The Japanese star represents Tribe Tokyo MMA in the Nerima area of Japan’s capital – a gym that is known for its teak-tough, exciting athletes.
However, three years ago, the team was rocked to its core by the tragic death of 21-year-old Iyori Akiba. The team had to rally together to overcome the loss, but they found new strength as they sought to honor their teammate’s memory.
Akiba came from a Kyokushin karate background and was completely new to mixed martial arts when he joined the dojo in April 2014. He was the same height and weight as Wakamatsu, but southpaw, so they spent a lot of their training time together.
Wakamatsu was in the year above his friend at school, which made him his sempai. Akiba looked up to his senior, but that did not get in the way of their friendship, as they shared laughs together, but also pushed each other to the limit in training.
“His will was as strong as mine, and he said he wanted to become a World Champion. He loved the martial arts,” Wakamatsu recalls.
“When we trained, it went either way – sometimes I would win, sometimes he would. I thought, ‘Damn, I can’t lose to him!’
“He was always forgetting stuff at the gym! He looked serious, but he and I were always fooling around making fun together in training camps.”
Akiba made his pro debut in 2015, and posted a record of 3-2, but three days after his last win in August 2016, he was involved in an accident while riding his motorbike, and was pronounced dead by doctors that evening.
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“I was working at my part-time job and got a call from [Toru] Ogawa [his teammate] telling me what had happened,” Wakamatsu remembers.
“I was in shock. I just couldn’t believe it. Old people die, but someone my age, someone who I was just with…
“I was due to compete the following week. He had just competed the previous week, but came to help me train for the final of the Pancrase Flyweight Tournament. For a moment, I was lost and didn’t want to try anymore.”
Despite his grief, Wakamatsu returned to the gym with a new determination to succeed in his upcoming challenge. He had a new perspective on life, and could not let himself or his late teammate down.
“Compared to losing my life, my match was nothing, so I thought I must win at all costs,” he remembers. “I won the tournament.”
“Little Piranha” went on to excel against some of the best athletes Japan had to offer, which earned him a shot on the global stage, where he has continued to impress.
He has faced many difficult battles during that time, but the memory of his friend, and the desire to honor him helped Wakamatsu to push through adversity.
“Since then, I’ve had some tough times, but I know I have to try extra hard for him. He can’t do martial arts anymore, so I’m doing my best for both of us to become World Champion,” he explains.
“When he passed, I realized you just don’t know when your time is up. You, your loved ones, you just don’t know. I thought I had to do more. I had to train harder – like every day was my last – to keep his memory alive. My attitude towards martial arts, towards humanity, really changed.”
It was not only Wakamatsu who was galvanized. He gelled with his teammates Kiyotaka Shimizu and Takashi Sato like never before in the months after the accident, and they rallied together to push each other forward.
Their collective efforts reaped rewards as they racked up the wins, and every time their hands were raised, a picture of Akiba was raised, too.
“All of a sudden, we became one. The accident pulled us together closer than ever,” Wakamatsu says.
“It feels like he’s there fighting with me – he’s part of our team’s strength. We both promised to become champions, so showing his picture is us saying to the world that he is still in our hearts, and he makes us stronger.
“It has changed our whole outlook. We live for the moment more. Your loved ones could pass away any minute, so we do everything to create good memories together in the here and now.”
Losing Akiba has forced Wakamatsu and the team to self-reflect, be more disciplined, and carry the torch of their fallen fellow warrior proudly.
“I realized I have to do my very best in life. Giving any less than that will amount to nothing. Everyone is going to die, so give 100 percent, everything you’ve got, and you’ll enjoy life.
“Of course, everyone has moments of doubt and feeling down, but I believe if you overcome those feelings, you’ll find glory. This keeps me going, makes me stronger.
“Without the martial arts, if the same thing happened, I might have thought that there’s no point in doing my best anymore. It’s okay to feel sad [after a tragedy], but you can’t continue like that. You have to give life all you’ve got.”
Now, Akiba’s picture also hangs in the dojo so that every day, through the toughest of training sessions, he is still together with the stars of Tribe Tokyo.
“I don’t know what happens after death. Maybe he’s somewhere else doing martial arts now, but this is our reality, and we will carry his spirit – never to forget him,” Wakamatsu adds.
- Watch PART I in USA on 12 October at 8pm EST and PART II on 13 October at 4am EST
- Watch PART I in India on 13 October at 5:30am IST and PART II at 1:30pm IST
- Watch PART I in Indonesia on 13 October at 7am WIB and PART II at 3pm WIB
- Watch PART I in Singapore on 13 October at 8am SGT and PART II at 4pm SGT
- Watch PART I in the Philippines on 13 October at 8am PHT and PART II at 4pm PHT
- Watch PART I in Japan on 13 October at 9am JST and PART II at 5pm JST
ONE: CENTURY is the biggest World Championship martial arts event in history with 28 World Champions featured across various martial arts. No organization has ever promoted two full-scale World Championship events on the same day.
The Home Of Martial Arts will break new ground as it brings multiple World Title bouts, a trio of World Grand Prix Championship Finals, and several World Champion versus World Champion matches to the famous Ryogoku Kokugikan in Tokyo, Japan on 13 October.