Imagining a Halloween night in 2020 specifically would perhaps be the scariest thought in the holiday’s recent history. On that 31st day of October in Tokyo, Japan, the New Pier Hall housed MMA action inside the Deep Jewels cage. And the atomweight champion of the promotion, Tomo Maesawa, conquered the fears that had overtaken what was once her love.
“I’d been thinking about this last fight for a long time and right now I’m just really relieved that it’s over and I can put a period to what I’ve been doing,” Maesawa told MyMMANews on BROADENED HORIZIN. “One of the good things about the fight was that I have a lot of decision wins. But for this one, I was able to finish and end my career in a very good way and prove my abilities and strength. I was able to finish my career in a way where people still wanted to see more. So I think getting that finish for my last fight was a great thing. And right now, I’m just very relieved.”
In the Deep Jewels 30 main event, the 32-year old Tomo Maesawa fought for the very last time in what was her 25th contest in eight years.
Beginning her career in 2012, the Reversal Gym Tachikawa ALPHA product was at an instant disadvantage. Standing at 4-foot-11, Maesawa was naturally one of the smallest in the 105-pound and 115-pound weight classes. Thus making her much more reliant on having to be a skilled competitor in every aspect of her game.
Maesawa started her journey by losing three straight, all of which came against opposition superior in experience. Names like Mika Nagano, Mina Kurobe, and Cortney Casey would mark learning experiences for the Aomori native. But quickly she began to find her footing in a loosely planted Deep Jewels promotion that was just starting to come together.
By the end of her run in the sport, Maesawa went 14-11 and took on any and all of the best challenges that her weight classes had to offer. In turn, she solidified herself as an important piece of the atomweight division’s history—whether she was ever touted by critics as the absolute best or not.
Maesawa and the world knew going into the Halloween showdown with Hikaru Aono that it would be her last time in action. And as a champion, the result was that of defending her title successfully one last time. The final bells sounded, and the traditional Japanese MMA retirement ceremony commenced as Maesawa was met with flowers and a video package featuring personal messages from several past opponents.
“It made me realize how fruitful my career was,” Maesawa said of the ceremony. “I was very blessed to be able to face such tough fighters, such great talent. I was very moved looking back at my career and facing all these great fighters. I was very satisfied with my career. Standing there listening to the final bells, I was able to think and look back at my career and I was just very grateful. I came to Tokyo from Aomori to become a fighter and at the time I was concerned. I wasn’t confident that I could do this, but I have absolutely no regrets, and I think I made the right choice of coming to Tokyo and becoming a professional fighter.
“I want to be remembered as a fighter who was great at expressing her lifestyle. I put everything on the line in the ring. I don’t care if I die in the ring. And I like to use the word ‘express’ as a fighter because Mixed Martial Arts, the ‘A’… it’s an art. And artists express themselves and demonstrate themselves through their performance. So that’s one word/expression that I like to use as a fighter. It’s an art form. I use it to express myself and how I live.
“I never stop challenging myself,” she continued. “I always would take on tough fights, I wanted to fight the best. Even after I got my title, I wanted to fight the best. So I asked for the best atomweight out there and I want to be remembered as a fighter who wants to push her limits and challenge herself. And, of course, I was probably the smallest atomweight in the division. So if people could remember me that I was a small girl that kept challenging and pushing herself, that would be great.”
In Maesawa’s final outing with the notable prospect in 27-year old Hikaru Aono, the fight couldn’t have summarized the champion’s career any more perfectly.
Widely considered one of the most well-rounded fighters at atomweight with no “big” strengths, unlike Aono and her wrestling, it had Maesawa concerned about the matchup.
Outsized and with her back against the wall, literally and figuratively on fight night, Maesawa had to battle from behind. Aono’s wrestling background provides problems for anyone in the division and her seasoned opponent was no different.
The challenger imposed her will and controlled Maesawa for the majority of the fight’s first two rounds. Therefore leaving the champion presumably needing to pull off something dramatic to close this chapter of her life with a raised fist.
Continually seeking her takedowns into the third frame, Aono would leave her head exposed as she dove toward the champion. Maesawa recognized the laziness in this specific attempt which allowed her to capitalize on the neck of the wrestler.
At 57 seconds into round three, Maesawa forced Aono to submit with a guillotine choke, and the emotions from everyone in the small attendance instantly erupted.
Ultimately, “Tiny Tomo” believes that Aono has great potential to lead the Deep Jewels atomweight division. But on that night, fate didn’t intend for it to start.
“My master taught me how MMA works and I do believe that fighting in MMA is more like rock, paper, scissors,” Maesawa described. “You have to adjust to whatever your opponent puts out there and you have to use everything you can, all your skills you can to be able to beat what they have. I knew she was a wrestler, I knew she was going to come for the takedown. So my plan was to execute my strengths when she was cage-wrestling. To take the fight to the cage when she was using her momentum, I wanted to make the move. But for the first two rounds, I couldn’t get there and she took me down and she was on top of me for the first two rounds. She didn’t really use too much ground and pound so I had a lot of time to think about what to do in my next move.
“With all that being said, in the third round, I felt that she was becoming fatigued. She was burning all that energy, and then she made one mistake of shooting in with her head down because she was tired. And that’s when I knew I could utilize what I was practicing on against the cage. I was able to use my striking and grappling to expose her mistake and that led to that finish. So I’m very happy with what happened.”
It was about as storybook as it could have been for one of MMA’s biggest unsung perpetual underdogs. In a career where she was tasked with several of the best that she could possibly face, Maesawa never backed down no matter how steep the climb.
The Aono fight will surely be a moment that may get sweeter and sweeter in the mind of the atomweight staple as time goes on. But when thinking of her favorite moments throughout her eight-year run, this wasn’t Maesawa’s first time where she was supposed to be the stepping stone for a rising prospect.
