NAHA, Okinawa — “Shuish,” bam! “Shuish,” bam! “Shuish,” bam!
Over and over again, the rush of air — like the sound of a train releasing its air brakes — shot out of David Archuleta’s mouth in rapid-fire succession, as his foot and leg repeatedly smashed into his sparring partner’s protective pads.
Archuleta, 20, a senior airman who processes cargo at Kadena Air Base’s 733rd Air Mobility Squadron, has been Okinawa’s reigning welterweight kickboxing champion since last June.
He’s fought professionally for two years and is ranked No. 9 in Japan’s Martial Arts Kickboxing Federation. He was slated to fight the federation’s top-seeded welterweight, Inoue, on March 23 at Tokyo’s Difa Ariake arena.
On this particular Friday morning, several hours before he was to report to work, Archuleta was at a Naha martial arts studio getting lessons from the current Muay Thai world champion, Masaaki Kato.
During a brief break, Kato told Archuleta he stood a good chance against Inoue. “I fought him three years ago and won,” Kato said in Japanese, adding with assured confidence, “You’ll beat him.”
Very few American military personnel reach Japan’s professional kickboxing ranks, according to Archuleta’s trainer, Masaaki Asato. Most cannot or aren’t willing to sacrifice the time it takes, he said.
Archuleta’s daily training routine is grueling.
Every morning before work and every night after work, he runs for an hour, covering up to seven miles at a time. After his morning run, he spends two to three hours in the studio conditioning as he practices kicks, jabs and various defensive moves.
An intense, three-minute, phantom sparring match with arms and legs flying left the airman perspiring and out of breath.
“He’s very serious … and willing to train hard,” said Asato, referring to his young protégé. More importantly, said the trainer, “he’s very smart. Martial arts isn’t only about how strong you are, but about how you think.”
Asato noted how Archuleta carefully studies videos of his opponents to learn their favorite fighting techniques, so he can better prepare.
Inoue likes to strike blows with the elbow, said Asato. So he brought Kato down from Tokyo to teach Archuleta how to defend against the move.
“That’s the boy right there,” Archuleta said, pointing to Inoue’s picture on a poster that announced the Tokyo fights. “I used to get scared before the fights, but not anymore. Now, I go into the ring knowing I just got to take care of business.”
While growing up in his native New Mexico, Archuleta said he was always a little pudgy and never well-conditioned.
He didn’t become interested in kickboxing until transferring to Okinawa for his first Air Force assignment in October 1999.
He saw kickboxing on television and was immediately captivated by the intensity of the fighters and the crowds.
“I thought, ‘I wish I could do that.’ Then, I realized I could,” said Archuleta, who found Asato’s martial-arts studio and began paying $50 a month for gym fees. Since then, his 5-foot-10-inch frame has shed 40 pounds, and he now fights in the 140-142 weight class.
By September 2000, he’d fought his first amateur match. He turned professional a year later, after winning all his amateur bouts.
He boasts a 15-2-1 record with 10 knockouts.
“What made everybody respect me was that I went to a draw with the former Muay Thai champion,” said Archuleta. “Then, I went to Tokyo and knocked out Japan’s seventh-ranked fighter.”
Asato has high aspirations for Archuleta. Unlike his March 23 opponent, who is in his mid-30s and past the prime age for kickboxers, “David is young and will only get better.”