Kid Yamamoto: a Hero's Hero

Japanese legend Norifumi Yamamoto, the one-time pound-for-pound king, passed away this week from cancer. Jack Slack discusses his lasting legacy.

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Sep 21 2018, 2:30pm

Mike Roach/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty images

The bafflingly named Hero’s was launched in 2005 as an offshoot of the great kickboxing promotion, K-1. An ultra successful crossover event with PRIDE FC in 2002 had left the K-1 big wigs thinking that they had better start working their way into this mixed martial arts malarkey and so Hero’s became K-1’s MMA arm.

Revisiting the run of Hero’s events it is strange to realize that the company was only around for a couple of years—from March 2005 until December 2007. DREAM lasted longer, PRIDE had been going for almost a decade when Hero’s started up and ended the same year, and even the youngest Japanese promotion, Rizin, has outlasted Hero’s at this point. Yet in those three years, Hero’s gave us some of the more memorable moments in Japanese MMA.

Kazushi Sakuraba abandoned PRIDE—the house that he had built—in order to join Hero’s, returning from the brink of defeat against Kestutis Smirnovas and losing in one of the sketchiest bouts of all time to a greased up Yoshihiro Akiyama. Genki Sudo found a home in Hero’s and was able to employ more and more theater in his legendary entrances to the point that he eventually abandoned fighting altogether and formed a successful pop group. Theater and narratives are a large part of fighting, but in terms of raw talent there was one man who stood out from the herd in Hero’s and whose highlight reels could be pulled up on YouTube at any point to convince friends that there was a future to this MMA thing: Norifumi "Kid" Yamamoto.

A Bolt from the Blue

By the time that Hero’s announced its first grand prix, Yamamoto had already established something of a reputation as Japanese MMA’s bad boy—hitting opponents late after having knocked them out and living a dramatic life outside of the ring. He had dabbled in kickboxing in 2004 with a victory over Takehiro Murahama and a surprisingly competitive and dramatic fight with the great Masato on New Year's Eve. But as far as MMA went, there was an awful lot of hype and fans just weren’t sure they had seen enough to justify it yet.

Yamamoto had competed successfully in Shooto but had never won a Shooto title—pretty much a rite of passage for a Japanese MMA prospect. Scouted by K-1, Yamamoto found himself in a similar position to Tenshin Nasukawa’s modern position in Rizin—the company liked him but weren’t finding him suitable opponents or building a division for him to compete in. Yamamoto went from fighting the formidable Jeff Curran (16-5-1) in Icon Sport in May of 2003 to taking three fights against opponents with no MMA record in K-1 through to 2005.

Kid was a potential star, but fighting nobodies wasn’t going to get him anywhere and he knew this. So when Hero’s announced their middleweight grand prix, Yamamoto decided to take a crack at Hero’s’s first belt. Hero’s followed the Japanese tradition of making up its own weightclasses that deliberately didn’t conform with anyone else’s, so middleweight was in fact 75 kilograms or 165 pounds. This meant that Hero’s could enlist the services of the excellent lightweights Genki Sudo and Caol Uno to legitimize their first tournament. The tournament would have been even better had Joachim Hansen not been poached by PRIDE just before it began. Kid Yamamoto, however, was not a respected lightweight—he was a bantamweight at best who floated up to featherweight to get fights.

As far as ballsy moves go, Yamamoto’s decision to enter the Hero’s middleweight grand prix was one of the ballsiest in MMA. Though he was 5'4" on a good day, the tournament quickly stopped being about Yamamoto being undersized and became about the rest of the fighters being underpowered.

The Yamamoto clan are now a wrestling dynasty: the father, Ikuei Yamamoto had competed in the Munich Olympics, the elder sister Miyuu is a three time world champion, and Norifumi’s younger sister, Seiko is a four time world champion who achieved a bronze in the ADCC no gi grappling world championships eleven years after her last world title in wrestling. While Norifumi missed out on a serious wrestling career, he was able to put his talent to use in learning the MMA game and also entered The Contenders, a grappling tournament wherein he bested judo submissions wizard Koji Komuro. Throughout the 2005 grand prix, fans were treated to numerous instances of Yamamoto throwing around larger opponents in styles that didn’t always make sense to the eyes. The sight of Yamamoto holding Royler Gracie’s toes about an inch off the floor in a standing guillotine will always be hilarious.

We can never pretend that Yamamoto was a striking savant—his game was the leaping right hook and some hard kicks and that was about it. But what Yamamoto did have was ridiculous speed. Almost everyone he fought would inevitably try to kick or knee him in the head and he would return with his right hook—often wound up from far behind him—before they could get their foot back to the ground.

On the first night of the Hero’s grand prix, Yamamoto knocked Royler Gracie stiff with a right hook to the jaw, then took on Japanese MMA legend Caol Uno in the second round, forcing a TKO due to cuts over Uno’s left eye from stiff right straights and hooks. Genki Sudo had worked through his half of the bracket, submitting Kazuyuki Miyata and Hiroyuki Takaya and this set up a Yamamoto-Sudo final at K-1 Premium Dynamite 2005. The bout headlined K-1’s year-ending show at the Osaka Dome on a card containing kickboxing legends like Ernesto Hoost and Semmy Schilt. After a very tentative few minutes, Yamamoto finally caught the grappling savant with a right hook as he came in and sent him to the mat. Flurrying for the finish, Yamamoto’s finest moment was somewhat undercut by a premature stoppage. Yet the accomplishment has never been replicated: a fighter going up two weightclasses to run through a tournament with two fights in one night, stopping each opponent.

