Waru [bad boy] is a Japanese anything-goes fighting tournament started by movie producer and entrepreneur Yamamoto Yoshihisa. When it comes to organized fighting in Japan, it's about as rough as it gets—there’s no pretty-boy posturing from the combatants and there are hardly any rules. Fighters can't bite, hit each other in the dick, or strike at the face when their opponents are down, but that's it. Submissions are forbidden and KOs pay top dollar, so that's the end goal; usually, “matches end up pretty much just like street fights with someone stepping in to break things up,” according to Yamamoto. Waru is all about blood, sweat, and tears—as the red-stained rags used to mop the ring after bouts indicate.
Yamamoto started the tournament in dedication to his old karate mentor, the late Hisao Mak, the manga artist responsible for the comic Waru, from which the tournament takes its name. The producer was behind the the Takashi Miike film version of the comic, and Yamamoto looks more like an extra in one of Miike's over-the-top films than someone who would produce one, but there’s an unexpected authenticity to his kitschy B-movie Yakuza appearance, something that lends him charisma and makes him both formidable and likeable.
Through the karate circuit and his line of work, Yamamoto has been exposed to various elements and characters in the underground street-fighting scenes around Japan. With Waru, he wanted to put these elements to the ring and create a tournament that would “keep things as close to the street as possible.” He brought in men from across the country, hoping to find the meanest and toughest fighters he could, to embody the Waru or “dark hero” spirit in Maki’s comics.
Yamamoto currently has two favorite prodigies under his wing: Ken Moon and Sapp Nishinari, the latter of whom takes his second name from the area he hails from. Made up on one side by one of Japan’s oldest and largest red-light districts and on the other by homeless shelters and cheap one-coin bars, Nishinari is probably the only place in Japan that can legitimately call itself a ghetto. It's an obvious breeding ground for the kind of street-hardened talent that Yamamoto is after for Waru.
Ken and Sapp may look, dress, and drink like they’re auditioning for a Japanese version of Jersey Shore, but these guys are the real fucking deal. Ken has a face like a brick wall and is entirely unreserved about his motivations as a fighter. “The first time I saw someone using violence to pay the bills I knew that's what I wanted to do," he said. He originally came to the Yamane Dojo, where the two now train together, to challenge Sapp, a well-known Osaka talent at the time. In the end Sapp won, and the two have been tight ever since. As far as they’re concerned, together they’re now the best in the country.
On an evening out with Yamamoto the night before a big fight at Okayama Orange Hall, the pair drink and smoke in a way that would scandalize any normal professional athlete. Both are confident that hungover or not they’ll be able to bring the goods the next day. Yamamoto joked that they don't really practice either, but added that these guys “are naturally tough, so there’s nothing to worry about. Only people with strong hearts can take things to the end—like life or death. They have been in situations [out on the street] where they could’ve easily been killed, and it was only by luck that they survived.”
“Outside [on the street], the bottom line is you can’t lose,” chimed in Sapp.
Even though some Waru fighters have varying degrees of professional training, most of the them are armed with nothing more than street-level experience, which gives Waru a distinctly underground feel despite it being an organized tournament.
Yamamoto believes that violence goes through generational cycles. He compares the man-to-man fighting of his youth and the pure fighting depicted in the Hisao Maki comics to the use of weapons and foul play of kids today. To him, Waru is a way of taking things back to that purer form. Sapp, for his part, acknowledges that he's no stranger to weapons out on the street; he's had guns pointed at his face and lived to talk about it. His view is that what little rules there are in the ring help to make him tougher. By bringing street fighting and guys like Sapp and Ken Moon into the ring, Waru has created an untempered arena for conflict. It is unapologetic, unpretentious and as pure as it is frightening.
“I’m really grateful to Waru as it gives me a reason for violence,” Ken said.