Japanese lightweight contender Kimihiro Eto knew it would be difficult to become a professional mixed martial artist.
The lifestyle requires training heavily in the gym, adhering to a strict diet, and sacrificing personal time with friends and family. In addition to that, many aspiring hopefuls maintain a nine-to-five day job to support their athletic endeavors.
Success is not guaranteed. But fortunately, with the help of his coach, his teammates, and his work colleagues, Eto brought his dream to life and has become a rising star in ONE Championship.
“I’m living my dream now, and I can encourage more people with aspirations in martial arts,” the 31-year-old states. “Many people say it’s tough to make a living from martial arts, but if you do your best to follow your dream, you can get other work opportunities in doing what you love.”
Clearly, Eto speaks from firsthand experience.
After graduating from Senshu University in 2012, the world-class grappler was pulled away from wrestling when he attempted to fit into the norm of corporate society. He suited up and worked as a salaryman in an estate agency.
Two years went by as he focused on his new career, with the intense grappling sessions and competitions in the rearview mirror. Unfortunately, he found himself with no goals, and a void opened up that was previously filled by his athletic challenges.
The Tokyo resident was simply working for the sake of living, but he was determined to fix that and return to his wrestling roots.
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Eto consulted his boss about arranging his work hours to allow for training, and he was given permission to leave his job early once a week for wrestling practice.
Having earned a second-place finish in the All-Japan Collegiate Open Wrestling Championships during his days at Senshu University, the Japanese grappler wanted to see if he could push even further.
With that in mind, he asked his wrestling senior, Hiroto Uesako, if there were any places he could train.
Uesako introduced him to Wajutsu Keishukai Hearts, which is located in the Shinjuku area of Tokyo. Hearts – which it is called for short – is operated by Kenji Osawa and is primarily a mixed martial arts gym. However, the gym held one wrestling session per week, so Eto went there.
Osawa immediately recognized Eto’s raw talent and athletic ability in those wrestling sessions, so he encouraged him to try some of the kickboxing classes.
Eto obliged and picked up the striking art quite naturally. Osawa then mentioned an amateur mixed martial arts tournament to his young charge and encouraged him to enter the field. Itching to get back into competition, the lightweight jumped at the opportunity and won.
Two months later, Uesako was scheduled to compete in a mixed martial arts contest, but he got injured three weeks prior to the match-up.
A replacement was needed and, coincidentally, Eto was in the same weight class. Osawa turned to his new pupil and asked him to fill-in.
“When your sempai (senior) tells you something like that, you do it,” he says. “As surprised as I was, I made my professional debut and won. It was all very lighthearted at first, but I turned pro.”
Although he continued to support himself by working at the estate agency, Eto was flourishing as a professional mixed martial artist. He competed in Japanese promotions like DEEP and by the end of 2017, he compiled a 13-3-2 record.
In March 2018, he joined Rich Franklin’s ONE Warrior Series, which featured athletes from all across the globe vying for a chance to earn a six-figure contract and a spot on ONE Championship’s main roster.
Eto made his debut in the main event of the developmental league’s inaugural card against South Korea’s “Crazy Dog” Dae Sung Park. The bout did not go in his favor that day, but it ignited a new fire within the Tokyo native.
Before his bout with Trestle Tan at OWS 4 in February 2019, Eto’s boss pulled him aside for a private talk.
“Now is your chance,” his boss said. “If you win this, you could step up to [ONE Championship], so why don’t you focus solely on training and I’ll support you as a sponsor?”
Eto knew that if he were to reach his athletic peak, he had to give it everything he had. The lightweight started training as a full-time mixed martial artist and received a monthly stipend. He was not wealthy, but he was rich in passion again.
“If I were living lavishly, it would have been tough, but basically, all I needed was to train, eat, and buy supplements,” he explains. “Along with that, I make fight money and because I can focus more on my career now, I can make more fight money if I keep winning.”
That unbreakable focus led to the hallmark moment he was working towards. In February 2019, he submitted Tan via arm-triangle choke in 50 seconds to earn a six-figure contract with ONE Championship and compete on the organization’s main roster.
While it has been a difficult road, Eto navigated it well, and he had an incredible support system from his former colleagues and supervisor.
The rising Japanese star forged good relationships in his old workplace, which ultimately led to support and encouragement, and he urges others in similar situations juggling their day jobs and athletic careers to foster positive communication with those around them.
“In your working environment, you can’t be stubborn and go it alone,” he offers. “You have to communicate with your co-workers and boss to let them know what it is you’re doing and win them over. [You need to] create a communicative environment.”