It’s New Year’s Eve 2004 and there are almost 50,000 people packing the Osaka Dome. Although there is no scientific way of proving this, most seemed to be teenage girls. If that’s an overstatement, at least the most vocal fans in the sea of people were certainly young ladies, their shrill voices piercing the air and eardrums as they cheered their favorites. The titular main event was Akebono versus Royce Gracie. But these young women, and the ones watching at home to a near record setting audience of 32 million viewers, were here for two other men.
One, Masato, was the center piece of K-1’s MAX division, an offshoot of the legendary kickboxing promotion devoted to smaller fighters. Somehow, unlike Pride’s attempt to do the same in MMA, K-1 MAX ended up catching on. It didn’t make waves because of the faster kickboxing action, although that certainly helped, but because of its star’s male model looks. Norifumi “Kid” Yamamoto was his MMA counterpart, an aggressive and dangerous young fighter whose bad boy image made teen girls swoon.
For Yamamoto, the event was a coming out party, celebrating his new status as one of the sport’s biggest drawing cards. He had toiled in near obscurity in SHOOTO for years, waiting for one of the country’s larger promotions to give smaller fighters a chance. Yamamoto, who walked around at right around 140 pounds, often took fights at lightweight just to get an opportunity to show what he could do. He had finally gotten his chance with K-1 in 2004, and he made the most of the chance, winning three MMA fights by knockout or submission and winning his kickboxing debut against fellow MMA fighter Takehiro Murahama in the first round.
Taking on Masato was most certainly taking things to the next level. Under MMA rules it would have been a different story. A former Arizona state wrestling champion in high school, Yamamoto had wrestling running through his veins. His father was a 1972 Olympian and two sisters, both smoking hot, were also world champions. But this was no wrestling match. Masato may have been a pretty boy, but he was a pretty boy who could fight. He had fought Buakaw Por. Pramuk nearly to a draw, losing an extra round decision and the K-1 World MAX Grand Prix that July and was at the height of his powers.
It’s Masato’s prowess that made what happened that night so shocking. Yamamoto knocked the kickboxer down in the first round and survived the full encounter. He had forced Masato to a decision win, despite playing the other man’s game. It was a star turn that helped Kid carry Japanese MMA on his back for several years.
He won Hero’s 155 pound Middleweight Grand Prix in 2005, beating stars like Royler Gracie, Caol Uno, and Genki Sudo in the finals. He won despite giving up 25 pounds to almost every opponent, a feat that led many to conclude he was the best pound for pound fighter in the sport. But no matter how great his accomplishments, he could never make his father proud.
More on Kid Yamamoto after the break including fight videos.
Ikuei Yamamoto didn’t consider MMA a sport and was crushed when Kid gave up his Olympic dreams to follow brother in law Enson Inoue’s path into the SHOOTO ring. Disowned by his father, he had committed himself to the MMA business and become the best in the industry. But after a reconciliation, in tribute to his father, Kid left the sport that was making him rich and famous to pursue Olympic glory.
He had come close to making the Olympic team in 2000, finishing second at the Emperor’s Cup in the 128 pound division. Competing at 132 pounds, Kid was competitive against Japan’s best, but disaster struck when former Olympic Bronze medalist Kenji Inoue dislocated Kid’s right elbow with an arm whip takedown early in a 2007 match.
His MMA career was never the same. The injury and a subsequent torn ACL slowed him down to the point that he was no longer operating in a different athletic sphere than his opponents. He lost twice in 2009 and his days at the top seemed long gone.
Now, almost ten years into his storied career, Kid Yamamoto is starting over. The man who once fought in front of tens of millions on television couldn’t even make the main card at UFC 126. Nor was he deemed worthy of the SPIKE TV prelims. Instead, his bout will be shown on Facebook. It’s a precipitous fall, a clear sign that Japanese MMA is beyond struggling and near death. Yamamoto and fellow star Yoshihiro Akiyama were willing to start fresh in a foreign land, despite mainstream celebrity in Japan. That says all that needs to be said about the state of Japanese MMA.
A month shy of his 34th birthday, real questions remain about Kid Yamamoto’s ability to compete with the world’s best. Despite dropping two weight classes from his prime fighting days, the Japanese star will still be undersized at bantamweight when he steps into the Octagon against a tough Demetrius Johnson. A win will do a lot, not just for Yamamoto, but for the prospects of a UFC card in Japan sometime this year. A lot is riding on this Facebook fight, but it’s still a tremendous fall for a fighter who once scaled unprecedented heights.
Kid Yamamoto vs Genki Sudo (via jshoup)
K-1 Premium DYNAMITE! 2004 – Masato 魔裟斗 vs. Norifumi ‘KID’ Yamamoto 山本 KID 徳郁 – Part 1 (via YouCantKillMrGOATSE)
K-1 Premium DYNAMITE! 2004 – Masato 魔裟斗 vs. Norifumi ‘KID’ Yamamoto 山本 KID 徳郁 – Part 2 (via YouCantKillMrGOATSE)
K-1 Premium DYNAMITE! 2004 – Masato 魔裟斗 vs. Norifumi ‘KID’ Yamamoto 山本 KID 徳郁 – Part 3 (via YouCantKillMrGOATSE)
HERO’S 2005 Norifumi “KID” Yamamoto vs Royler Gracie (via 5171726)
HERO’S 2006 Norifumi “KID” Yamamoto vs Kazuyuki Miyata (via 5171726)
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