You can read the rules for induction into the Michael Bisping Hall of Almost Fame here.
Norifumi “Kid” Yamamoto
Stats & Numbers:
Height: 5′ 4″
DOB: March 15, 1977
Career Record: 18 – 6, 2 NC (13 KO/TKO, 2 Sub, 3 Decision)
VS Champions/Contenders: 2 – 2
K-1 HERO’s 2005 Middleweight Grand Prix Tournament winner
Fastest recorded MMA knockout (0:04)
MMA Fighting 2005 Featherweight of the Year
Why is he in the Hall?
Compared to the accolades and statistics of the other fighters enshrined here, Kid Yamamoto’s accomplishments look rather paltry. However there was a prolonged stretch during the height of his career where Yamamoto was considered the best featherweight and bantamweight in the world and was a fixture in the pound-for-pound discussion. Mercurial and confident, Kid spent much of his career fighting and thriving well above his natural weight class of 135 lbs. Kid lost only 1 of his first 19 fights, a stoppage due to a cut 30 seconds into the bout. If you go 7 years without legitimately being beaten while competing against men much larger than yourself and are widely considered to be the #1 fighter in the world in your natural weight class, you’re a first ballot MBHoAF’er.
Kid has an amazing combat pedigree stemming predominantly from wrestling. His father, Ikuei Yamamoto, represented Japan at the 1972 Olympics and his sisters Miyu and Seiko are both accomplished freestyle wrestlers winning multiple world championships as well as a slew of other senior medals. As a flyweight, his older sister Miyu won gold medals at the world championships in 1991 and 1995 as well as a silver medal in 1998 losing to Tricia Saunders, the first American woman to be inducted into the FILA Hall of Fame. Miyu also took home gold as a bantamweight in 1994.
Kid’s younger sister Seiko is even more accomplished, winning 4 world championships across 3 weight divisions in 5 years. She won gold as a bantamweight in 1999, back to back golds as a lightweight in 2000 and 2001, and as a welterweight in 2003. Then Seiko came out of retirement and took 3rd place at the ADCC in 2013 despite having little competitive submission grappling experience.
Kid himself was also a standout wrestler. Educated in the United States, Yamamoto won three state championships (with a third place finish as a freshman) in Arizona and trained with Olympic silver medalist Townsend Saunders and the aforementioned Tricia Saunders. Kid came close to making the Japanese Olympic team in 2000, placing second in the All-Japan Emperor’s Cup National Championship in 1999 at 58 kg (128 lbs.).
Kid may well have had a more prestigious wrestling career but for bad luck and personal issues. Kid’s initial foray into MMA began as a result of some trouble with the Yakuza (Kid accidentally shot a gang member in the face with a BB gun) which resulted in Kid being forced out of Yamanashi Gakuin University and suspended from wrestling competition. During this time Kid’s brother-in-law Enson Inoue took him in and introduced him to fighting which supplanted wrestling even after Kid’s suspension was over.
Then in 2007 kid suspended his MMA career to once again pursue a spot at the Olympics. Despite having not competed in wrestling for seven years, Yamamoto made it to the semifinals of the All-Japan Emperor’s Cup National Championship. There a turn of bad luck derailed his Olympic dreams when 2004 Olympic bronze medalist Kenji Inoue dislocated Kid’s elbow during the first move of the match (Inoue would lose in the finals to Kenichi Yumoto who would then take bronze in the 2008 Olympics). Had the elbow injury not occurred it is reasonable to believe that Kid would have gone on to make the Olympic team and even had a decent shot at earning an Olympic medal.
All of this is to say that Yamamoto comes from a family of hyper-athletic, insanely competitive individuals and that Kid himself was one of the most ridiculously athletic individuals to ever compete in MMA.
What was his game like?
If I could only use one word to describe Kid’s game it would be physicality. Every opponent he faced was just wildly inferior to him on the athletic scale and he didn’t just fight jobbers. His fourth fight ever was against future MBHoAF inductee and perennial lightweight standout Josh Thomson who is very athletic in his own right and had an enormous size advantage over Yamamoto. But that didn’t matter because Kid was on a different plane of existence physically and was oeverpowered Thomson (if you can find video of it he dumps Thomson over his shoulder from a lift as if he were a sack of potatoes) en route to a surefire victory before being kicked in the groin, stopping the bout and resulting in a No Contest. Kid also ragdolled respected veteran Jeff Curran in his seventh professional fight though there the size difference was negligible.
