by Damon Martin – MMAWeekly.com
With wins over Nate Marquardt, Frank Shamrock, Genki Sudo, and Yuki Kondo, you’d think that Kiuma Kunioku would be a household name to hardcore MMA fans, but truth be told the Japanese fighter has slipped under everybody’s radar for far too long.

Maybe it’s because Kunioku fought primarily in Japan, or maybe it’s because he began his career all the way back in 1996, but whatever the reason he’s ready for the world to discover him now.

Spending the majority of his career fighting well out of his weight class, at the advisement of his manager, Shu Hirata, Kunioku finally made the move down to 155 pounds for his last few fights and he’s starting to see the success of the change. Three wins in a row and Kunioku is now hoping to build on that momentum when he fights Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu champion Leo Santos at Sengoku Raiden Championships 12 on Sunday.

“I am honored to be able to fight such a top jiu-jitsu fighter like Leo Santos,” Kunioku told MMAWeekly.com in an exclusive interview. “I know he is very tough on the ground.”

The ground game can’t be ignored when dealing with Santos, who is a former Abu Dhabi participant, submitting and defeating some of the top grapplers in the world. The fight with Santos in Sengoku, however, will be an MMA match, and Kunioku is quick to point that out.

“I really give high respect to his BJJ techniques. I mean, even GSP couldn’t do much against him in the grappling match. But I am fighting him under the MMA rules,” Kunioku stated. “Remember MMA by Saulo Ribeiro and Marcello Garcia? MMA and jiu-jitsu is completely different. Every fighter equally has a chance to win, I think, that is MMA.”

Kunioku’s story is one that begs to be told for fans to truly understand what he’s gone through to get where he’s at now.

Joining the Pancrase gym at age 15, Kunioku was training full time to become a fighter and professional wrestler. When he began fighting in the Pancrase organization in 1996 there were no weight classes, so of course he was forced to fight much bigger opponents. Despite the size difference, Kunioku reeled off impressive wins over names previously mentioned.

While he is only 33 years of age, he has 65 professional fights. Kunioku places no blame on the fact that he fought bigger opponents, which once again proves his toughness.

“I don’t think about that too much. I am fighting in the ring so there is nothing different about that, right?” Kunioku said when talking about fighting out of his weight class for much of his career. “But if I can re-do my life over again, yeah, I might want to fight under the weight classes. We didn’t even have a weight class back then.”

Seeing the talent that Kunioku possessed, Hirata pulled the fighter out of Japan and brought him to the United States, where he began training with former UFC fighter Dave Strasser, and finally made the cut to 155 pounds for the first time in his career.

Admitting that he might even try cutting to 145 pounds at some point, Kunioku is happy to fight back in Japan, but would love to get the chance to fight in a show such as the UFC or WEC back in the States.

He says he believes that B.J. Penn and Gilbert Melendez are the best lightweights in the world, and that’s the challenge that he hopes to one day conquer.

For now, Kunioku is focused on Leo Santos, and even shies away from talking about a shot at the Sengoku lightweight title, as he feels he still has a lot to prove.

“I think it is still long way to go till the title shot,” Kunioku commented. “So I am just looking at winning one fight at a time.”