MURRIETA, Calif. – Rameau Thierry Sokoudjou became a worldwide mixed martial arts sensation this year with spectacular knockout wins in Las Vegas and Japan.
But the 23-year old’s parents back home in Cameroon thought their son was studying computer science in San Diego.
“Yeah, my parents, they don’t know,” the man dubbed “The African Assassin” said. “They think I’m in college and maybe training in judo on the side, just for fun. My family places a high value on education. All of my brothers went to college. I’m going to get my degree, I’ve just had other things happen.”
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In a whirlwind 2007, Sokoudjou went from total unknown to overnight sensation to one of the hottest free agents to the game. The light heavyweight will finish the year with his debut on the sport’s biggest stage, the Ultimate Fighting Championship, where he’ll face undefeated Lyoto Machida on Dec. 29.
“They say America is the land of opportunity, right? That is how America has been for me. Every morning I wake up and I think about where I’ve come from and where I am now and I feel like I am blessed just to be in this country.”
After spending his childhood in his native country competing in judo, Sokoudjou moved to San Diego in 2001 at the age of 17 to continue his training. Before his first year in the United States was through, he won the national championship in the open weight category at the U.S. Open Judo Championships in Las Vegas.
Visa complications kept Sokoudjou from achieving his dream of joining Cameroon’s 2004 Olympic judo squad. Sokoudjou pondered his future in San Diego while holding down three jobs – security guard, translator and bouncer -- when he was enlisted to help train Olympic Greco-Roman wrestling legend Rulon Gardner for his lone MMA match, a decision win over Hidehiko Yoshida in Japan.
“We knew we had something right away,” said Ryan Parsons, the head trainer at Team Quest South, located about 60 miles Northeast of San Diego. “You could just tell if we had a chance to work with him, it would be like molding something great out of clay."
Sokoudjou also helped PRIDE Fighting Championship welterweight titleholder Dan Henderson prepare for a 2004 title defense against Kazuhiro Nakamura. The training sessions lit a fire inside the newcomer.
“Back then, I was more muscular, I was walking around at about 240,” said Sokoudjou. “And I couldn’t believe this guy who was fighting at 183 was throwing me around the way he did. “I’m really competitive, so that got to me, and I felt like I had to come back and prove myself."
Sokoudjou committed to training full-time with Team Quest South, which is affiliated with the original Team Quest gym in Oregon, which helped produce Randy Couture and Matt Lindland.
“Every day I train with Team Quest I learn something new,” said Sokoudjou. “You can never learn enough. Mixed martial arts is as much of a mental challenge as it is a physical one. You can learn all the different styles and have the tools, but you have to be able to know what to use in different situations. That’s the big thing I’m working on now."
Still, Sokoudjou only had three matches and two wins under his belt when the coaches at Team Quest persuaded PRIDE to give him a slot on their Feb. 24 card at the Thomas and Mack Center in Vegas. The company offered him a match with highly regarded Antonio Rogerio Nogueira.
“I’m not sure what they were thinking,” Parsons said, as he watched Sokoudjou work with Henderson on Muay Thai defense during a recent training session. “I don’t know if they thought they were handing Nogueira an easy win. The Japanese promoters are into characters, and they liked the visual of this big, solid guy from Africa with dreadlocks and a Cameroon flag. Whatever it was, they gave him the shot and we were glad to get it."
“They gave me one name first, then they called again and offered double the money to fight Nogueira,” said Sokoudjou. “I was like, ‘wow, that’s not an easy fight,’ but I realized I had six weeks to prepare and face the challenge."
Sokoudjou still remembers the reaction from the crowd as he made his way to the ring. “The fans were all like ‘who is this guy?’ They thought I had no chance."
Twenty-three seconds and a hellacious knockout punch later, everyone know who he was. But Sokoudjou had no time to celebrate what was at that point MMA’s biggest upset of the year. “They called me the next day and wanted me to fight again on their next show,” he said. “And they said they wanted me to fight Ricardo Arona. I was healthy so I said I’d do it."
Arona, like Nogueira, was generally considered among the world’s Top 10 light heavyweights. But Arona, too, was on the wrong end of a fast knockout, as Sokoudjou won with a KO punch at 1:59 of the first round of their April 8 match in Saitama.
Sokoudjou was on top of the world, but he was the hottest new property in a dying company. The April show ended up PRIDE’s last stand before the company was sold to the owners of the UFC, which was followed by a frustrating waiting game.
“I heard there were all these plans,” he said. “UFC vs. PRIDE, a big Super Bowl card, shows in Japan, all that. I was hoping they’d keep running shows in Japan because I really enjoy Japanese culture. But we never heard anything directly."
“It was a real frustrating time for him, because everyone was kept in the dark,” said Parsons. “But he controlled what he could. He came out and worked just as hard in the gym as he always had, and he had faith that things would sort themselves out.”
Since he wasn’t locked down to a long-term deal, Sokoudjou began looking for work elsewhere. First Elite XC made a run at him. Then Japan’s K-1 made an offer.
UFC fans can indirectly thank Forrest Griffin for Sokoudjou’s arrival in the company. “I watched Forrest beat (Mauricio) ‘Shogun’ Rua (at UFC 76 in September), and I got right on the phone and told my people that the UFC is where I wanted to be,” he said. “I mean, no disrespect to Forrest, but Shogun is Shogun. I wasn’t expecting Forrest to win. But when I saw how strong Forrest fought I realized just how deep the talent was in the UFC light heavyweight division.”
“Other companies might have offered me more money, but I’m competitive, man,” he continued. “The level of competition isn’t the same in other places. If I’m fighting bad competition, I get lazy and I don’t train my best. If I know I am fighting the best it brings out the best of me in the gym.”
Motivation shouldn’t be a problem in Sokoudjou’s UFC debut. Machida’s resume includes wins over Rich Franklin, B.J. Penn and Stephen Bonnar.
The 11-0 Shotokan karate practitioner, who trains in the Black House camp along with UFC middleweight champion Anderson Silva and Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, is known as one of the most patient fighters in the game: each of his past four fights and six of his past seven have gone to a decision.
“There aren’t any secrets to his style,” Parsons said. “He likes to pick his spots and he does a great job of setting the tempo to his liking.”
The explosiveness of Sokoudjou’s high-profile wins this year can make one forget about his judo roots. He’s spent more than his share of time rolling with the best of them. And Sokoudjou can’t help but admit that he’d like a chance to show off what he can do in his base sport.
“Maybe I’ll get my chance to throw him. Who knows? I’d love to do that, but you have to take what you can get and do whatever you can to win.”
One thing’s for sure. If Sokoudjou continues on his hot streak, the news seems destined to filter back to Cameroon. “They’ll find out about it eventually,” a laughing Sokoudjou said. “You can go ahead and write about it, as long as you don’t write it in French. I promise my family I’m going to go back and get my degree as soon as I get a chance.”