As discussed, Kid’s wrestling was world class. He was one of the absolute best Japanese wrestlers, narrowly missing making the Olympic team twice. In MMA his wrestling was far too advanced for most of his opponents when he chose to use it. For instance, against Thomson he put on a freakin’ clinic. Early in the first round he hits a reactive power double and drives Thomson clear across the cage finishing with his head in Thomson’s chest. Later in the round he puts together a truly sublime show of chain wrestling going from a snatch single, into a double leg, back to a single and a lift attempt, then to knee tap, then he tries to turn the outside corner back on a double leg and Thomson just barely stifles him but Kid turns Thomson back the other way with a head drive finish on a single, finally ground Thomson. That type of stuff rarely happens in modern MMA much less in 2001.
While Kid clearly had a diverse array of wrestling techniques in his arsenal he was predominantly a reactive wrestler. When opponents would clinch with him he used an array of throws to take them down and if an opponent got too aggressive coming forward his reactive shot was superb, finishing takedowns with authority.
One would think that Kid’s pedigree would mean he was a stalwart defensive wrestler but his back hit the canvas far more often than would be expected. Kid’s aggressive style standing and his tendency to leap in left him open to getting taken down even by on paper inferior wrestlers, especially later in his career as shown by Demetrious Johnson hustling him mercilessly to the tune of 10 takedowns in 15 attempts. This is not to say that he was a bad defensive wrestler. István Majoros, who won a gold medal in the 2004 Olympics in Greco-Roman wrestling, got deep in on multiple single leg attempts against Yamamoto and got absolutely nowhere and a majority of people who tried to take him down failed in the attempts.
In the clinch was where Kid’s physicality was most pronounced. He used powerful knees and would often force people to the ground with amplitude throws, using more power than technique. On more than one occasion he just manhandled opponents to the ground from a double collar tie position.
On the ground, Yamamoto was a ferocious ground and pounder. He had enormous power but almost exclusively struck with his right hand. He had excellent posture and enjoyed stacking opponents and then beating them senseless with a barrage of piston like rights. He would sometimes find himself in dangerous positions in the guard because he rarely cared to follow his opponent’s hips preferring to punch them instead of secure his position. He was never punished for this by any serious submission attempts but it did result in his inability to keep some fighters down for protracted periods of time despite his wrestling bona fides.
*Here’s Kid beating the brakes off of Hideki Kadowaki in his third pro fight.
He was not much of a submission threat anywhere and on his back he offered basically no offense. He was however adept at using butterfly hooks to elevate and get back to his feet. Against Jeff Curran he did this to great effect and was immediately in on a double leg as he got off his back.
Despite being a world class wrestler, Kid made his name in the striking department. Early in his Shooto career, Kid began making a name for himself by knocking out guys with power rarely seen in fighters his size. In his second ever fight he knocked out Masashi Kameda with one punch and in his eighth fight he slept Caleb Mitchell with a single shot as well. When K-1 HERO’s picked him up he added his reputation as an exciting power puncher by doing this:
*Kid murdering Jadamba Narantungalag
And then he cemented his reputation forever when he accepted a kickboxing match with Japanese great Masato, dropping the 2003 K-1 Max champion with a straight left hand:
Kid lost the bout but his reputation was secured.
The left hand he dropped Masato with is one of very few strikes Kid ever throws.It’s pretty much just the leaping lead right hook and the straight left. when he is at distance. On the feet his game was almost entirely based around his athleticism and the fact that he hit like an angry rhinocerous. Fighting most of his career above his natural weight class meant Kid was often at a reach disadvantage so he compensated for this by leaping in with lead right hooks and following that up with straight lefts. The constant bouncing you notice when he is standing at range disguised his entries on punches and let him explode forward quickly. The explosiveness of the movement meant that if he landed the punch, more often than not his opponent was on skates or, like Royler Gracie, lifeless.
However, as his speed faded in later years this predictability and over-reliance made him much easier to counter both with strikes and with takedowns. Defensively, he was atrocious. He relied almost entirely on his athleticism, didn’t use a ton of head movement, and the fact that he leapt into his strikes meant that if you countered him it hit hard. He had a good chin but as he got older it became imminently more crack-able and his lack of defensive craft meant Kid did not age well.
Are you sure you didn’t leave anything out you long-winded duffer?
