Hisaki Kato left his native Paris last week to travel to the biggest fight of his mixed martial arts career. When he touched down in New York, he learned that terrorists were killing dozens in the Bataclan concert hall -- just down the street from his training gym.
When Kato faces Melvin Manhoef in the headlining fight at Bellator 146 on Friday in Thackerville, Oklahoma, he hopes for a performance that will honor both his nation and neighborhood.
"I want my Parisian friends to be proud of me," Kato told The Associated Press in a phone interview Tuesday. "I want to do great. I just want to show that my home city is standing up."
Kato still can't comprehend what happened in Paris on the evening after he left for the airport. He was born and raised in the 11th Arrondissement, and he loves the boulevards and businesses that were targeted.
"The day before I left, I was in the same street," Kato said. "One week before, at the same time and day, I was training there. I was really thinking that I was lucky, but I was more concerned."
When Kato learned of the attacks in New York, he frantically texted his training partners and family -- and the responses horrified him further.
He said his coach and teammates were sheltered in their gym, one-third of a mile from the Bataclan. His sister was hiding with friends in a restaurant on Rue de Charonne, the same street on which gunmen killed 19 people at a nearby eatery, La Belle Equipe.
"She said they were shooting everywhere, so I was really scared for her," Kato said. "And then my coach said, `We're inside the gym. We're hiding a lot of people from the street.' There were a lot of fighters there because it was right at the end of the night training (session). It was quite a stressful situation, but I knew they were safe."
The 33-year-old Kato holds his MMA training camps at his gym, Natural Born Fighters, near the Bataclan and only a short walk from La Belle Equipe. He has lived in the northeast Paris neighborhood for most of his life, although he also trains in Japan, where he had a career in professional handball before picking up karate and MMA in his 20s.
Nicknamed "The Japanese Musketeer" in reference to his dual cultural heritage, Kato gained viral fame during his U.S. MMA debut in June with a spectacular knockout of favored veteran Joe Schilling. Kato (5-1) dominated the first round of his first Bellator appearance before landing a Superman punch in the second, earning a victory that propelled him into a main-event fight with the veteran Manhoef (29-12-1) in just his seventh pro bout. The card will air domestically on Spike.
Kato and his friends and family were already shaken in January by the shooting murders at satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, whose offices are three minutes from Kato's home. He still held his training camp for both of his Bellator bouts in Paris, and he intends to return after the fight for more work.
But he'll never forget the feeling of helplessness in New York before he knew his friends and family were safe.
"At that time, I wasn't thinking about the fight any more," Kato said. "Afterward, I was glad I can still do my fight, but that was not my first feeling."