Welcome to a special edition of Missed Fists where Jed Meshew and Alexander K. Lee take a look back at some of the best highlights from the career of Norifumi “Kid” Yamamoto, who passed away earlier this week at the age of 41 due to stomach cancer.
Yamamoto is an ideal candidate for a “hidden gems” tribute, given that many fans in North America did not witness his prime, which included a stunning 17-1 stretch from 2001-2007 that established him as a minor deity in his home country of Japan and unquestionably made him one of the greatest fighters in the world at 155 pounds and under.
JM: It’s hard to put into words just how much Norifumi Yamamoto means to the history of the sport — though these fine pieces by Dave Meltzer and Mike Chiappetta can paint a good picture — but the simplest way to put it is that Kid is your favorite fighter’s favorite fighter; like Randy Couture or B.J. Penn. And like those two Hall of Famers, Kid’s MMA record is woefully unequipped to show why he was so important. That’s why I’m excited about this special edition of Missed Fists: we get to relive some seminal moments in my youth and maybe introduce some people to one of the dopest motherf**kers to ever swing them things.
Are you ready to go on this journey with me?
AL: I’ve got the rope around my waist secured, lower me into the Japanese bear pit.
As someone who was a relatively late bloomer in my MMA fandom, I wasn’t there to witness Yamamoto’s ascent as it was happening, so I can’t speak to the raw emotion surrounding his rise to prominence. I’m also a forward-thinking person, so you’ll rarely catch me looking back and lamenting how I missed out on the ‘glory days’ of MMA in the early to mid-2000s.
But these Yamamoto clips make me feel like I missed out on the glory days of MMA.
JM: To start the dive into Kid’s career, the first fight I would recommend for viewing is his regional MMA battle with future Strikeforce lightweight champion, Josh Thomson.
Josh Thomson - Hawaii Regional - Honolulu - Dec. 15, 2001
(a low quality, soundless clip of the match can be found here.)
JM: This was only Kid’s fourth MMA fight and it does a good job of showcasing how insane his wrestling was. He came from a family of world-class wrestlers and you can see that pedigree on display here. At one point in the first round he chains through about six different takedown attempts like he’s Khabib Nurmagomedov — except this was in 2001. This isn’t what made Kid a star but he was about a decade ahead of his time with regards to functional MMA wrestling.
AL: The first thing you’ll notice here is that Thomson is freaking huge compared to Yamamoto. Yet somehow, that does nothing to deter Kid from digging his heels in, grabbing a hold of Thomson, and using that his ridiculously high-level wrestling to bring Thomson down. This was just Thomson’s third pro bout, Yamamoto’s fourth, and Thomson had to be wondering if he’d gotten into the wrong profession at this point.
It’s a shame that his one ended in a no-contest after Thomson landed an accidental low kick, because it otherwise makes for a fine opening chapter when discussing Yamamoto’s pro run.
Tetsuo Katsuta - Shooto: Treasure Hunt 10 - Yokohama, Japan - Sept. 16, 2002
JM: While the Thomson fight is a good jumping off point because it encapsulates one of Kid’s most appealing aspects — fighting substantially larger men and thriving — two fights later he took on Tetsuo Katsuta and this fight perfectly illustrates the other half to his appeal: otherworldly swagger and violence.
Kid comes down the ramp while bumping along to Diddy’s Bad Boy For Life and then proves the song perfect for himself as he mauls Katsuta through the ropes and then continues to rifle punches into Katsuta’s head well after the referee tries to intercede.
AL: Just close your eyes and listen to that ground-and-pound. It sounds like he’s bouncing a mallet off of Katsuta’s dome. This was just a mugging and genuinely uncomfortable to watch.
JM: This is a dude who took up fighting because he shot a Yakuza member in the face with a BB gun. It’s fair to say he was slightly off kilter, and that kind of violent unpredictability and, let’s face it, coolness was massively appealing to MMA fans.
AL: And they hugged it out after, so that shows he was also a sensitive thug.
JM: The Katsuta fight began the signature run of Kid’s career. For the next five years, Kid would go unbeaten in MMA and amass one of the most impressive highlight reels of any fighter under 170 pounds.
Masato - K-1 PREMIUM 2004 Dynamite!! - Osaka, Japan - Dec. 31, 2004
JM: As impressive as those wins were for Kid, arguably his most impressive feat came two years later when Kid got plugged into a kickboxing bout against Masato.
Masato had won a K-1 MAX World Championship the year before and was coming off a closely contested bout with fightsport legend Buakaw. It’s hard to overstate how wild of an idea it was to throw this wrestler with a few KOs to his name in against Masato, and even harder to explain how nuts it was that Kid did this:
AL: Would you say it’s like throwing an MMA fighter with a few KOs to his name into a boxing match with Floyd Mayweather?
