaments in the world. She placed bronze in Abu Dhabi both times, but won two golds at the Pan Americans. Fujii was training under the best, there was of course Hiroyuki Abe, a relatively unremarkable fighter, but an outstanding coach and legendary pro wrestler and MMA fighter Josh Barnett – who introduced Fujii to catch wrestling, and in particular introduced her to the catch approach to leg locks.
Fujii was not only able to adapt to a new ruleset but was able to dominate under it, medalling in each major world tournament she entered, all the while having relatively little experience when compared to her opponents.
While this was going on, Fujii was also establishing herself as the best female fighter on the planet. With submission win, after submission win. Megumi Fujii’s MMA career is one that’s hard to summarise, she was not only dominant but she was dominant against fighters often much larger than her. Fujii was known for giving up weight, not unlike Sylvie Von Duuglas-Ittu. Yet despite being undersized would consistently be able to work opponents either to the fence, or take them down outright, before getting the tap. Her submissions really speak for themselves, but despite having only 1 TKO to her record, Fujii’s striking was pretty effective.
It’s fair to say that Fujii’s striking was sloppy in that Takanori Gomi sense. She could lob a right hand like a baseball pitcher all day and land it with strong accuracy, but she wasn’t the most refined striker. That said, this is at a time in MMA when having serviceable striking at all was a rarity. Though it might be hard for some to believe today, in 2006 having a functioning jab at all was enough to put you in the upper echelon of MMA fighters.
The game in those days was sprawl and brawl, or go for a submission. These were the days of Chuck Lidell being able to stop the takedown and then just swing. To her credit, Fuji was simply a better brawler than most.
Perhaps the tragic part of her career was that she never got her ‘superfight’. As at the same time fellow WMMA legend Yuka Tsuji was also competing. They fought on the same promotions, and sometimes even on the same cards – and both had incredible submission wins under their belts. Comically, they both even held wins over Korean fighter Seo Hee Ham, who is still active all these years later and currently dominating One FC and Rizin.
Despite both competing in Jewels, a promotion solely focused on women, it appears that they were both so successful that the promotion didn’t truly want to see either of them lose. So the fight unfortunately just never materialised. The irony is that despite being best known for MMA, MMA is possibly where she was challenged the least as promoters had the tendency to throw low level opponents at her – this has been true of virtually every top WMMA fighter, including Ronda Rousey and Valentina Shevchenko, but is still sad to see.
The sad thing about Megumi Fujii is in the west, she seems to have largely been forgotten. MMA in the West is essentially a monopoly for the UFC and that organisations cultural dominance causes casual fans to dismiss fighters that didn’t compete in that organisation, regardless of the time period.
The UFC only truly emerged as the top MMA promotion in terms of skill after its absorbed the rosters of the WEC and Strikeforce from 2010-2013. By that point in time, Megumi Fujii’s career was winding down and she would retire in 2013. Earlier that same year the UFC finally established their first women’s division, mostly to capitalise on Ronda Rousey who had been making a tear through Strikeforce doing more or less the same thing Megumi Fujii had a decade before.
The UFC’s acquisition of Strikeforce, and fear female fighters would be out of work, pushed Shannon Knapp into creating Invicta, the first major Western promotion to focus purely on women’s competition. Women’s only promotions were nothing new however, and Fujii competed in them.
Megumi Fujii was not only a great pioneer, but she hasn’t truly been surpassed either. We would do well to remember her great career far more, whether she fought Yuka Tsuji or not.
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