James Nakashima has his back up against the wall, but that’s where he believes he performs at his best.
Nakashima had a dominant start to his mixed martial arts career and was on a nine-fight winning streak when he entered The Home of Martial Arts in November 2018. He then won his first three fights inside the Circle and earned a crack at ONE Welterweight World Champion Kiamrian “Brazen” Abbasov in November 2020.
The 33-year-old brought the heat against the champ, and he was arguably winning the fight until he made a couple of missteps, which ultimately handed him his first career blemish. After the defeat, he decided to move down to the lightweight division. He returned two months later to face former lightweight king Shinya “Tobikan Judan” Aoki but was submitted by the Japanese MMA icon.
That skid forced Nakashima to spend the rest of the year focusing on elevating his skill set.
Aside from spending time at MMA Lab with his coach, John Crouch, and training with lightweight kickboxing star Nick Chasteen, the bearded juggernaut worked with the highest level Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu practitioners in his native Phoenix, Arizona – and even competed in grappling competitions.
Now, with his foundation stronger than ever, Nakashima feels ready to make his return and spoil Izagakhmaev’s ONE debut in highlight-reel fashion. He talks about that and much more in this exclusive interview.
ONE Championship: In your last matchup, you took on a Japanese MMA icon and former World Champion, but it didn’t go the way you wanted it to. What, do you think, went wrong against Shinya Aoki?
James Nakashima: I just think Shinya is really, really, really good, and I took that fight on a little bit too quickly after that [ONE Welterweight World] Title fight. I just think, looking back on it, I was a little bit rattled after that title fight loss and trying to chase my loss. I just wasn’t mentally prepared to go in there and fight somebody like Shinya.
ONE: What’s the biggest lesson you learned from that defeat?
JN: Never underestimating anybody and never underestimating the preparation for an event like that. And just really making sure that I’m really, really ready to go before I even think about stepping in the Circle again.
ONE: Previously, you went to Italy to train with Giorgio Petrosyan, who suffered a shocking knockout loss to Superbon in October. Have you spoken to him since then, and has he given you any advice ahead of your fight?
JN: No, I haven’t. I haven’t talked to him. I sent him a message [saying] good luck going into that fight. I haven’t talked to him about it. But I’m going to get a hold of him pretty soon because, me and my family, we’re about to move to Italy in the next year or so. I’m going to go out there and train with him full-time.
ONE: You’ve had a tough run, but you fought elite competition in Shinya and Kiamrian Abbasov. With that said, do you feel like your back is against the wall heading into this matchup with Saygid Izagakhmaev?
JN: Yeah, I think so. I embrace that pressure a little bit. I like that. I’ve always performed well when my back’s against the wall.
I just feel like I handle pressure well, and I embrace the pressure. And that’s probably the key.
ONE: Saygid enters with a lot of hype thanks, in part, to his association with Khabib Nurmagomedov. Do you think the hype is justified?
JN: That’s the thing. Like, I never put anybody on a pedestal. I don’t know. I see his grappling in his fights, and his grappling is solid. I mean, you can never compare him to somebody like Khabib, but we’ll see. There’s going to be some important moments in this fight and grappling situations, and I’m going to have to be very, very sound there.
ONE: Khabib will be in your opponent’s corner. Are you intimidated by that?
JN: He’s a great cornerman, but no, I’m not. I’ve wrestled against John Smith. I’ve wrestled against Cael Sanderson. I’ve wrestled against Tommy Brands. I love that stuff.
I love that Khabib’s going to be there, honestly. It’s like being in the gym, and it’s empty, rather than, like, you’re working out in the gym, and there’s a hot chick over there – it just makes you work out a little bit harder. I’m thinking maybe the same thing with Khabib. Maybe it subconsciously just takes me to another level performing in front of him.
ONE: Khabib said that you’re a great opponent and a very good wrestler. But he believes that Saygid will finish you. What are your thoughts about that?
JN: He’s probably one of the greatest [fighters] of all time – but I believe in myself. I don’t really care what people think. Honestly, that’s a big, big strength of mine, just not really caring what people think. Whether it’s positive or whether it’s negative, I don’t really care about that stuff.
ONE: Saygid has spent most of his career fighting in Russia. How do you think his level of competition compares to what you’ve been through in your career?
JN: His level of competition has been pretty good. I don’t really know about the regional Russian MMA scene, but it’s probably solid. I’ve fought the tougher competition throughout my entire career. But, you know, I respect him and his skill set, and he’s fought some tough opponents.
ONE: Where do you feel that you are stronger than Saygid?
JN: I’m a better striker. I’m a better grappler, too. I really think that I’ve done a lot of work in the last year. I’m an overall complete fighter. I’ve had these two losses, but, at the same time, I was five minutes away from being an undefeated World Champion. I know who I am. I know who this guy is. He’s really good. Like I said, this is going to be a fight of inches.
For me, another paradigm shift is, like, I was undefeated, and it was important for me to win and keep my undefeated streak going because I thought that was special. And [I was] doing it by winning the LFA [Legacy Fighting Alliance] Title and defending it, and almost winning a ONE Championship World Title. But now, it’s different. I don’t have that anymore.
Winning and losing is too small-thinking. Like, I need great performances, I need to finish this guy, I want to finish this guy, and it’s exciting for me. It’s a different outlook. It’s where I’ve tried to take my skill set over the last year. It’s what I’ve always tried to do, but I’ve really felt like this last year has been a big, big change. And that’s why I haven’t fought, because I needed this time to take a year off and to rebuild myself and rebuild my confidence.
ONE: How do you expect this match to play out? Will it be a grind or are you hoping to keep the contest high-paced?
JN: Yeah, I’d like to. I know it’s going to be grindy, because of the way that both of us fight. But I would like to have some really nice moments. I’ve been working this whole year to change my game a little bit to work toward the finishes, and I really got to get there at this point in my career.
So, I’d like to have a little bit of flash, but I know that it’s going to be a Russian versus American wrestler. It just sounds like it’s going to line up to be a grindy matchup.
ONE: Call your shot. How does this match end?
JN: I can get around his neck somehow. Me around his neck. A high elbow guillotine or a rear-naked choke. That’s what I see.