Reputation. It’s quite powerful, isn’t it? With the power of changing one’s path in life, reputation has remained important since the very inception of time, particularly in sports. Just imagine being known as the “Baddest Man on The Planet” or someone who’s never turned down a fight. Both are titles that stick, and stick hard.
For Norifumi “Kid” Yamamoto, a plethora of terms come to mind…
Athlete. Star. Bad boy. All make up the reputation of Yamamoto, one of Japan’s favorite fighting sons. As a youth he stuck out from his peers, refusing to follow in the path of his family. For context Kid’s father, Ikuei, was an olympian in wrestling, yet was still the least accomplished out of the Yamamoto clan.
His oldest sister, Miyuu, amassed five wrestling medals throughout her career, three of which being gold at the world championships. If this wasn’t enough, Kid’s youngest sibling, Seiko, collected one more gold at the world championships. With a foundation for success in the grappling arts, Kid was destined for major achievements.
As a teenager, he’d have a brief yet valorous encounter with the Yakuza. In fact, he shot one of their members in the face with a BB gun, prompting them to track him down in search of vengeance. If it wasn’t for his brother-in-law, Enson Inoue, Yamamoto’s tale may have a different tone to it. Inoue used his connections to the Yakuza in order to prevent any physical harm being dealt. Though they’d force Kid out of schooling and from competing in the Japanese wrestling circuit, Inoue, an accomplished MMA fighter by this point, began training the youngster until the ban expired.
In the latter years of his schooling, he partook in a foreign exchange program in the United States, making his way to Arizona. It’s here that he won multiple state wrestling titles, showcasing his skills in a remote land for the first time. Rather than pursue a collegiate or professional career on the mats, he’d return to the sweet violence of MMA, the sport that filled him with peace.
It’s an oxymoron, really, finding peace inside a ring or cage. And for a man who fought so chaotically, it was where Kid felt most at home.
Caleb Mitchell (Shooto 9/5 in Korakuen Hall) – I think I probably heard about Kid Yamamoto a year or two before our bout.
Ian Schaffa (Hero’s 2) – My first impression of Kid is that he was an animal. I can’t recall the first time I heard of him, but I knew he was a weapon.
Vaughan Lee (UFC 144) – I think it was around 2004 when I first watched Norifumi “Kid” Yamamoto fight. My first impressions were, “Wow, this guy can bang. And he’s a sick wrestler.”
Roman Salazar (UFC 184) – I first heard of Kid Yamamoto when I was in high school and the UFC was just taking off. He was destroying people in Japan [while] fighting in PRIDE. I actually really looked up to him and loved the way he fought.
Jeff Curran (Superbrawl 29) – It was early in my career, somewhere in early 2000’s and I followed the Shooto scene. I thought he was super tough, super aggressive and would be a great challenge. I thought he was a little bit of a punk/rule breaker in the ring but [in a] good [way].
Continuing his wild personal life out of the ring, Yamamoto made an immediate splash in the MMA circuit. Accumulating an impressive 5-1-1 record (the defeat coming via doctors stoppage) which included a win over the highly experienced Jeff Curran, he also fought future Strikeforce champion and UFC contender Josh Thomson.
He’d get the better of Thomson for the opening round. However in the second, would be met with a groin strike so robust it actually broke his cup. Unable to continue, the bout was declared a No Contest.
It’s from 2004-2007 that Yamamoto impressed… Jumping head first into K-1, he fought world champions Mike Zambidis and Masato, the latter being one of the largest events in Japan’s combat sports history. Their fight was watched by a farcical 34 million – yes, million – people, making both men bona fide superstars. Despite losing a majority decision, he was more in demand than ever.
Shortly after, he returned to MMA with his funky shorts and captivating character. An eight fight win streak would take place, one that included being crowned champion of HERO’s Grand Prix at lightweight. This happened all while weighing no heavier than a modern bantamweight. You see, Kid wasn’t afraid of the disparities in weight and power, he embraced the challenge – often knocking said challenge out.
During his run, the likes of Genki Sudo, Royler Gracie, Caol Uno, Bibiano Fernandes and Rani Yayha were beaten by the giant slayer. It was widely agreed upon that he was the pound-for-pound king during this time.
Known for his wild, leaping hooks and intercepting knees, Kid’s run is all the more impressive when you witness how he claimed victory. One punch flattenings. Four second finishes. Kid did it all, not to mention his crafty wrestling game, a tool that was always in arsenal.
Mitchell – He was definitely stronger than he was technical. I heard he could clean and jerk 350lbs, and for a 145lb fighter that’s pretty significant… His advantage was strength and KO power so I didn’t plan well in trying to stand toe-to-toe with him in a standup match.
Schaffa – His power and his ruthlessness [stood out]. You were definitely in a fight against Kid Yamamoto.
Salazar – Both his power and his speed, as well as ferociousness [surprised me]. He was an absolute savage and a monster in the ring or cage.
