Koji “The Commander” Ando (12-5-2) has not lost sight of his mission. The 32-year-old Japanese competitor once ascended to the top of the lightweight division, but came up short in his quest for gold. That has only served as further motivation to reascend the mountain.
“My goal is to get the ONE Championship belt,” he says. “I want to challenge for it again.”
On Saturday, 5 August, the former challenger will attempt to work his way back into title contention. Nearly 18 months since his last match, “The Commander” will return to action, and is scheduled to clash with Russia’s Timofey Nastyukhin at ONE: KINGS & CONQUERORS at the Cotai Arena in Macao.
“He has got very destructive strikes mixed with grappling techniques, so he is a tough opponent,” Ando acknowledges. “To dodge Nastyukhin’s striking is very important, and a takedown or a big hit would be a good ending for the match.”
For Ando, his martial arts journey started in Tokyo. Raised in the Japanese capital, he and his older brother did not come from an affluent background. His parents earned a modest income, and were not able to provide their children with many luxuries. Ando’s dad, however, led him to a life skill that would later pay him in riches.
“I started judo when I was in elementary school,” he explains. “My father introduced me to the dojo. Back then, I was a fan of Toshihiko Koga, who was an Olympic champion, and that drove me to start judo. For me, judo is the perfect martial art.”
Ando excelled at judo, eventually getting a top eight finish in the All-Japan Judo Tournament during high school. That led him to Toyo University, where he studied Business and Marketing, all while participating in judo competitions and developing his already promising talent.
While in college, he also trained in jiu-jitsu and other grappling arts at the well-respected Wajutsu Keishukai gym in Tokyo. Following graduation, he naturally opted to continue his combat sports career, and reapplied his immaculate judo skills for mixed martial arts.
His life mission began in June 2008, where he fought to a draw in his debut match. From there, “The Commander” turned on the heat. Ando won nine of his next thirteen bouts, earning an Asia Pacific Lightweight Championship along the way.
His success continued in ONE, as he submitted previously-unbeaten prospect Rafael Nunes in July 2014, and scored a TKO over former title challenger Zorobabel Moreira later that November.
That earned him a title shot against then-ONE Lightweight World Champion Shinya Aoki in May 2015, but he lost the subsequent five-round battle via unanimous decision.
The Japanese judo player chalks up that loss to the fact he was still adjusting to the organization’s newly instituted weigh-in program, a revolutionary concept aimed at promoting athlete safety and where they competed at a more natural “walking weight.”
“Since that was the first match for me after the new weigh-in rules, I could not adapt immediately. That’s maybe the reason I lost the match,” he offers. But he did learn something important from his loss, which he was determined to incorporate into his training. “I felt I should strengthen myself on both the physical and mental aspect.”
“The Commander” may have not stepped inside the cage since that fateful night nearly 18 months ago, but he has been hard at work on his latest project.
In September 2016, Ando opened his own facility, the Never Quit MMA & Fitness Gym, located in Koto-ku, Tokyo, with the intention to further spread awareness about his passion for combat sports, training, and fitness to his countrymen.
From the sounds of it, business has been doing well.
“As an owner and manager, I have been going through a busy time,” he admits. “The management of the gym drove me away from the cage. Whatever little training time that was left for me was rare.”
Now, Ando has managed to find the time to return to competition and to his mission. That begins again on Saturday, 5 August, at ONE: KINGS & CONQUERORS in Macao, where he will engage in battle against Nastyukhin.
When he does step into the cage, he will do so with respect to the martial arts.
“A martial arts match starts with etiquette, and ends with etiquette. I like the spirit within martial arts,” he says. “Also, martial arts taught me various things, like always feeling grateful in our lifetime. I think that is what has affected me as a fighter.”