Rewind to September 2018, Deep Jewels 21 takes place in Tokyo at the Shinjuku FACE event hall. The event is headlined by Maesawa, where Aono is coincidentally competing in the fourth fight of the evening.
Set to fight in the Deep Jewels cage for the third time in her blossoming career is Korea’s Jeong Eun Park. Unfortunately for her, she ran into a Tomo Maesawa that reached video game-like levels of “on point”.
“It’s so hard to choose,” Maesawa said of her favorite career moments. “There’s so many beautiful moments. But if I were to list two, my first one would be my fight against Jeong Eun Park. This fight, I experienced something amazing.
“Before the fight, the odds were totally against me. Everybody thought that Park was going to win. She’s a very strong highly touted fighter from Korea, and I’ve seen some of her fights. I thought she was a very strong opponent. Everybody thought I was going to lose.
“Heading into the fight, my coach told me that I could do whatever I want,” she recollected. “There’s no gameplan, do what you want to do. And then during the fight, I had this experience where I was invincible. I could see what she wanted to do—it’s as if I could see the future. I knew exactly what was gonna happen and I could execute everything I wanted to do because I knew—I was in the zone. It’s almost as if like when you’re in Super Mario and you get the star. I felt invincible. So that was an amazing experience.”
While Aomori isn’t necessarily small by Japanese standards with a population of 300,000-plus, it remains smaller than the least populated US state of Wyoming which homes 580,000. Go from that to a dense Tokyo of 8.6 million, and Maesawa was all in on making her dreams come true.
At 105-pounds, the division has historically seen none better than the likes of combined 16-time world champions Ayaka Hamasaki and Seo Hee Ham. In her lone two RIZIN bouts, Maesawa took on both of them.
Coming up short in each, Maesawa gave it her all as she typically did. And though the outcomes were expected in the eyes of many, the chance to test herself at all against those that she looked up to was impossible to pass up.
“Back when I was still in Aomori before I came to Tokyo, Hamasaki became the Invicta FC world champion,” Maesawa recounted. “I was very excited and proud that the strongest woman in my division is a Japanese person. And it gave me hope, and it definitely encouraged me but also, I was disappointed that not too many people in Japan knew about this. I was very frustrated about the fact that women’s MMA hasn’t been approved or recognized as it should be. The best atomweight in the world was a Japanese girl. So that’s a reason that really inspired me to come to Tokyo and become a professional fighter and do what I do. Hamasaki was definitely one of my idols.
“I had the opportunity to fight her this year and one of the reasons why is because I heard through the grapevine that nobody would want to fight her in Japan. No Japanese fighter would fight her. And I thought that was just such a waste. I was Deep Jewels champion at the time, and I thought if I didn’t use this opportunity to challenge her when she doesn’t even have an opponent—I wanted to challenge her while I had the belt when I can, and I did, and I got the opportunity to fight my idol.
“I knew heading into the fight it would be very hard for me to win. But being able to punch each other in the face with my idol, that was a very special and precious moment of my career.”
After the clash with Hamasaki at RIZIN 22 in August, the two shared a special moment in the ring and exchanged words of respect. Maesawa doesn’t quite remember exactly what was said as, despite the defeat, she recalled being too excited and thankful for the chance to go toe-to-toe with the all-time great.
In any sport, MMA in particular, it’s nearly impossible to go out on top. However, we’ve seen it more and more in recent memory and Maesawa continues that trend as one of the first female competitors.
At only 32-year of age, Maesawa is a notable name but not identified as a superstar or a double champion like the Georges St-Pierres, Henry Cejudos, or Khabib Nurmagomedovs of the sport. But she was a champion. And not only a champion, but one that proved to be still capable of hanging with, and finishing, younger rising challengers.
So why hang up the gloves? Well, within a life of combat, it can be difficult to uncloud the vision and see that not everything is about fighting.
“My mentality, my mindset whenever I fight, I put everything on the line and I don’t really care if I die in the ring,” Maesawa stated. “That’s my mindset. It has been every time I fight when I get in the ring. I don’t really care if I die, I’m going to put everything in there and perform. So that was my mindset as a fighter.
“With that being said, I recently got married and due to this pandemic, I spent a lot of time thinking about life and thinking about myself. And when you think about life, I got really scared of what I’m doing. I came to realize that there are more important things in life than fighting. And I all of the sudden got scared of stepping in the ring.
“Having a family, I don’t want to make my other family members worry about me,” she continued. “I don’t want them to be worried about me all the time, concerned every time I fight. So once that mindset kicked in, once I realized that there are more important things in life than fighting, I can’t afford to even put myself out there to risk that I might die. Once that mindset kicked in, I feel like I can never become the fighter that I used to be. I have definitely set my priorities straight and fighting has no longer become No. 1. Mentally, I don’t feel like I deserve to be a fighter anymore. I don’t deserve to step in the ring.”
What is next for the girl from Aomori in her post-MMA life remains unknown.
Tomo Maesawa has no new plan, no next adventure ready to set up, simply no idea. Whether it’s continuing to stay around the MMA scene or transition into something completely different, Maesawa can’t say she’s ready to commit to something. Which she admits would have to be done to 100 percent the best of her abilities if started.
All she does know for certain is that whatever is next will be something that pushes her to be better and challenge herself. And the path that’s been laid out before her to get there was well worth traveling down.
“I would tell myself that you’re on the right track,” Maesawa said in response to what advice she’d give herself starting in MMA. “Don’t doubt yourself. What you have been doing, what you are doing, what you’re going to do. It will be the right thing. So don’t doubt yourself, you’re on the right track.”