Keith Vargo is a writer and martial artist based in Tokyo, Japan. He was a contributing editor for Black Belt magazine for 17 years, where he wrote a popular monthly column called, "Way of the Warrior." He has also written for Fightsport magazine, Karate/Kung-fu Illustrated, Sports World Japan, and Maxfighting.com. Click on the links to the right to read some of his essays.
Keith is also the author of The Soul of Fighting: Martial Arts, Combat Sports, and the Search for Warrior Wisdom and Philosophy of Fighting: Morals and Motivations of the Modern Warrior. Those books are collections of his best columns, spanning nearly two decades of writing for Black Belt. The books explores how morality, mysticism, aesthetics, science, and human nature cross paths in the fighting arts. Click the covers in the left column to learn more about them and order.
Keith began his martial arts training in 1984 under judo champion Jordie Hamilton. Later he attended Radford University, participating in the United States' only college-level martial arts training program. In 1996 he graduated from Radford with a B.A. in Psychology and a Certificate in Multi-Cultural Self-Defense.
Since moving to Tokyo in 2000, Keith has devoted himself to mixed martial arts. He trained for 10 years at the world-renowned Takada Dojo, where he learned from top fighters like Kazushi Sakuraba
, Akira Shoji
, and Yoon Dong Sik
. He was also the first non-Japanese to earn a shodan (1st degree black belt) from Takada Dojo. More recently, he has trained with Shooto legend and ZST tag-team grappling champion Naoya Uematsu
and welterweight grappling champion Kohei Yasumi
Keith's writing is informed by his experiences as an active competitor. He fought both as an amateur in Pre-PRIDE, PRIDE Challenge, and Shootboxing, and as a pro or semi-pro in DEEP, BoxFight and Kingdom Ehrgeiz events. Keith has also fought in many submission wrestling matches and tournaments as well. To read more about his competitive history and see some pictures, click on the links under "Fight Results" in the left-hand hand column.
Defending against a throw at Pre-PRIDE 3.
In 2001, Keith participated in Tokai TV's Pre-PRIDE
, an MMA reality show. The fighters on the show trained at the best gyms in Japan for a few months and then fought each other in an 8-man, one-night tournament. The prize was a chance to turn pro and fight in a PRIDE Fighting Championship event. Pre-PRIDE helped launch the careers of many fighters, including UFC fighters Yushin Okami
and Eiji Mitsuoka
. In the Pre-PRIDE 3
tournament, Keith made it to the final match, but lost by decision. The picture above is from that match. On the left is the late Naoto Morishita, the first president of the PRIDE Fighting Championships, watching the action.
A counterpunch in the shootboxing tournament
Keith's best showing came in March 2007, when he took part in the 17th All-Japan Amateur Shootboxing Tournament. Winning this tournament is often a stepping stone to a pro fight career. In the past, it's been won by top fighters like shootboxing welterweight champion Kenichi Ogata
and MMA star Hayato "Mach" Sakurai
Again, Keith fought three times in one day. This time, he won all his matches decisively, even knocking his opponent down three times in the final match. With that win, he became the 2007 All-Japan Amateur Heavyweight Shootboxing Champion.
Waiting for the match to start in the DEEP ring at Shinjuku FACE.
Keith's best MMA performances were in DEEP and Kingdom Ehrgeiz events. In June 2007, he fought in an event for the DEEP promotion called Oyaji DEEP
. It was an event for older fighters that was broadcast on Samurai TV. In it, competitors age 35 and up fought under full MMA rules. Keith was matched up against a judo black belt and scored a TKO in 14 seconds, his fastest win.
Keith's fight in Kingdom Ehrgeiz was at their 10th Anniversary show and he fought under the name "John Gabriel." It was a Kingdom-rules match, meaning MMA rules with pro-wrestling rope escapes and "catch" points for near submissions. His opponent was bare-knuckles karate fighter and bench press champion Mitsuyuki Kanaya
. After a brief exchange of punches, Keith clinched, scored a takedown and finished the fight with an arm lock at 1:27 of the first round.
Fighting Eisuke Suzuki in BoxFight: First Impact at Korakuen Hall
Shortly after turning 40, Keith fought the biggest fight of his career, a professional boxing match at Tokyo's fabled Korakuen Hall. He fought in front of a packed house on the BoxFight: First Impact
undercard, sharing the bill with K-1 kickboxing champ Hiromi Amada
and MMA legend Daiju Takase
. Again, Keith fought under the ring name "John Gabriel" and was matched up against 27 year old MMA fighter Eisuke Suzuki
. Keith stayed competitive with his younger opponent by relying on defense and counterpunching and ended up winning the match via majority decision.
Going for the arm compression lock at the 1st Asian Combat Wrestling Tournament. (C) MC-ABSOLUTE / PHOTO : KYOKA UEMIZO
In addition to MMA and boxing, Keith also fought in submission wrestling matches and tournaments. In August 2016 he entered the 1st Asian Combat Wrestling Tournament and, at the age of 46, managed to place first in both the men's 100+ kilo division and the master's A (over 40) 100+ kilo division. His most recent professional grappling match was in November 2013. Then 43, Keith fought 25 year old Pancrase and DEEP veteran Tatsuhiko Nishizaka
to a draw at the Kingdom Spirit 2013 show. But Keith's biggest grappling match was in January 2010. He fought in the DEEP X Future King tournament, beating PRIDE, K-1, and UFC veteran Satoshi Honma
via judges' decision and winning the heavyweight division.
Working for an armlock while MMA legend Tsuyoshi Kosaka watches in the background.
Keith is currently working on Kakutougi Boom: Reports from the Glory Years of PRIDE and K-1
. This new book will be a collection of fighter profiles, interviews, and event reports written by Keith during the reign of those two legendary promotions. Readers will get to see the events through the eyes of someone who was there for one of the most exciting and controversial eras in the history of fighting sports. The book will be out in early 2017. Until then, readers who'd like a preview can check out the free sample of Kakutougi Boom
in the "Coming Soon" section on the left.
After finishing that book, Keith will return to working on an account of his decade of living, training and fighting in Japan. It will explore the meaning of the martial arts through his experiences in the training hall and in the ring. Readers will go along with Keith as he encounters centuries-old fighting arts, tangles with pro-wrestlers, tries to navigate Japanese martial culture, and fights a guy he used to watch on pay-per-view. Readers will also get insights on being a martial artist in the 21st century, as Keith tries to square the high ideals of the martial arts with the brute facts of competition.