"Kid" Yamamoto enters the cage Feb. 5 against Demetrious Johnson | Taro Irei/Sherdog.com
TOKYO -- Ahead of his promotional debut against Demetrious Johnson at UFC 126 this Saturday at the Mandalay Bay Events Center in Las Vegas, Norifumi “Kid” Yamamoto -- one of Japanese MMA’s biggest stars -- serves as a reminder of Zuffa’s inexorable global dominance of the sport.
“Japan’s shows are too much about entertainment. It’s not like the UFC, not like a sport. The UFC is like boxing style. They have a champion and rankings, but the biggest Japanese MMA shows on TV aren’t like that,” says Yamamoto. “It’s like they only do whatever they think will be best in the here and now. They don’t plan for the future.”
Yamamoto can attest to these critiques. While he will compete as a bantamweight stateside, he was positioned as a lightweight star during his run in K-1’s Hero’s brand, simply because that was where the promotion had the most talent. With the advent of Dream, promoters tried to base a 139-pound division -- firmly between the legitimate bantamweight and featherweight divisions -- around Yamamoto’s stature. After chasing the stardom and wealth of Japan’s fight scene, Yamamoto’s current venture into foreign waters comes as somewhat of a physical relief.
Yamamoto has thrown himself wholly into the spirit of the occasion. He arrives to his Krazy Bee gym sporting a brand new haircut: a bleached blond Mohawk that he proudly claims he just received for his upcoming fight in the UFC. His arms are already adorned inch-by-inch with tattoos of wild cats, webbing, chrysanthemums and images of biomechanical machinery under human skin. With the finishing touches up top, he now looks the part of a stereotypical “ultimate fighter,” almost to the point of parody.
“I don’t have to worry about the heavy punches anymore. At 155, every punch was so heavy,” Yamamoto says with a smile, as he mimes getting hit in slow motion. “But now [at bantamweight], one punch, two punches, it’s nothing. No problem.”
Despite his criticisms of Japanese MMA, Yamamoto remains a patriot and claims a desire to put Japan back on the map in the Octagon. It is something that he has looked forward to for some time, but it has only been made possible thanks to the fortuitous timing of the UFC-WEC merger.
“I was thinking about fighting in the U.S. a long time ago,” admits Yamamoto. “I’ve always had a dream to go to the UFC for years. What allows me to go now is that they have my weight division -- 135 pounds. After I heard they were opening it up, I decided this would be the time to challenge myself in the UFC.”
For many Japanese fighters, the UFC proves to be an interesting if not daunting challenge. Many of Yamamoto’s countrymen have entered the Octagon only to return home in defeat.
“Those who have fought from Japan, even though they’re top fighters in Japan, they haven’t been able to stay at the UFC’s top level. Most of the top Japanese fighters have been beaten by top UFC fighters. For that reason, I believe it’s one of the best promotions in the world. I have to be very serious about
fighting for them,” he says.
Yamamoto is less than certain in postulating why Japan’s top talent cannot properly adjust to fighting in America. However, Kid feels eminently qualified and comfortable to step into the cage in front of a raucous American crowd.
“It was a totally different atmosphere, and how the audience behaved,” Yamamoto says, fondly recalling UFC 94 in January 2009, an event he attended in Las Vegas. “I thought all the fighters walking out to the cage looked so cool, and, as one of the audience that day, I also wanted to reach out and touch them. So now, it’s my turn to be one of those fighters making his way to the cage. I’m very excited about that.”
The most formative moment of Yamamoto’s January 2009 trip came when he set foot inside Wanderlei Silva’s Wand Fight Team gym in Las Vegas.
“That was my first cage experience for training. The size of the UFC cage is huge, and I felt that when I got in there,” Yamamoto says, remembering the moment with clear awe. “When I entered the cage at Wanderlei’s gym, I thought, ‘This is my battlefield.’”
Most Western MMA fans were unaware of Yamamoto becoming a household name in Japan from 2004 to 2006. However, one man who kept his eye on the situation was former WEC 145-pound champion Urijah Faber. In 2007, with the featherweight division still largely centered in Japan and “Kid” being its figurative king, then-WEC ace Faber became increasingly vocal in calling for a match with Yamamoto to determine the best featherweight in the world.
Few outside of the sport’s pundits and most ardent fans knew who Faber was talking about. Further, given Yamamoto’s obligations in Japan, Faber’s insistence on calling him out became an exasperating exercise in futility. For Yamamoto, however, no matter how unrealistic the matchup was at the time, it was delightful.
“I was like, ‘Oh, thank you! You called my name!’ He told everyone [in the U.S.] my name, so I was like, ‘Respect!’” Yamamoto says with a grin. This time, as he speaks, he mimes an appreciative fist-bump with an imaginary Faber.
“Before, he was at 145 and he was talking about me a lot, but I didn’t say anything because I’m just not like that. I’m quiet, you know? But now, he’s dropped down [to 135], and I’m here. Can’t hide now, you know? I see you. But yeah, respect, my friend,” he adds, still smiling.
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