Every athlete at the top of his or her game has a recipe for success. For some, it might be a pair of lucky socks or a pre-game ritual. For others, it’s a lot deeper than that, like cross-training at another gym or across other sports. Regardless of the method to the madness, it all boils down to the fact that they have something to keep their heads in the right place.
James Nakashima won’t tell you that he’s at the top of his game yet. In fact, he’ll tell you that he’s not even close. However, the former University of Nebraska wrestler is undefeated in his combined professional and amateur MMA career, and, at 7-0, he is just getting started.
Nakashima grew up as a wrestler in Central Illinois. He attended the University of Nebraska-Lincoln after a short stint in junior college. He went to Omaha after graduation to begin training in MMA at Premier Combat Center. After a year and a half, he moved to The MMA Lab in Arizona, where he has been under the wing of coach John Crouch ever since. Nakashima’s high level of focus is nothing new, but his recipe for success is not something many athletes are willing to do. Going into his next fight on Friday night, his game plan is in full swing.
“I believe in my work ethic, and I believe in everything I do physically,” Nakashima told Combat Press. “I think there are two other huge factors. One is all of the mental work that I do outside the gym, and two is all of the huge support that I have from my immediate family and my extended family.”
By immediate family, Nakashima means his mother, father, siblings and his girlfriend, Mindy, who he loves more than anything. His support system is a very important piece to his puzzle. He wouldn’t be able to do what he does without the people around him.
“It’s hard to make money in MMA without being in the UFC,” Nakashima admitted. “I’ve been pro for about two and a half years now, and I haven’t been in the UFC, but my family has supported me financially and I haven’t had to work. I think that’s a huge advantage I have over a lot of people. I can spend all my time doing this physical and mental work.
“I just had a kid in May, and, leading up to this camp, my girlfriend took 10 weeks off of work after we had the kid, so I didn’t have to stay up with the baby at all. She took full responsibility to take care of her, because she knows how big of a deal it is for me to stay on my path. My mom came down here, so [Mindy] could go back to work leading up to this camp, because she knew the same thing — I wasn’t skipping a beat. I think those are two huge factors that really play into me being 7-0.”
Nakashima’s support system is the outside assistance he receives, but fighting is an individual sport where it’s all about a guy in a cage fighting another guy. For all of the effort his family puts into him, he has to put at least that much effort into improving himself.
“The mental work — I talk about MMA, I read about MMA. I read the Tao of Jeet Kune Do a couple times. I watch film every night, I visualize myself in the ring, and I meditate,” Nakashima said. “After a hard day, I believe that’s a great way to kind of ramp your nervous system down, one breath at a time. I talk about it, read about it, visualize about it, meditate about it — every little thing I can do.
“And for nutrition, I treat my body like it’s a Porsche. I only fuel it with the top fuel, because it has to keep up with my activity level. I have to eat that way, because, if I didn’t, I wouldn’t be able to train that hard or I would get really skinny. I have to take in a certain amount of calories, and it has to be good food. And my sleep has got to be on point. I sleep seven to eight hours every night and I nap every afternoon, if I can.”
The nutrition piece is so important to Nakashima that it has really become a big part of his life. Many fighters struggle with the diet and weight aspect of MMA, but it’s almost second nature to Nakashima. The roots of his nutritional focus run deep.
“That’s one thing that my parents helped me with growing up,” the Illinois native explained. “I was a wrestler growing up, and that was one big advantage — they got me top personal trainers throughout the area. In my time at the University of Nebraska, we had a really high-level nutritionist, and I picked his brain as much as I could. It’s a process that I have been learning through myself for a long time now, maybe going on 15 years.
“I’ve been taking strength and conditioning and the whole nutrition process very seriously. I believe fat is one of the most important things that you can put into your body, so I keep the calories really high, a diet really high in fat, and I eat super clean. I cheat, just like anybody else, but I’m super disciplined with it. I juice vegetables all the time. In addition to fat, I think vegetables are one of the most important things you can put into your body. I take vitamins and supplements, and believe in all of that. It sounds super basic, but that’s the way I believe it is.”
As opposed to the guys who work 9-to-5 jobs or the ones who go on month-long benders of booze and buffalo wings every time they step out of the cage, Nakashima’s entire life revolves around him being the best possible fighter he can be. It has paid huge dividends. In two and a half years as a pro, he is undefeated through seven pro outings. All but one of his opponents had a winning record, and a couple were undefeated going into their bout against Nakashima. It only makes sense that he is finally in line for a shot at a title.
On Friday night, Nakashima will be back in the Legacy Fighting Alliance cage, where he has spent most of his professional career. He’ll face welterweight champion Derrick Krantz for the LFA strap. Nakashima went to a decision in all seven of his pro outings. Krantz, on the other hand, has only been to a decision three times in his 29-fight career.
Most of Krantz’s wins have come by stoppage, but most of his defeats have been by stoppage as well. He has a bit of a different background than Nakashima’s previous opponents. Krantz is more experienced. He goes hard, too.
“I think this is a huge opportunity for me,” Nakashima said. “[It’s] one more path to where I want to go. It’s a big opportunity for me, because it’s a title fight, and usually when you fight for the LFA title, you’ve got a good opportunity to get into the UFC. At the same time, it’s just a stepping stone for me. I don’t just want to be the LFA champ, I don’t just want to get to the UFC, and I don’t just want to be the UFC champion. I want to transcend this game the way Chuck Liddell did 10 years ago, the way Ronda Rousey did a couple years ago, and the way Conor McGregor’s doing it right now. I think I have the ability and the support to do that.
“I feel like I’m a tough match-up for any welterweight in the world — Tyron Woodley, Stephen Thompson, Derrick Krantz. I’m a complete fighter. I see a little bit of Derrick Krantz as being a complete fighter. The thing that I separate myself from him is that I see myself as elite, because of all those factors I mentioned before. All these little thousands of details that I do. I believe 99 percent of the athletes in the world don’t do those things, only the very elite.”
While transcending the highest levels of the UFC is a long-term goal for Nakashima, he is not losing focus. That would be nearly impossible for someone who meditates every day.
“This Friday is number one — taking care of Derrick Krantz,” said the undefeated contender. “I feel focused. I take a week off and then right back in the gym. I have a boxing coach, I have a Muay Thai coach, I have John Crouch as my MMA coach and my jiu-jitsu coach. I approach it as a mixed martial artist, trying to learn the tiny details of all these martial arts. So I’ll get back in the gym, learn these details and stay healthy. With LFA, I’ve stayed really consistent, fighting every three to four months. It seems like that’s the pattern, but if the UFC or Bellator were to call, I would definitely jump on that.”
Nakashima has the x-factor that sets him apart from much of the competition. He has the support system of his immediate family and his coaches and training partners at The MMA Lab. He has the internal drive to keep his body and mind in tip-top shape. Most fighters have bits and pieces, but Nakashima has the total package. Tomorrow night, his skills will be on display for the fans on AXS TV and in the Horseshoe Casino and Hotel in Bossier City, La. They’ll see exactly what this kid is all about.
“I think that my ring presence is special,” said Nakashima. “I think that I have an ability to show off a skill set that not many people have. I think that I have an aura around myself that not many people have. I’m just scratching the surface. My skill set is not yet where I want it to be. I’m only going to keep getting better. With time, it’s only going to grow.”