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By Eric Johnson/Photos courtesy Monster Energy

The Nitro World Games will air in primetime on NBC Saturday, July 16. Check local listings for the exact time in your area.

The son of a firefighter, Takayuki Higashino, better known as Taka, hails from Osaka, Japan and is renowned, arguably, as the best freestyle motocross rider in the world. First touching down in the United States of America in 2006, it was the place Higashino felt he needed to be to make a run at his dream of becoming an internationally recognized FMX rider. And through unprecedented commitment, discipline and straight-up hard work and dedication, he did just that. After becoming fast friends with Brian Deegan, Jeremy "Twitch" Stenberg and the rest of the Metal Mulisha flight squadron, by 2010 Taka was claiming X Games medals, and during the year of 2013, did in fact become the undisputed number one FMX rider on Planet Earth by setting forth a mercurial streak of three-straight gold medal performances in the Summer X Games. And the streak still stands. Despite narrowly missing out on winning medals at the recent Summer X Games in Austin, Texas – due to an injured shoulder, Taka placed fourth overall in both Moto X Freestyle and Moto X Best Trick – the Japanese stunt pilot will now look to the ramps situated inside the 45,807-seat Rice Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City, Utah and the 2016 Nitro World Games. Amongst the cast and characters who will make up one of the most anticipated and hyped contests in FMX history, Taka is poised to compete in both the FMX Freestyle and FMX Best Trick disciplines.

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So just who is this Taka guy and how did he begin his quest to become one of the most decorated and prolific action sports athletes the world has ever seen? To answer that question is to look back to 2006 when he first showed up at the rough and tumble local ramps and practice facilities scattered about Southern California in 2006

"I was too excited at the beginning," laughed Taka in reflecting upon his early days in So. Cal and meeting up with Brian Deegan and his Metal Mulisha air force. "I couldn't believe I was around those guys. I had been watching movies and videos of all of them back in Japan and they were like movie stars to me. Everyone was around [Mike] Mason, [Adam] Jones, Twitch, Nate [Adams]. It was just too exciting then. And with my riding I was always doing 100-percent or 120-percent with my technique and that would always make me crash. I tried too much!"

Enter one Brian Deegan. A freestyle motocross legend if ever there were, Deegan was just beginning his trajectory as one of the sport's elite riders and competitors when he caught sight of this Japanese FMX rider who was haunting the California scene.

"Taka had the typical Japanese bike and look, like with all the color all over it and he didn't speak very good English," explained Deegan. "He rode with us and was pretty good and knew a lot of tricks, but was a little squirrely on the jumps. We didn't really know what to think of him. We ended up getting him into some events and helped him get into some shows. He did well. He was always really good at doing a ton of different tricks. He was a good contest guy. He would go to the events and practice harder than everyone else."

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In 2010 Taka's career, both literally and figuratively, took off toward outer space. Winning the Dew Tour Salt Lake City contest (a portent of things to come in '16?) and his first X Games medal, both he and his friends around him – one being Jeremy "Twitch" Stenberg – knew he was a full-on contender everywhere he went.

“At X Games in 2012, I was just happy to learn a new trick like a Rock Solid flip," said Taka. "Before X Games I kept practicing it and Twitch said, ‘You can do it. You can win X Games.’ I never thought that. It was my dream and hope to even get in the top three. I kept thinking about everything and Twitch said, ‘Don't think, just do it.’ Twitch pushed me a lot. I did it and won the Gold Medal."

The man from Japan was on his way to greatness.

"He was definitely a guy who paid his dues and eventually couldn't be denied," said Brian Deegan of that new era of Taka's career. "And he started learning some of the bigger flip tricks and he could do them consistently over almost every jump so he really able to start tying runs together. He really studied his runs. He'd always have a good, solid run with multiple tricks and he couldn't be denied. He paid his dues and was able to take that top spot."

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While in something of a funk in recent years with vanishing contests, an auspicious lack of new talent boiling to the surface and, well, diminished star power, the ever-evolving sport of freestyle motocross appears to be going through something of a renaissance in 2016. The producers of the X Games, after a two year abbreviation of sorts, brought the FMX men back this summer to much fanfare and big trick riding of the likes we have not seen in recent history. Red Bull just ran a version of their globally loved X Fighters competition in Spain. And now Travis Pastrana, along with a number of great, creative people behind him, hope to grab another gear with the rapidly approaching Nitro World Games. For all this Taka Higashino is very grateful.

"I think all of this new interest in FMX is great," he stated. "I am so happy that Best Trick and Freestyle MX is back and being noticed by people all over the world. This is definitely good because everybody dreams about being in things like the X Games and Nitro Circus. I really appreciate it that we are competing at the Nitro World Games real soon."

So how will Taka fare on the 50-foot high, 120-foot long ramps awaiting him in the rarified high-altitude air of Salt Lake City come Saturday, July 16? Nobody can say for certain, but one rider, a rider who has seen Taka's arc to preeminence in the wild offshoot of motocross is Brian Deegan. A guy who has certainly been there/done this/jumped that and even bought the T-shirt, Deegan pointed out how good Higashino truly is.

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"I think Taka is probably one of the best technical guys out there," declared Deegan. "Taka, to me, has never been a guy to take big, huge risks. He's been able to take big crazy tricks and been able to master them and almost make it look easy. He's been one guy to make hard tricks look easy because he masters them by practice and practice. He practices more than anyone. He puts in more time on the bike than anyone else and it shows. He goes out and is perfect at the events. He's a Freestyle specialist. I think he probably the best Freestyle guy in the world."

High praise from a high source. Next stop: Rice-Eccles Stadium and what Taka hopes will be a detonation of new tricks and runs which will only add to his legend.

The Nitro World Games will air in primetime on NBC Saturday, July 16. Check local listings for the exact time in your area.