“I don’t live in the past. I forget everything. I want to go to the top. I want the belt. That’s it.”
Enjoy Norifumi “Kid” Yamamoto while you can, because the Japanese sensation is not on the Randy Couture career plan, or even the Chuck Liddell longevity plan, for that matter.
Not even close.
Couture, 47, is still fighting. Liddell, at 41, recently retired. Yamamoto, a 33-year-old bantamweight, aims to crown his legacy with a UFC title and fight for two or three more years before walking away from the sport that made him famous in his homeland.
“I can fight when I’m older, but I don’t want to fight at that age,” said Yamamoto (18-3, 1 NC). “Maybe a couple more years and then I’ll quit. I always wanted to fight in the US and now the UFC has my weight (135), so it’s the right time. This is my last season.”
It’s been quite a wait – taking nearly a decade to finally land the ultra-aggressive knockout artist into the Octagon. For too long, when American fans debated the top bantamweights, it was begrudgingly wrapped in theory (which makes for a rather poor proving ground). Go back five years or so to when there was much talk about what would happen if Japan’s “Kid” clashed in a Super Fight with California’s “Kid” (Urijah Faber)? Miguel Angel Torres vs. Kid Yamamoto, who takes it?
Today, the competitive landscape is much more cluttered and other fighters have closed the gap. There is no shortage of potentially intriguing challenges for Yamamoto, beginning with UFC bantamweight champ Dominick Cruz, as well as the likes of Joseph Benavidez, England’s Brad Pickett and Scott Jorgensen, among others. Always one to speak his mind without a filter, Yamamoto recently raised eyebrows when he purportedly told a reporter for Japan’s Daily Sports that “there aren’t really any guys at my level” in the UFC’s 135-pound division.
The media outfit also reported that Yamamoto, when asked about Dominick Cruz, called the reigning champ “nothing special” and added, “I’ll bring him down.”
Asked about the comments, Yamamoto defended his remarks as simply the way all great fighters must think. He chuckled several times while delivering his response, seemingly amused that people find such talk noteworthy or remarkable.
“Every fighter thinks like that. That’s natural,” Yamamoto said. “What am I supposed to say, ‘Oh, he’s better than me”? He’s stronger than me”?’ No way, I can take anybody! It’s so funny. It’s not a big deal (laughs). Tell everybody to chill out and not to get too excited. Everybody has to think that they are the best.”
This is Yamamoto’s ultimate chance to show, once and for all, that he is the standard by which all other 135ers should be measured. To reach the crème de la crème of the division, the frosty-haired, tanned showman must first repel Demetrious Johnson (12-1), his opponent at UFC 126 in Las Vegas. Matt Hume, Johnson’s coach and a former pro fighter who has trained, fought and judged in Japan, has followed Yamamoto’s entire career and probably knows the athlete’s tendencies as well as any American coach. Hume believes Yamamoto vs. Johnson pits the two fastest fighters in the world against each other. And he might be right.
“Kid brings a lot of the same attributes that Demetrious has: They’re both incredible, explosive athletes with lots of speed and power,” Hume said. “They match up extremely well.”
Asked about his Feb. 5th foe, Yamamoto kept it brief.
“He’s a good fighter,” he said. “He moves around good.”
Any chance he can match your speed?
“I have to find out,” Yamamoto said.
The UFC has hosted elite Japanese fighters over the years: Hayato Sakurai, Yoshihiro Akiyama, and Takanori Gomi, among others. World-ranked Yoshiro Maeda and Takeya Mizugaki also competed in Zuffa’s World Extreme Cagefighting, with mixed results. The trend has plagued Japan’s brightest MMA stars, who, more often than not, have not fared well inside of the Octagon. Yamamoto, however, just might be Japan’s best fighting import to the states.
“I’m fighting for Japan,” he said.
There is no pressure upon him, he adds. A three-time state champion wrestler in high school, Yamamoto has fought in a cage before and won. In fact, while the vast majority of his fights were in rings, he feels the more spacious cage better suits his talents.
A world-class wrestler who placed fourth at Japan’s prestigious Emperor’s Cup a few years ago, Yamamoto spent much of his MMA career competing up a weight class or two – but it didn’t stop him from routinely destroying 155- and 143-pounders in highlight reel fashion.
Amazingly, Yamamoto didn’t start training in MMA until the age of 24. He burst out of the gate and immediately turned heads, thanks in large part to his wrestling skills and extraordinary athleticism. His list of victims includes a laundry list of big names: Genki Sudo, Royler Gracie, Jeff Curran, Caol Uno, Rani Yahya and Bibiano Fernandes. Most everything inside of the ring went smoothly for Yamamoto during the first six years of his illustrious career. He was a pure and possessed wrecking machine, toppling 14 straight foes. Some said he might be the world’s top fighter – at any weight class.
But the past three years have not been as kind as Yamamoto has been avalanched by one wave of adversity after another. In 2008 he tore an ACL in his knee, causing him to be sidelined from competition for roughly 17 months. He returned to the ring and lost a split decision to world champion Greco-Roman wrestler Joe Warren. Then Yamamoto endured a divorce from his wife. He returned to the ring, losing a unanimous decision to countryman Masanori Kanehara.
“I changed my fighting style and I don’t believe my knee was (fully healed),” Yamamoto explained, speaking of his back-to-back defeats. “I didn’t use my footwork so that’ wasn’t good for me.”
Yamamoto rebounded with a 101-second knockout over hard-cracking Federico Lopez. Nevertheless, some question whether his stock is beginning to fall, whether the “old” Kid is really back.
“These people can bet against me,” he said. “They can bet all of their money on my opponents. And then they will lose their money.”
He chuckles once more.
Two people who aren’t buying into the “Kid-has-lost-a-step” talk are Demetrious Johnson and Hume. The latter believes the Kid he saw compete in May, in a cage fight, was the best Kid ever.
“Originally he wasn’t completely healed from his knee. But he destroyed his last opponent and he does a lot of things better now,” Hume said. “He’s a smarter, calmer fighter and doesn’t just rush in to try and destroy people all of the time. He judges distance better now and doesn’t just rely on his physical attributes. I expect the best Kid to show up.”
Two weeks before his fight, back home in Japan, Yamamoto mourned the death of one of his beloved pitbull, 11-year-old Sony.
“He had cancer. It’s so hard, I am sad at the moment,” he said. “My mom died, too, when I was 20 … but when close people die they watch you all the time. When they’re alive, if I go somewhere they cannot watch. But when they die they see me at any time. So I have to be strong.”
His body is host to numerous tattoos, including a group of words on his left forearm that sum up part of the philosophy that guides him through like. It reads: “Real power cannot be given, it must be taken.” The final movie in the Godfather trilogy popularized the maxim. Yamamoto said it served as a reminder to him to never take his family pedigree for granted. His father wrestled in the 1972 Olympics for Japan; two sisters won wrestling world titles.
“Everybody told me, ‘You’re a natural. You’re strong, because your whole family are fighters. Your dad is an Olympian, your sisters are world champions.’ But it’s not like that,” Yamamoto said. “A lot of people have parents that are professional athletes but their children don’t make it. So it cannot be given, you’ve got to train and keep training and take it, the power.”
In the twilight of his career, Yamamoto envisions finally being able to fight Urijah Faber and other “top guys.” And he promises to be in peak form, as entertaining and explosive as ever.
“I don’t live in the past. I forget everything,” Yamamoto said. “I want to go to the top. I want the belt. That’s it.”