By Brad Wharton @MMABrad48
The MMA community was shocked to learn of the death of Norifumi ‘KID’ Yamamoto in the early hours of Tuesday, September 18th 2018. KID (capitalised in romanised Japanese to signify that his nickname took priority over his surname) was a true ‘ace’ of Japanese MMA; a title and responsibility bestowed on those who not only excelled in the sport, but were also entrusted to represent their home nation’s embodiment of it on the domestic and international stages.
As a youngster looking to carve out his reputation in competitive sports, Yamamoto had big shoes to fill. His father Ikuei had represented Japan as an Olympian in wrestling at the 1972 Munich games and from an early age it was clear that the future KID wanted to continue a family legacy that saw his sisters Seiko and Miyu both win world freestyle championships in the sport. In pursuit of wrestling greatness KID would enjoy an American education, capturing three state championships in the process during his spell at Marcos de Niza High School in Arizona.
While wrestling went some way to sating his lust for competition, there was a hole in Yamamoto’s soul that only fighting would fill. Relocating back to Japan, KID embarked on the formative years of his journey into mixed martial arts in the legendary SHOOTO fighting network. The youngster surged through his first eight bouts, the only blemishes coming by way of a loss via injury in a match he appeared to be dominating and a no contest against American mainstay Josh Thompson.
2004 would be KID’s breakout year. By the end of October he’d gone 3-0 in MMA fights under the K-1 banner and had shocked the nation by wining his first ever kickboxing contest with the promotion. That New Year’s Eve, a night once regarded as the crown jewel of the Japanese MMA calendar, KID was responsible for one of the highest ratings in the nation’s combat sports history when he faced off with K-1 MAX superstar Masato as part of the K-1 PREMIUM DYNAMITE extravaganza.
Unfortunately, as is often the case with so many young men thrust into the limelight with the burden of fame, money and the weight of expectation, KID’s journey would not be without complications. In 2008, at what was arguably the peak of his fighting fame, Shukan Gendai (the same magazine that had published the legendary stories that brought about the downfall of PRIDE FC) went after Yamamoto in a big way.
The young ace was revealed to have attended “marijuana parties” with other famous faces in Tokyo’s Harajuku district; a much bigger deal in the traditionally conservative Japan than elsewhere in the western world. In addition, witnesses reported that the same parties were attended by “tattooed individuals”; polite code for members of the Yakuza – Japan’s organised crime syndicates. Yamamoto’s blue-chip sponsors rushed to distance themselves from the disgraced star and with them went his hopes of positive mainstream fame in his home nation. Shame is a huge part of Japanese culture and while Yamamoto would eventually return to action after spending 2009 in exile, he’d drop two MMA bouts on the judges scorecards and suffer a shocking KO loss in K-1’s 2009 MAX Final 8.
After fighting as high as lightweight in a campaign that spanned eras, KID would return to his natural home of 135lbs in 2010 and pick up his final win in a Japanese promotion before signing with the UFC. He would drop three fights over the next 12 months in the American league (including a submission loss in Japan) before seemingly slipping quietly into retirement, only to make a shock return in 2015 for a bout against Roman Salazar that would end in a disappointing ‘no contest’.
Just like that, one of MMA’s most stunning and storied careers was over as suddenly and unexpectedly as it had begun.
It was a muted end to a thoroughly spectacular journey.
Whether through ignorance or simply a lack of access, Japanese MMA – and by extension Japanese mixed martial artists – never truly got the plaudits they deserved on the global stage during their boom years. KID might just have been the biggest victim of that entire travesty; to many he will only be known as the guy Joe Rogan showered with hyperbolic praise, only for him to underperform in the Octagon during his twilight of his career.
In reality though, KID was much more than the sum of his parts. He was one of the first to transcend the gap in Japanese MMA between great fighters who were athletic and great athletes who could fight. He was the perfect blend of style, power, technique, charisma, athleticism and attitude. In the bigger picture he was a bantamweight who was undisputedly the best sub 155lb fighter of a generation and – for a number of years prior to those divisions getting the recognition they deserved – one of the best pound-for-pound fighters of all time.
Norifumi Yamamoto announced that he was battling cancer on August 26, 2018. He died on September 18th of that year. He is survived by his two sons and a daughter.
He will not be forgotten.