With the suddenness of a meteor strike, a death has sent the MMA world reeling; Norifumi “Kid” Yamamoto has passed. Mere weeks ago, Yamamoto announced his cancer diagnosis and his intention to fight it. But cancer never fights fair, and it seems even the little giant-slayer himself couldn’t topple the monster. Around the globe, fighters mourn the passing of a man whose style and power captivated fans and opponents alike.
Normally, I’d spend a bit of time shaming casual fans for not knowing him. How dare you know Conor McGregor and Colby Covington but not Kazushi Sakuraba or Shinya Aoki? But I don’t want that. Instead, sit down next to us. Let the old men, tears spilling into the drinks in hand, regale you with tales of a legend.
Let us tell you about the Kid.
Since MMA went mainstream not too long ago, there aren’t many MMA “families”. To be an MMA family (until recently) meant subjecting your flesh and blood to the hurting business for little reward. And considering that the sport’s explosion in popularity is less than two decades old, there’s literally not enough time to produce multiple generations of fighters. The Gracie family is the only one that comes to mind, and they basically invented a form of grappling. While Norifumi was the only one to become an MMA superstar, the Yamamoto clan were all freak wrestlers. His father, Ikuei, was an Olympian and the least accomplished out of his family.
Eldest child Miyuu has four gold medals and a silver under her belt with three of those golds at the world championships. She was also an active MMA fighter as recently as July when she was 43-years-old. She boldly released a nude photo album called Queen a year earlier and it’s clear that she is still in the type of athletic shape that would make aging male MMA fighter weep with envy.
Kid’s younger sister, Seiko, was even more impressive. She has four gold medals at the world championships, the most recent of which was in 2002. I mention the date because, two years after giving birth to a son, Seiko would win a medal at the Poland Open in 2009. She then would “settle” into a relationship with LA Dodgers pitcher Yu Darvish, and I honestly couldn’t tell you who has more juice in that power couple.
Dealings with the Yakuza
In a now-deleted video, Enson Inoue recounted how Kid Yamamoto didn’t follow his family’s path.
When in school, Kid ran afoul of the Yakuza… by shooting one in the face with a BB gun. As you’d expect, the Yakuza took exception to this and used his license plate to track him to his house. He allegedly escaped them by jumping off a balcony and running. During this time, Enson was married to Miyuu and wanted to help. As a famous MMA fighter, he had natural Yakuza connections and used them to prevent physical harm towards Kid. But the Yakuza’s reach is far and wide and they couldn’t let him off with no punishment. They forced Kid’s school to expel him and then banned him from Japanese wrestling. Inoue took Kid under his wing and trained him in MMA, hoping to keep him busy and out of trouble until the ban lifted and he could get his life on track.
Well, Kid would win the All Japan Amateur Shooto Tournament and never looked back.
At 5’4″, Norifumi could have cut to flyweight in today’s MMA. But if you think the lighter weight classes suffer from depth issues now, they were a barren wasteland back in the day. The depth of competition Kid had faced as a wrestler at his size evaporated when he went into professional MMA. If he wanted steady competition, he’d need to jump up to featherweight. If he wanted the best competition, he’d need to jump up to lightweight.
So he did.
He fought his first eight fights at featherweight, finishing with an impressive 6-1 and 1 NC record. The was a TKO due to a cut, giving it as much legitimacy as Fedor Emelianenko’s loss to Tsuyoshi Kohsaka. The “No Contest” was against perennial lightweight elite Josh Thomson, who was dominated by Kid’s wrestling until he decided to kick him in the groin. Then he moved up to lightweight and won the Hero 2005 Grand Prix. To do so he finished Royler Gracie, Caol Uno, and Genki Sudo via strikes, with the first two fights happening on the same day.
But it’s not the fact that Kid more or less started his career at 19-0 that earns his place on the pantheon; it’s how he got the wins. As the small, flighty fighter you’d expect him to employ cerebral tactics while taking advantage of his speed. But this is a tattooed Japanese wild man who shot a Yakuza in the face and lived to tell about it.
Kid Yamamoto would bounce on the balls of his feet just outside of his larger opponent’s range. When his opponent initiated or Kid just got bored, he’d leap in with murderous hooks that snatched the soul of anyone who ate them. He had a wicked intercepting knee to punish grapplers who tried to close distance. And despite being lighter and shorter than most of his opponents he could still wrestle with the best of them. If not for a major knee injury that robbed him of his speed, Yamamoto may have kept his excellence long enough to make a mark on the UFC.
Norifumi Yamamoto is possibly the hardest pound-for-pound hitter in MMA history. Remember, this is a possible flyweight who could sleep career lightweights with little trouble. Kid was the little guy that the other little guys in MMA could look up to. He wasn’t just scrapping with the giants; he was rendering them comatose. His gym, Krazy Bee, produced Kyoji Horiguchi who may be the best Japanese fighter on the planet and the #3 flyweight in the world. He never reached icon status like Gomi and Sakuraba, as his greatest success wasn’t at PRIDE FC. But Kid Yamamoto is held dearly in the heart of any MMA fan lucky enough to have seen his fights. The original little giant.
See you around Kid. Thanks for everything.