Yuya “Little Piranha” Wakamatsu became the man he is today thanks to the nurturing influence of the coach and mentor who took him under his wing – Ryo “The Piranha” Chonan.
Thanks to the guidance of the man he got his nickname from, the 24-year-old – who will face Geje “Gravity” Eustaquio at ONE: DAWN OF HEROES this Friday, 2 August – has transformed from a troublemaking teen into one of the most talented martial artists in the world.
The Pancrase Flyweight Tournament Champion met his mentor shortly after he moved to Tokyo from his native Kagoshima, where he admits he often got into fights.
When he arrived in the capital city, he finally had the opportunity to train mixed martial arts, which would give him a healthy outlet to hone his aggression.
He was drawn to Tribe Tokyo MMA in the Nerima area of the Tokyo because of its head coach – the two-division DEEP World Champion who was known around the world for his performances in the PRIDE organization.
“The first time Chonan-san fought Hayato “Mach” Sakurai, he won by TKO. I’ve watched that match over and over! I’ll never forget the heart and hunger he showed,” Wakamatsu says.
Wakamatsu’s life changed dramatically after he joined the gym and found a team of professionals he could respect and look up to – all of whom trained under a role model who could guide him toward becoming a better person and a world-class athlete.
At first, he was not interested in competing, but when his trainer started to take an interest in his progress, he began to consider going pro.
“The first time I went to the gym, Chonan-san wasn’t there. I met him about the second time I went. At that time, I wasn’t thinking about becoming professional,” he says.
“I was encouraged when Chonan-san told me I was getting stronger.”
Wakamatsu realized he had a chance to chase his dream of becoming a martial arts star, and the dream come true of training under his hero.
Reaching that level would not be easy, and Chonan pushed his students hard, but he was always fair with anyone who gave 100 percent of their effort when they stepped onto the mats.
“Simply, he’s there for us when we win and when we lose. He does everything for us,” says “Little Piranha.”
“He’s very harsh on anyone who misses training, but, if you give everything in training, that’s all he cares about. Some have quit because they couldn’t handle it.
“Chonan-san doesn’t bother about small things, but when I have some problems in training, or after each match, he’ll go over it with me personally. He’ll tell us individually about things like our foot positioning and finer points of technique while he watches.”
Chonan’s guidance goes far beyond just physical training. World Champions require the right mentality, too.
Wakamatsu talks of his mentor’s role as sempai – a senior, which is a deeply rooted part of the Japanese culture – who has fostered a strong spirit among the collective at Tribe Tokyo MMA that places emphasis on the values of martial arts.
“The biggest things are how he’s taught me about [the right] attitude towards training, and developing a fighting spirit which is most important for Japanese,” the flyweight athlete explains.
“Of course, he’s taught me a lot of technique and skills, but psychologically, he has really developed my mentality.
“He’s taught me the value of team spirit. If we’re having tough times, [we] work together, compete, and raise our spirits through winning.”
Chonan has also guided Wakamatsu in his personal life. He has encouraged him to learn English and be a respected member of society.
“The Piranha” has also helped his students through tough times. In 2016, their teammate Iyori Akiba died in a motorcycle accident. Wakamatsu – like many of his teammates – was deeply affected, but their leader helped them to cope with the tragedy and grow stronger together.
“After Akiba passed away, Chonan-san told us to never forget how much Akiba loved martial arts when we train and compete,” he says
“Myself, Takashi Sato, Toru Ogawa, Kiyotaka Shimizu – we are the ones that must carry on together for him.”
With that message guiding him, “Little Piranha” has become one of Chonan’s star pupils.
He put an incredible run together on the domestic scene with a 90-percent knockout rate, which earned him his spot on the ONE Championship roster and high-profile bouts like his battle with a former ONE Flyweight World Champion at the Mall Of Asia Arena in Manila, Philippines
Wakamatsu was destined for great things thanks to his prodigious talent and natural physical gifts, but the Japanese star insists none of his achievements would have been possible without the big “Piranha.”
“Without him, I’d be just an average athlete. I wouldn’t have had all the experiences I’ve had, and I wouldn’t be in ONE,” he says.