The Humblest Warrior
In perhaps the biggest fight of his career, Niko Vitale takes on the Japanese champion, and he’s not likely to look angry until then
Niko Vitale: ‘I’m humble in my
heart but a competitor’ in the ring
Despite playful prodding, it’s nearly impossible to coax a menacing pose from mixed martial arts fighter Falaniko “Niko” Vitale. The photographer, his promoter, a sparring partner and others struggle to make Niko — a fearsome competitor in the ring — look “fierce” for the camera. He is quick to smile, to joke, to slip into an easy, friendly stance. And with that million-dollar smile and looks to match, it’s tough to look nasty.
Just ask his female fans — and he’s got plenty.
His followers — female and otherwise — are sure to be out in force Saturday night when Hawaii native Vitale takes on current middleweight champ Masanori Suda of Japan in “Super Brawl XXXIX: Destiny,” a 13-bout event with three title matches. A win for Vitale earns him the Super Brawl World Title Belt as well as a spot in the top tier of 185-pound MMA fighters in the world. Vitale is reluctant to elaborate on his athletic prowess and accomplishments. He is soft-spoken, even shy — a sharp contrast to the expected bravado of so many fighters.
“I’m humble in my heart but a competitor in my sport,” says Vitale, in his quiet, courteous style. “There are a lot of crazy fighters in the sport. I just kind of go in there and take care of business.” With 20 wins and three losses, Vitale is both eager and anxious as he anticipates one of the most pivotal fights of his life. Considered the second biggest bout of his career — the first was his unexpected Ultimate Fighting Championship win over Matt Lindland in 2003 — Saturday’s event is expected to draw between 6,000 and 8,000 onlookers.
Vitale’s father, a
Waikiki entertainer, said
fire-knife dancing was
“When I prepare for something, I put 100 percent of myself into it,” says Vitale, who trains two to three hours a day and lifts weights twice a week. “Sometimes I’m nervous, sometimes I’m anxious. Most of the time I’m thinking about my opponent. He’s going to try to break my will, and I’m going to try to break his will.” This is the objective in MMA — to bring your opponent to the point of submission. Considered a modern combat sport, MMA combines classic martial arts like jiu-jitsu, judo and tae-kwan-do with boxing into a single sport. The athletic competition dates back to ancient Greece, where it was known as “pankrase” or “pankration” and practiced by such mythical heroes as Hercules.
MMA descended from the sport of “ultimate fighting,” which had few rules, no weight classes and a notorious reputation.
“Today, MMA has all the weight classes, fighter rankings, and sanctioning procedures of boxing,” says Super Brawl promoter Patrick Freitas. “In fact, there are actually more rules that protect athletes in MMA than there are for athletes of boxing.”
Strategy is as essential as skill in MMA, says Vitale, who at age 30 is approaching the peak of his game.
“Suda is a straight-up fighter. He doesn’t like to move around. My game plan is to move around and throw punches here and there. Keep the fight standing.”
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