By Michael Schiavello
There's no denying the phenomenal popularity of Norifumi "Kid" Yamamoto in Japan. But even his tremendous supporter base of hard-core and mainstream fans would take a serious hit should Kid lose his third fight in a row on New Year's Eve. Against Sengoku champion Masanori Kanehara, such a result cannot be ruled out.
There was a time when Kid Yamamoto's stock was as high, if not higher, than that of K-1 MAX uber-star Masato. When Kid's presence on a fight card would be a guarantee to put at least 15,000 bums on seats, if not more, and an instant ratings hit on television. With back-to-back losses in 2009 against opponents hand-picked for him to beat, Kid's stock plummeted. One feels that his return to Dynamite on New Year's Eve against Sengoku Featherweight Champion Masenori Kanehara is a last chance for Kid to redeem himself, win back the fans and recreate the aura of invincibility he once carried.
Though Kid's loss to Joe Warren at DREAM 9 can be debated -- some thought Kid had done enough to deserve the win -- the argument for the cause is irrelevant. Fact is that Kid failed to defeat an MMA rookie who was competing in only his second MMA fight (albeit an experienced wrestler, but still an MMA rookie). What was even worse, however, was the knockout Kid received under K-1 MAX rules at the Budokan from another rookie in the form of Korea's Jae Hee Cheon. Plucked from obscurity (or so K-1 thought -- any thorough research would have uncovered Cheon's extensive Muay Thai background), Cheon was to be a lamb to the slaughter at Kid's altar and a means to get Kid's name back in the winner's circle and his fans a reason to keep watching. It backfired in K-1's face as Kid was thoroughly flogged and then knocked out by a rampaging Cheon.
With these two losses, Kid's demi-God status among Japanese fight fans was lost and the aura of the "all powerful Kid Yamamoto" held in such high esteem by Western fans who had long fantasized about a Kid Yamamoto vs Urijah Faber showdown was gone. The immortal Kid Yamamoto had crashed to Earth with a resounding thud.
Excuses can be made for Kid's two losses, none more so than a too-quick return from a leg injury that has plagued him for some time. It was this leg injury that forced him out of Dynamite last New Year's Eve, but Kid assures us that his leg is okay in the lead up to this New Year's Eve's massive event.
"My body has recovered and I am in a good place," Kid said recently. "The only thing left to do is fight. I can't wait."
Considered one of the hardest strikers in MMA on a power-to-weight ratio both standing and on the ground, Kid has amassed 12 of 17 wins via knockout and just two wins by submission, both in consecutive fights in 2004. He has promised nothing short of a knockout against Kanehara come New Year's Eve.
"I think our fighting styles will make for a good fight. I see a KO. Of course I will be the one to win by KO, not a decision win but a KO win," says Kid.
Kid's return to Dynamite sees him return to the stage he helped make the biggest fight event on the planet. He was one of the major draws at each of the three Dynamite events he competed in, defeating the insanely popular Genki Sudo by first round TKO at Dynamite 2005 in a ratings bonanza. At Dynamite 2006 he spoiled the MMA aspirations of Hungarian Olympic medalist Istvan Majoros, and at Dynamite 2007 put a beating on former Abu Dhabi champion Rani Yahya.
Against Kanehara this year, Kid faces the Sengoku featherweight champion who won the title as a 17-1 underdog after being gifted a second chance when Hatsu Hioki withdrew from the final due to injury (after Hioki had beaten Kanehara earlier in the night by decision). Kanehara effectively beat Michihiro Omigawa in the final to win the Sengoku strap and now pits his skills against DREAM's most popular featherweight even though not the rival organisation's champion.
"I think it should be entertaining for the fans," says Kid when asked about the DREAM vs Sengoku matches set for New Years Eve. "If I were a fan, I'd be excited."
Kid's legions of fans are surely excited but beneath the anticipation of seeing Kid back on Dynamite is the unquenchable anxiety of what may happen should Kid lose a third fight in a row.