MARINE CORP BASE CAMP FUJI, Japan -- Like a Japanese version of Mickey from the “Rocky” movies, a seemingly humble man guides Marines as they learn Muay Thai kickboxing in the Little Guns Gym on Combined Arms Training Center Camp Fuji.
Koji Arano, the recreation specialist with Marine Corps Community Services Camp Fuji and former professional fighter, doesn’t use his skills to beat people down in the ring anymore. He uses them to build Marines up.
Arano, a certified assistant Muay Thai instructor and fitness trainer, spends a large portion of his free time teaching mixed martial arts to Marines at Camp Fuji.
“Deep down, he wants people to excel at something they want to do,” said Rick Sacca, the community services supervisor for MCCS Camp Fuji. “He puts his heart and soul into his classes.”
Arano, a 35-year-old Tokyo native, moved to Gotenba two years ago to be closer to Camp Fuji where he works. Soon after, he started teaching Marines how to fight using the mixed martial arts techniques of Muay Thai kickboxing, also referred to as the Art of the Eight Limbs for its extensive use of two feet, two knees, two elbows and two hands.
“Other instructors envy me because I have the best students in the world,” he said. “When you teach the public, you have to build them up from scratch, but Marines already have that warrior spirit.”
Arano’s love for martial arts has gained him a large amount of respect from his students who see him as more than just their sensei.
“He is my friend — a good friend,” said Lance Cpl. Christopher Y. Tellez, a metal worker at Camp Fuji. “When you train and fight with somebody, you get a family-like bond with them. Koji is the one that brings us all together for one purpose — to fight.”
Before working for MCCS, Arano trained and competed in the United States as a professional mixed martial artist. His competitive record was 30-15.
His former trainer described Arano’s record as “dynamic.”
“He was a crowd pleaser,” said Dan Dunn, the coach of Victory Gym in Albany, Oregon. “Win or lose, he always lit it up, and his opponents knew he would put every inch of his soul into every match.”
Dunn met Arano in 1997 while Arano was attending Oregon State University and working at a martial arts gym. Dunn began training Koji, and they soon became friends.
“He had a tremendous amount of natural talent, but his focus needed some work. OK, a lot of work. And let me tell you, his temper was hot,” Dunn said. “(He was very humble), unless you made him mad. That’s no joke. I seriously had to kick his butt a few times, but we got through it and eventually became like family.”
Dunn describes his work ethic as “amazing,” as he recalled how intensely Arano studied martial arts.
Successes in the ring and training with the great fighters of this era, such as Ultimate Fighting Championship Hall of Famer Randy Couture, haven’t gone to Arano’s head.
“He is the most humble person I know,” Sacca said. “He comes off as a very timid person, but there’s no way I would jump in the ring with him.” Koji returned to Japan after he retired from professional fighting.
Currently, Arano is going through testing and training to be a licensed physical fitness trainer. The training has helped him explain the moves of fighting more clearly. However, his less-than-perfect English has never stopped him from relaying his messages to the Camp Fuji Marines.
“Even though we have a little communication barrier, we understand each other’s
hearts,” he said. When Arano first began practicing his martial arts with the Marines, he was just looking
for a training partner.
“After training with them, I have faith in their abilities as Marines and fighters,” he said. “I realized they have a future (as Marines and fighters). And why shouldn’t I invest in the future?”
His investment in these Marines will help outside the ring, according to Dunn, who served in the military for more than 20 years. It is a golden chance to learn self-discipline beyond what is taught in boot camp or at home.
“Many will learn a great deal from him,” Dunn said. “It is an honor to be friends with Koji. I only wish my friend would move back to the States and help me train fighters again.