Lee – I loved his demeanor. Most Japanese fighters, especially back then, were very reserved. But Kid had a rude boy from Jaimaica-type swag about him which I thought was cool and made him stand out. And the way he would launch his whole body into a punch [was great] – it gave him that knockout power.
Salazar – He was phenomenal as a fighter. He understood distance better than anyone I had competed against up to that point and had an unreal ability [of] closing the distance. Honestly, [he’s] one of the best lighter weight fighters to ever do it.
Curran – He had amazing strength and a good fight IQ. I always tell people he hit me harder than anyone I fought, and I fought in 3 weight classes. He was an amazing fighter in most areas. I think maybe his BJJ had been his least strongest. But that was well made up for in his overall skills.
Lee – It was very surreal sharing the octagon with Kid. At the time I was locked in to do what I needed to, but after the fight I realized I had beaten a living legend.
Sadly, he’d be robbed of his prime. In 2008, Kid briefly retired from MMA in order to chase his dreams of becoming an Olympian, just like his father. He’d dislocate his elbow in a match with former bronze medalist Kenji Inoue at the Emperor’s Cup, and not long after underwent ACL surgery. Then, in preparation for a comeback against Joseph Benavidez, he tore a ligament in his knee. It ended up shelving him for close to 18 months in total.
The truth of the matter is, these surgeries stole the speed and quickness Yamamoto was known for… No longer was he a tier above his adversaries. This was clear when he finally made his return against future Bellator champion Joe Warren in 2009. Losing a competitive split decision, it marked the first time Kid had truly been beaten. From practically 17-0, to 17-1.
A downhill slope would ensue. He’d compete once more under the Dream and K1 banners, going 1-1 before making his way west. A major celebrity in his home of Japan and a known figure throughout Asia, Kid was keen to spread his influence to a Western audience.
A multi-fight contract with the UFC was later announced. He’d lose his debut to Demetrious Johnson in a fight that has more significance in hindsight. Though it wasn’t a direct passing of the torch moment, Johnson would later clear out his division and take the title of pound-for-pound King, just like Kid did years prior.
Going 0-3-1 throughout his UFC tenure, those familiar with Yamamoto clearly felt hard done by. A man once touted as the best on planet Earth, to someone struggling to claim a sole victory. This is why it’s important to consider his full resume when assessing his career. Many are guilty of peering at records and statistics, using these methods to determine if one was elite. This doesn’t do Kid nor many from his era justice; a modern day equivalent would be bantamweight Petr Yan jumping to lightweight and taking out Charles Oliveira.
Mitchell – I believe he was certainly a top 10, perhaps even top 3 fighter in the world at the time of our match (pound for pound). He went on to win many more fights after our bout. Kid had a good mix of wrestling ability and insane power. He swung for the fences, so his KO ability was strong.
Schaffa – He was a great fighter. Tactical and fearless.
Lee – Between 2005-2007 he beat some legends like Genki Sudo and Bibinao Fernandes, the latter [going] on to become a dominant champion in ONE FC. He defeated Royler Gracie and Caol Uno on the same night. In that era, he was one of the best in the world in my opinion.
Salazar – It was an honor [to fight him]. He’s the only fighter I’ve been physically afraid of. The entire camp I said all the things I had to say but in the back of my mind I thought he could knock me out at any point. He was a trailblazer who gave smaller fighters like me a platform to be considered great. Up until then, it was about the welterweights and up. [He’ll] also be remembered as the first true knockout artist in the lighter divisions. To me, the only fighter who has surpassed him as far as Japanese fighters go is his star pupil, Kyoji Horiguchi.
Tony Valente (K-1 World MAX 2004 World Tournament Open) – I believe he was under so much pressure in his life. When an entire country is on your shoulders, it’s a big responsibility to deliver. I think he was pushed too hard.
Curran – I got to share the locker with him and some bus rides back in the UFC. I left those moments feeling like our battle connected us as friends for life. I believe his legacy is just being an awesome representative of Japanese MMA.
Schaffa – One of the best fighters [to ever] come out of Japan.
Mitchell – There may never be another fighter like him. I’m glad I took the fight despite the outcome, because it taught me to use my strengths rather than just try to ‘fight’ everyone… The day I fought Kid was his day on his turf. I wish his family the best and hope they are well. He will be missed – an amazing athlete and ferocious competitor.
Lee – I believe he leaves a legacy of being a pioneer of MMA in Japan. An influential role model for people all over the world.
How do you finish talking about one of the sport’s biggest enigmas? Do you simply just stop? That works, but not without finalizing his legacy.
An era defining, unbelievably unique competitor, Kid remains one of the best pure athletes we’ve witnessed in mixed martial arts. His explosiveness, unpredictability and slick timing made him an issue for anyone, regardless of weight class. And when you talk about true fighters, there was no one better suited for the term. I urge you, don’t forget his name. Pass the stories on, or if you’re not too familiar, watch his fights.
Until his very last day, Norifumi “Kid” Yamamoto remained, and always will remain, a fighter.
Yamamoto passed away from stomach cancer on September 18, 2018 in Guam, where he was undergoing treatment. He was 41 years old.