Ryo Chonan retired with 35 professional mixed martial arts bouts and the DEEP Welterweight World Championship on his resume.
During that storied career, he racked up wins against legends like Anderson “The Spider” Silva and Hayato “Mach” Sakurai while earning his “Piranha” nickname with a relentless and ferocious style.
Just as important, the 43-year-old laid the foundations for what is now one of the most acclaimed martial arts gyms in the world: Tribe Tokyo MMA, which has churned out world-class competitors since opening in April 2012.
This is the story of how a gym in the Nerima district of Tokyo became the monster it is today, delivering a stable of World Champions that would become international heroes in ONE Championship.
Chonan originally trained as part of a well-known martial arts collective called Team MAD alongside former DEEP Light Heavyweight World Champion Yoshiyuki Nakanishi, DEEP Welterweight World Champion Yuya Shirai, and Pride veteran Yasuhito Namekawa.
However, the athletes had no official gym of their own and largely worked out at Yoshida Dojo and Tsuyoshi Kosaka’s Alliance gym.
When it came time to create his true home, Chonan decided to call the gym “Tribe Tokyo.” The name comes from the Japanese word “kakuto-zoku,” which means “martial tribe.”
Chonan picked that name as a way to reflect the gym’s well-organized approach and family values. And understanding the need to be known across the world, he wanted to brand the gym with “Tokyo” to put it on the global map from its inception.
Strength From Adversity
Chonan’s dream to improve people’s lives and raise World Champions was conceived out of personal adversity.
He squared off against former Olympian and mixed martial arts World Champion Dan Henderson at Pride Bushido 9 in 2005, but the match did not go his way. Following the defeat, “Piranha” was honest and humble in contacting the American legend to build international ties and make a request.
“I asked if I could train with him,” Chonan recalls. “I realized I had to improve, so I thought about training abroad, but I couldn’t speak any English. I only had a paper dictionary.”
Armed with just that paper dictionary, the Japanese athlete flew to California in 2007 to train with “Hendo” at Team Quest.
Seeing the differences in the facilities and training overseas for the first time gave Chonan the idea of running his own martial arts gym. It would be more than just a dojo – it would be a place to inspire others through both the arts and fitness.
“When I was training in America, I started to think about various ways to run a gym,” he says. “There was nothing like that in Japan yet.”
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Taking A Risk
Land in Tokyo comes at a premium and renting space in the city – assuming fellow building occupants will even allow a gym – is notoriously difficult and expensive.
For that reason, the vast majority of martial arts gyms are no bigger than a personal condominium space. However, Tribe Tokyo is both large and modern.
“I borrowed money from a successful business friend who used to do judo. We talked about fighters who were struggling, had no place to train, and needed more support,” Chonan says.
“I couldn’t have gotten such a big place with my own money. [My friend] also invested to set the gym up with good equipment.”
Due to his own construction background, Chonan personally worked alongside the laborers as they gutted the entire basement and built the space for Tribe Tokyo.
Hitting The Ground Running
While many businesses experience a slow start, Tribe Tokyo had just shy of 150 members by the second month of operations. The right timing, location, and business model made the academy an instant hit in the metropolis.
“A lot of people live in that area, and when we opened, there were no other martial arts gyms around there,” Chonan says.
“I think a lot of gyms imitated us afterwards, but at the time, there were no places where you could do martial arts and weight training. Most places were basically dojos. I think it’s more difficult for dojos to attract members. Also, my athletes are successful, so they provide publicity.”
These days, ONE Championship proudly boasts the best mixed martial artists from Japan on its roster, including a pair of highly-ranked Tribe Tokyo-trained athletes – the #4-ranked women’s strawweight contender Ayaka “Zombie” Miura and the #4-ranked flyweight contender Yuya “Little Piranha” Wakamatsu.
In addition to that, Chonan has polished Shoko Sato’s game, which has helped him become the #2-ranked bantamweight contender. Also, former ONE Lightweight World Champion Shinya “Tobikan Judan” Aoki coaches and trains at the gym.
Building More World Champions
Tribe Tokyo’s professional training sessions are famously tough and well-structured using Chonan’s expert mixture of traditional and modern practices.
His unique amalgamation of styles from both home and abroad continues to help attract top talents from around the globe.
“It was my goal to coach and build professional athletes who could achieve higher levels than myself,” Chonan says.
“Our solid pro training attracts athletes from other gyms. My athletes and members are very close – they get on very well. Some members have been doing business together. We’ve created a good place for social exchanges.”
To this day, running the illustrious Tribe Tokyo and building its international success is a very hands-on process for Chonan. His body and mind were both pushed to the limits as a professional mixed martial artist, and he continues to sacrifice his own time to build a new generation of peak athletes.
Tribe Tokyo’s memberships, coaching, athlete care, and management are all personally overseen by “Piranha.” Despite the effort required, he is happy to make a difference in his local community while building heroes on the global stage.
“Martial arts saved my life, so it’s a very important thing for me,” the Japanese legend says. “I’d like to pass that on to people, if even just slightly, when they come to train with us.”
That attitude is a big reason why the motto for Tribe Tokyo is: “Finish training with a smile.”
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