James Nakashima is known for his incredible cardio and relentlessness – qualities that could eventually lead him to the ONE Lightweight World Championship.
But while the tenacious fighter has become a star in ONE Championship, he was not always highly regarded. In fact, Nakashima drew no interest from top-tier university programs in the United States, even after capturing a state high school wrestling title.
So, how did the American go all the way from a small town in Illinois to the global stage of mixed martial arts?
That journey began when Nakashima took his high school coach’s advice and stayed within his state to attend Lincoln College. The program, led by head coach Dave Klemm, helped turn the determined athlete into a 2009 National Champion.
However, it was not merely Klemm’s leadership that pushed Nakashima to new heights. Assistant coaches Steven Bradley and Iowa Hawkeye legend T.J. Williams both had massive impacts on the young upstart. The duo built Nakashima up mentally while improving his technique on the mats.
“I’d run by [Bradley], and he’d be like, ‘You’re going to be a national champion.’ Just somebody believing in me 100 percent like that and reinforcing that every day was big,” the lightweight recalls.
“T.J. really believed in me, and I remember T.J. being there the first day. I went right up to him, and I was just trying to ask him questions and pick his brain. He kind of took me under his wing from there.
“It’s all about belief, and between Bradley and then T.J. always talking positivity to me and just telling me how far I can go, that was the biggest part of that 2009 year. It was just me believing in myself.”
While Nakashima ended up winning the national title at the NJCAAs, it did not come easy. He started slowly in his opening fight of the tournament before coming back to win 6-4.
“That first match, I showed up a little tight, and it was a close match,” he recalls.
“I don’t know exactly why. Maybe I was just trying too hard. A big culprit of mine is always trying too hard, and I remember I tried a fireman’s carry early in the match, and I’d never do a fireman’s carry. So that was kind of weird, and he scored off that.
“We went into overtime and, like I said, most of these kids would usually gas going into the third, so I scored the takedown in overtime and got off the mat.”
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After that comeback victory, Nakashima settled down and took control. He went on to defeat North Iowa’s Brett Rosedale 11-7 in his next match.
“I was just putting it on him right away,” Nakashima says. “He was kind of a loose wrestler, so he kind of gave up position right away. He scored some funky, funky stuff on me sometime during the match, but it was nothing serious. I beat him up pretty good. That got me rolling.”
Next up was Celic Bell from North Idaho, who had earned pins in his previous two matches, unlike Nakashima. Despite the difficult matchup, positive affirmation from Nakashima’s coaches gave him confidence that he could win.
“That kid (Bell) was just throwing people on their heads,” the Lincoln College standout says. “My dad said he talked to T.J. and asked, ‘Hey, do you think James can hang with this kid?” Once again, T.J. said, ‘James can beat anybody in this tournament,’
“I hung with the kid pretty well. I actually threw Bell right off the bat. I remember walking back to the center with my shoulders kind of wide and just really feeling it.”
Three consecutive wins put Nakashima in the final, where he would meet Iowa Central’s Bradley Banks. Just before they took to the mat, Banks’ brother, Carrington, won a national title of his own.
But the streaking Lincoln College wrestler was ready to spoil the family affair and knock off the tournament’s top seed.
“He (Bradley) wrestled me about as good as he could possibly wrestle me because he kind of had an easier side of the bracket,” Nakashima says. “He just didn’t do anything at all. He just stayed really low in his stance and defended.”
That defense forced an overtime period, where the man who was quickest to escape would claim the National Championship.
“He got out right away, and so I had to get out quicker,” Nakashima continues. “I was having trouble getting out, and he was like 10 seconds away from winning. We went back to the middle, and I hit a switch to score two points, and I ended up winning because I got that switch.”
Ultimately, the power of positivity elevated Nakashima to the title and instilled the belief that he could achieve greatness beyond the halls of Lincoln College.
He began receiving calls from various top wrestling programs, and Williams soon took the young wrestler to the NCAA Championships in St. Louis, Missouri, to watch the best collegiate athletes compete. One athlete, in particular, stood out – Jordan Burroughs.
“T.J. just believed in me so much more than I believed in myself,” Nakashima. “He’s like, ‘That’s the training partner you need. That guy [Jordan Burroughs] is going to push you to be great.'”
Burroughs, who would become a four-time World Champion and 2012 Olympic Gold Medalist, competed at the University of Nebraska. Following the advice of his coach, Nakashima picked up the phone and became a Cornhusker.
“I contacted [Nebraska] myself, and they’re like, ‘Yeah, we’d be more than happy to have you if you want to walk on.'”
Nakashima, a Lincoln College valedictorian, graduated that May and was on the University of Nebraska campus three days later.
“I just started training all summer, and they loved me,” he adds. “I ended up getting a scholarship before the season even started.”
Looking back, the American believes that winning the 2009 NJCAA National Wrestling Championship was one of the brightest moments of his legacy. Another was when Nakashima challenged ONE Welterweight World Champion Kiamrian “Brazen” Abbasov for the gold at ONE: INSIDE THE MATRIX II this past November.
Next, he’ll move down a weight class and start a new journey that could see him top both of those moments. For his first step, Nakashima will make his lightweight debut against #4-ranked Shinya “Tobikan Judan” Aoki at ONE: UNBREAKABLE on Friday, 22 January.
Should Nakashima stun the Japanese legend, he could thrust himself into the hunt for Christian Lee’s ONE Lightweight World Title.
It’s an opportunity that once seemed unlikely – one that was made possible by the incredible power of self-belief.
Read more: 5 Reasons To Be Excited For ONE: UNBREAKABLE