Some lessons in the school of life come harder than others. For Greek-Danish entrepreneur Nicholas Pettas, being beaten up in the street at the age of 14 may have been one of the best things to ever happen to him.
With no fighting experience or knowledge of how to defend himself, he ran home — but promised himself that he would never again suffer that feeling of helplessness.
Four years later, he left Denmark and boarded a one-way flight to Tokyo, where he was to become "uchi-deshi," a live-in student, under famed sensei Masutatsu Oyama, the founder of full-contact karate-style Kyokushin.
It was the beginning of a journey that saw the “Blue-Eyed Samurai” compete in the K-1 World Grand Prix in front of 70,000 people at the Tokyo Dome, win the Japanese K-1 title, and become a Reebok ambassador for CrossFit — playing a major role in its introduction to Japan. Later he would become a successful entrepreneur and media personality.
But reflecting on his early years in Japan, Pettas says it was the teachings of Oyama-sensei that laid the foundation for his subsequent success.
“The most important thing I learned as a dormitory student at the Kyokushinkaikan, the headquarters of Kyokushin, was to be courageous in the face of any obstacle, the spirit of never giving up, and the motivation to want to succeed in everything you do in life,” Pettas said.
“We would do all chores [for our seniors], run around for them all day, and make sure everything was done the right way at the right time,” he explained. “But it taught me how to do business with clients, so it was fantastic preparation for working life in Japan.”
Pettas’s completion of the vigorous 1,000-day program made him the second ever foreign graduate and, with Oyama’s passing shortly after his graduation, also the last "uchi-deshi" of the founding master.
After being crowned European Karate Heavyweight Champion in 1995, Pettas was offered a career in K-1, a Japanese kickboxing promotion, where he was knocked out in his first fight.
He spent the next two years training and adjusting from karate to kickboxing, culminating in a first-round knockout victory. One year and four wins later he was crowned Japanese K-1 champion, qualifying him for the World Grand Prix, where he would meet a host of other national champions.
“When I first got to the Tokyo Dome in front of 70,000 onlookers, I felt very small; and the ring was just a tiny dot in an ocean of people. I lost and had my nose broken that day, so you could say my strategy went wrong; but it was a big learning experience,” he said of an early bout.
The next year Pettas suffered a sickening leg injury that required three years of rehabilitation before he could return to the ring. He would fight seven more times, with his final victory coming in front of 47,000 people in Osaka against 7’1″ (216 cm) giant Kim Young Hyun, who had 13 inches (33 cm) over the 5’11” (180 cm) Pettas.
While his fighting career was ended by a serious hip injury, Pettas was only just discovering his flair for business. His opportunity arrived through a surprise phone call from sports company Reebok.
“Reebok had just begun sponsoring the CrossFit Games and were looking for global ambassadors, and I realized it was a fantastic opportunity,” he explained. “I had done martial arts for many years, and it turned out CrossFit was something I quickly became passionate about. And I was pretty good at it, too.”
Pettas opened his own “box” (gym) in the Tokyo suburb of Nishi-Azabu, and later co-founded another in Roppongi. While initial interest was limited primarily to expatriates, he has successfully expanded his client base to 267 members and counting, the majority of whom are Japanese. Having become the biggest CrossFit operator in Japan, he now plans further expansion.
“I’m hoping to expand to 10 boxes, as there isn’t anyone else really doing this here yet. It makes sense to expand as aggressively as we can,” Pettas said.
Besides his burgeoning CrossFit empire, Pettas is launching an online fitness service backed by expert advice from nutritionists, trainers, and counselors as a way of expanding CrossFit’s reach in Japan. He has also co-presented a show called "Imagine Nation" on NHK World for the past four years, as well as having appeared in a number of Japanese movies over the past decade.
Pettas credits his business success to persistence, but acknowledges Japan can be a tough market for foreign entrants.
“As with anything in life, if you want to succeed in business you have to be persistent and find a way to enjoy what you do. If you don’t enjoy it, you’re not going to put all your effort into it; and clients can see that,” he said. “I truly love what I do. I love to help people, and that’s the answer to becoming successful.”
For those arriving in Japan for the first time, Pettas suggests learning the language as well as raising the bar on customer service.
“If you are used to a standard of service in other countries, what needs to be done in Japan may seem extreme,” he said. “But any business looking to succeed here should expect to be held to those high standards.”
Having overcome life’s challenges, the hard way, Pettas’s example should serve as inspiration to any budding entrepreneur. As Miyagi-sensei said in "The Karate Kid:" “It’s okay to lose to an opponent. It’s never okay to lose to fear.”
Custom Media publishes The Journal for the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan.© Japan Today