Kid had that mean in him that makes great prospects stand out as future champions. Against Tetsuo Katsuta, Kid beat him unconscious through the ring ropes and then kept hitting him long after he was done. Against Curran he also punched the hell out of him through the ropes and against Tony Valente he had to get pulled off the rear-naked choke despite Valente beating the canvas like it owed him money. Even in his MMA debut against Masato Shiozawa he was jawing at Shiozawa the entire fight, keeping his hands low and oozing swagger. Later in his career that meanness seems to have left him, most notably being extremely cordial with Demetrious Johnson during their fight.
Also it’s important to note that injuries played a major role in his decline. After he dislocated elbow he also tore his ACL and the combination of the two injuries plus age began to take their toll on Kid. For a fighter almost entirely dependent on his athleticism, that spelled the death knell for his time as an elite fighter. By the time he was matched up with a raw Joe Warren, Kid could no longer match the physicality of another world class wrestler still in his prime and was soundly defeated.
Why didn’t he ever get a title shot?
Because he was a wild enigmatic guy who prioritized other things. Kid spend his early career in Shooto but then left before competing for a title. Had he stayed he certainly would have competed for a title and as we’ll discuss he likely would have won multiple. After Shooto he spent the bulk of his career fighting as a lightweight despite wrestling at 128 lbs.! At basically any point from 2005 to 2007 most MMA fans believed Yamamoto to be the best bantamweight/featherweight in the world, if only he would ever prove it. Instead he decided to try and make the Olympics and fight in kickboxing bouts and do other not championship things.
How would he have matched up with the champion?
Kid would have throttled either of the Shooto champions during his prime. Akitoshi Hokazono was the bantamweight champion and would have gotten murdered. The featherweight championship was held by Takeshi Inoue and then Akitoshi Tamura, neither of whom would have given Yamamoto any real problems. Tamura would go on to lose his title to Hideki Kadowaki in 2008, the same guy Kid is seen burying with right hands above.
Frankly the more interesting Shooto match-ups would have been at lightweight where Kid could have fought Tatsuya Kawajiri. Kawajiri would likely have been favored to win but when Kid wanted to stay standing he usually did and his power might have given Kawajiri some problems.
What was his best performance? What highlight reel fight of his should I watch?
There are many highlights above and basically every fight Kid wins is something you should watch. But as far as “best” goes, there can be only one. The fastest KO in MMA history:
Fun fact: This poor guy is Kazuyuki Miyata, another Japanese wrestler who happened to represent Japan at the 2000 Olympic Games the weight class above where Kid missed. So that bit of all-world violence brought his record to 2-0 against former Olympians.
Who do you wish he had fought but never did (aside from the champion)?
The only answer here is Urijah Faber. This was the long awaited bout that never happened between the uncrowned pound-for-pound king and the most notable lower weight fighter in the sport. In 2006-2007 when Faber was just getting rolling as the WEC champion and didn’t have a developed striking game, Kid probably crushes him. But later on the advantage shifts to Faber as he gets better and Kid starts declining. Either way, if Kid beats Chris Beal and Faber loses to Dominick Cruz, don’t be surprised if the UFC makes that fight happen to try and catch some long gone magic.
Any final thoughts?
It’s not hyperbolic to say that Kid Yamamoto may well be the best pure athlete to ever enter MMA. Watching him fight was truly breathtaking, especially considering the fact that he was usually giving up a substantial size advantage and he was still bodying opponents. He was simultaneously more limited and more incredibly impressive than any other fighter in MMA. He never developed a ton of skill – and is almost indistinguishable from the fighter he debuted as – but he could blow somebody’s doors off in 4 seconds. Ultimately, Kid’s entry into MMA is somewhat reflective of his career in it: outside issues, his own carelessness, and a lack of focus forced him away from wrestling and his MMA career was the same. Kid absolutely should have been a multiple weight kingpin but his other preoccupations got in the way. That lack of focus is the main reason why his siblings are both multiple time world champions and Kid never fought for a title.
But really though Kid never fought for a major title it doesn’t really matter. There is a mythos that surrounds him and is perhaps even bolstered by his enigmatic decisions. MMA fans are willing to look past his lack of hardware to see the merit of his career. Like BJ Penn, Kid’s career will be defined less by what he did than by what he could have done, the greatness everyone saw in him. Even though he never maximized his near limitless potential, for years was the best featherweight and the best bantamweight in the world and that is more than enough. We tip our cap to you Mr. Yamamoto. Welcome to the Hall.
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