JM: Yeah, but if that one good uppercut that Conor landed had actually dropped Floyd.
AL: Just look at the size of the crowd and listen to the reaction when that knockdown happens. It is absolute pandemonium. You’ll often hear Kid referred to as having “rockstar” levels of fame in Japan, a term that tends to be overused when providing a frame of reference for a foreign star’s relevance, but it perfectly suits this situation.
Outside of names like McGregor, Rousey, Lesnar, and a few others, there aren’t too many fighters that can garner a reaction like this. You can see Yamamoto was one of them.
JM: The decision did not go his way on that day, but coming off the Masato knockdown, the internet community could not have been more in on Kid and his next few fights would not disappoint. Despite wrestling nationally at 132 pounds, Kid entered K-1 Hero’s Lightweight Grand Prix in 2005 where he went through an impressive group of fighters on his way to winning the whole damn thing.
Royler Gracie, Caol Uno - Hero’s 3 - Tokyo - Sept. 7, 2005
Genki Sudo - Hero’s 4 - Osaka, Japan - Dec. 31, 2005
JM: In his opening round fight, Kid KO’d Royler Gracie, and while Royler may be best remembered as the guy Eddie Bravo submitted to get famous, he was also the most accomplished Gracie from a grappling standpoint at that time, having won the Mundials four times and Abu Dhabi three times.
Kid kills him.
AL: This run happened in Yamamoto’s age 28 year and look at him: he’s calm, mature, and as physically impressive as ever. Up to this point, he has a highlight reel and a 10-1 record, but his resume is somewhat lacking in relevant names. When you see the name Gracie, followed by Uno and Sudo, you know things were getting serious.
That left hook he lands on Gracie is an absolute thing of beauty. Is it fair to say that this is the point where Kid’s legend began to spread outside of Japan, considering that the three men he faced in this tournament had PRIDE and/or UFC credentials?
JM: It’s probably fair to say that’s more because it was 2005, which is when The Ultimate Fighter began, starting the MMA boom. Before that the hardcore fans knew who Kid was and loved him because of his penchant for ultraviolence but the lightweight grand prix was definitely a massive feather in his cap.
In the semifinals, he banged up Caol Uno who was just two years removed from having fought for the UFC lightweight title. The fight itself isn’t anything too impressive other than to watch Kid, a natural bantamweight, more than hold his own against one of the best in the world at 155.
AL: And by “hold his own”, you mean he beat Uno by second-round doctor stoppage. Cut stoppages aren’t the sexiest finish, but I think it speaks to the esteem Kid was held in that a win over a UFC title challenger could be considered ho-hum.
JM: Another time we will have to discuss the ball of delight that was Genki Sudo but for now, those who don’t know much about MMA’s foremost philosopher warrior, just watch his entrance for the final here and understand that Genki Sudo is vastly more cool than you will ever be.
AL: Let’s hope we don’t have to write a somber Sudo tribute for a long time. Without going too far off in a tangent: that intro is pure joy and a reminder that the majority of UFC entrances are awful.
Back to the action, look at at that movement, look at that speed, and yes, that swagger from Yamamoto. Then that trademark explosion to add Sudo to his list of victims. He’s absolutely on top of the world here and for many fighters, this would have been the pinnacle of their careers.
Kazuyuki Miyata - K-1 Hero’s 5 - Tokyo - May 3, 2006
JM: That was Kid at his apex and in his very next fight Kid took on Japanese Olympic wrestler Kazuyuki Miyata. This was a guy who wrestled in the Olympics at 152 pounds and Kid did this to him.
Officially, the fight lasts 4 seconds and, at the time, it was the fastest KO in major MMA history.
AL: And there it is. That’s the clip that even the most fans know him for, the kind of highlight that makes a casual into a hardcore. You see that and you understand why it was Japan that was the hotbed for much of the 2000s (though this was during the twilight of that run) and why it’s so important to remember fighters like Yamamoto, who even though he was a blip on the UFC radar, remains a massive figure in the overall landscape of the sport.
JM: If you were a fight fan in the early 2000s, the kind of hardcore who lived in forum threads on the UG, Norifumi Yamamoto meant something to you.
I can say that personally, Kid along with B.J. and Fedor, were largely responsible for my young MMA fandom and that I wouldn’t be where I am today were it not for him. His passing was a huge blow to the community but his spirit lives on in the highlights he left behind. Chiappetta put it best: Kid Forever.