MMA organizations exist to entertain and make money. But they often drop the ball on promoting fighters who could have been huge superstars and bring lucrative returns to the organization. We cover those missed opportunities, uncover some of the most fascinating fighter stories, and try to push fight promotions to give these fighters the shine they deserve.
In the last episode we covered Kyoji Horiguchi, The RIZIN and Bellator Champion, and the former #1 flyweight contender in the UFC.
Episode 2: Norifumi “Kid” Yamamoto
In his prime, Yamamoto was one of the most feared fighters in the lower weight classes. Sadly he died of cancer in 2018, but Yamamoto left arguably the most important legacy in Japanese MMA history. MMA promotions including the UFC missed a huge opportunity to capitalize on his star power, influence, and backstory, so many people don’t know much about him especially in the U.S. We’re here to change that, and to honor the late legend.
This is Norifumi “Kid” Yamamoto’s story:
Yamamoto’s father Ikuei was a Japanese wrestling icon who loved wrestling above everything. After representing Japan in the 1972 Olympics, Ikuei shipped his son Yamamoto to Arizona for high school where they had one of the best wrestling programs in the world. In the highly competitive wrestling state, Yamamoto impressed by winning 3 high school championships. Even though he most likely had plenty of D1 college offers, Yamamoto decided to pursue MMA instead of wrestling, going against his father’s wishes.
Yamamoto would fuck people up in the MMA ring. He started his career on a 17-1 stretch, with victories over UFC Champion Caol Uno, ADCC Champion Royler Gracie, and ONE FC Champion Bibiano Fernandes. He also has the fastest knockout in MMA history (in a major promotion) at 4 seconds via flying knee. He was undersized the whole time too. Despite being a natural 135er, he competed mostly against 155ers his entire career because that was the lightest available weight class at the time.
Then he messed up. Yamamoto gave into pressure from his father to pursue a an Olympic medal in free-style wrestling. So he announced that he would go on a hiatus from MMA to try and qualify for the 2008 Olympics.
That proved to be the beginning of the end for Yamamoto’s combat sports career. First he injured his arm during the Olympic qualifiers which meant he would not even compete at the Olympics let alone medal. He also had to get ACL reconstruction surgery as a result of the wear and tear from training.
By the time he came back to MMA he was a shell of his former self and only won 1 out of his last 7 fights. No MMA championships, no wrestling championships.
When he finally made his MMA comeback, the UFC signed him in hopes of using him to find success in the Japanese market. The UFC gave Yamamoto every opportunity to be successful, offering him an unpresented 5 fights despite not winning any of them. That’s unheard of in an organization that typically cuts fighters after 2 losses. That’s how much the UFC wanted Yamamoto to succeed, knowing how popular he was in Japan (a market the UFC has always struggled to penetrate).
But the legend of Kid Yamamoto isn’t necessarily about what he did in the ring or the wrestling mat. He changed the lives of numerous Japanese fighters, took Japanese MMA to a whole new level, and even brought more popularity to wrestling in Japan.
There is a famous video of his star pupil Kyoji Horiguchi informing Yamamoto about getting an offer to train at one of the best MMA gyms in the world in ATT(American Top Team), located in Florida (linked above in Japanese). If you’re unfamiliar with martial arts culture, changing gyms is a huge no-no. It’s especially frowned upon when your original trainer is the person who brought you up, trained you, and helped you become a star the way Yamamoto did for Horiguchi.
Instead of being upset with Horiguchi, Kid Yamamoto immediately offered to go with Horiguchi to train at ATT, giving up his position as head coach, supporting his pupil and friend as a training partner, and leaving behind his family in Japan.
All the while Yamamoto used his platform to hype and promote Horiguchi any chance he got.
There are numerous stories like this about Kid’s selflessness and unwavering support for his teammates.
He also started Krazy Bee, which became one of the most successful MMA gyms in Japan. If you’ve ever trained MMA in Japan, the gyms are garbage compared to what professional fighters are used to in the U.S. It’s usually a basement or some little room in an office building, everyone bumping into each other, and dangerously slippery mats from the humidity built up from bad ventilation. Far from the ideal training scenario.
Krazy Bee changed the game. With state of the art equipment and huge mat space, it drew some of the best fighters from all over Japan to train in an amazing facility and environment.
In hindsight, the biggest mess up by MMA promotions was not giving Yamamoto an offer he couldn’t refuse when he announced that he was going to pursue a wrestling. It’s possible that Yamamoto would have pursued wrestling no matter what the MMA offers were, but I doubt it. Yamamoto cared tremendously about his teammates, and if he could have gotten enough money to set his teammates up for success, he may have taken a lucrative MMA deal.
In that alternative universe, Yamamoto had the potential to be the first Japanese UFC champion, breaking the UFC’s continued failure in the country.
Even in his diminished state towards the end of his career, Japanese organizations could have used his services to build up their brand by pitting him against weak opponents to knock out. Perhaps the UFC took this possibility of a competing organization signing Yamamoto into consideration when they continued to offer him fights despite multiple losses in a row.
Even after his passing, Norifumi “Kid” Yamamoto lives on through his Krazy Bee Team. They’re not as successful after his death in 2018, but here’s to hoping they’ll rebound and continue his legacy of winning, and improving the world of MMA.