Yamamoto’s career peaked with his victory in the 2005 grand prix, but injuries and strange matchmaking left us with a great many unanswered questions. There was occasional talk about a possible match up between Yamamoto and PRIDE’s lightweight king, Takanori Gomi. Others wanted to see Yamamoto in with Urijah Faber, a trailblazer in the featherweight class in the United States. But while those match ups were complicated by the fighters being under different promotions, Hero’s did a bad job of finding Yamamoto opponents even under the same banner. The Genki Sudo rematch never happened and Sudo retired in 2007, but perhaps more surprisingly Gesias ‘JZ’ Cavalcante won the two subsequent Hero’s tournaments in Yamamoto’s division and that eagerly anticipated fight never materialized. Yamamoto had proven that he was the star and after starching Kazuyuki Miyata with the finest and quickest flying knee ever to grace MMA, Yamamoto wanted to return to his natural weight class.

Try to take note of where Yamamoto’s right foot last touches the mat before the knee, and then where it lands afterwards. There are some who attest that Yamamoto might have been the greatest raw athlete to ever compete in MMA. Watching Yamamoto hammer the heavy bag is one of the more impressive sights this writer has seen in the gym.

Hero’s best efforts were pretty bad. At featherweight, Yamamoto was matched against the 0-0-0 wrestler, Istvan Majoros in a fight so lopsided that he felt bad about punching the guy.

Another interesting quirk of Yamamoto’s game, he was a murderer with knees to the body out of the double collar tie, even against much taller opponents like Caol Uno.

Then on the same night that JZ Cavalcante won the 2007 grand prix, Yamamoto fought the 1-1 Bibiano Fernandes in the co-main event—his first fight at bantamweight. Fernandes went on to become something very special indeed over the coming years, but it was a truly weird piece of matchmaking at the time.

The last great showing Yamamoto had came against the formidable Rani Yahya on the last night of 2009. Yahya then had a 12-3 MMA record, had won gold at ADCC earlier in the year, and was fresh off a decision loss to Chase Beebe for the WEC bantamweight championship. Yamamoto, looking more polished and thoughtful, set to work with hard kicks and counter punches. He dug body shots with his left hand and dipped out after his right hooks. It was one of Yamamoto’s smoothest performances in the ring, and he handed Yahya his first knockout loss in the second round.

A surprisingly smooth and measured Yamamoto.

Then Yamamoto injured his knee and was out for two years. The Kid of old never came back. He fought Joe Warren in the opening round of the DREAM featherweight grand prix (back up a weight class) on his return in 2009 but lost a split decision to the American wrestler. A decision loss to the unremarkable Masanori Kanehara followed wherein Yamamoto was dropped on his face. His feet were so much slower and it was becoming clear that his chin was not up to it any more. In almost all of his remaining fights Yamamoto’s chin looked shaky and he just didn’t seem to have that electricity that made him impossible to look away from in 2005. In a passing of the torch moment, Yamamoto—MMA’s most notorious little man—met Demetrious Johnson in February 2011 and was handily outworked. The men Yamamoto was struggling against by the very end of his career likely wouldn’t have laid a glove on him at his best, but that is the nature of fighting.

In truth, to many fans Yamamoto remains a case of untested potential similar to the late Kevin Randleman but with a far more successful run in the fights he did have. But even as his abilities waned, Kid Yamamoto impacted the future of Japanese MMA even as it was entering a sleepy, post-PRIDE hibernation. Yamamoto had built his own gym to train on his own terms and as his own career wound down, successful youngsters began to trickle out of the small Yamamoto Sports Academy: the respectable Issei Tamura, the wily Kotetsu Boku, and the hot young prospect Yusuke Yachi to name a few. Kyoji Horiguchi was a quiet gym rat at the YSA through his teens, often found behind the front desk or teaching the kids wrestling classes, and now he is the best fighter Japan has perhaps ever produced. If you have any doubt of Yamamoto’s direct influence on Horiguchi, watch Horiguchi’s Shooto run wherein he looks the spitting image of Kid, leaping in behind lead hooks over and over again. Even years before Horiguchi began competing, Killer Bee gym (as it was in its previous incarnation) was the training grounds of the fearsome Akira Kikuchi—often regarded as one of the big “what ifs” of Japanese MMA. Yamamoto’s elder sister Miyuu and her son—Kid’s nephew, Erson, also fight out of the YSA. Rizin undoubtedly has a lot to thank Norifumi Yamamoto for, even if he never fought under their banner.

As he became more of an occasional competitor, Yamamoto also continued to explore his love of art and tattoos, coming into each bout more beautifully decorated than the last, with stunning shorts to match. In a sport full of atrocious ink with almost half of the fighters you see having their own name tattooed across their back lest they forget, Yamamoto’s ink stood out as genuine art. Strangely enough Yamamoto also began working on a curry restaurant in his semi-retirement, hilariously named Curry Shower, but just as the Kid was starting his second act he was cut down by cancer.

For the past few years, we have all been writing about Kid Yamamoto as an old man because in the fight game he was. One of the guilty pleasures of any fight writer is cracking wise about "old timers" and then being forced to eat crow if they can turn back the clock for one night. That’s the way it is supposed to be: 40-year-old men aren’t supposed to be able to keep up with 25-year-old kids. The heartbreaking thing is that in any other way of looking at it, in any other aspect of life, Kid Yamamoto was not an old man. He wasn’t even middle aged. The name ‘Kid’ had started to seem silly by the time Yamamoto hit 30, but to Miyuu Yamamoto he was still just her little brother, and to Ikuei Yamamoto, I’m sure Norifumi was still his baby boy.