It’s been over a year since Norifumi “Kid” Yamamoto had his last mixed martial arts (MMA) fight, but the Japanese fight icon has been keeping busy.
“Every day, after practice, I’m painting and drawing,” said the 1.63m-tall, but powerfully-built 36-year-old.
When he met Yahoo! Singapore in Tokyo, Japan last month, Yamamoto, famous for being reserved, eagerly spoke of an exhibition he had the week before. He also went on to proclaim: “In my house, I don’t have no fighting stuff. No DVDs, no magazines, nothing. Only paintings.”
“I’m an artist. Martial arts, art… both,” he laughed. But ask him which is the real “Kid”, and the answer is obvious.
“Normal life, right now… I cannot feel,” confessed the soft-spoken Yamamoto. “If I have a fight coming, my mind’s like, got to get ready, hustle-hustle… I like it. I miss the feeling.”
He confirmed to Yahoo! Singapore that he would attempt to fight in the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) again between July and August, amidst rumours that he had been cut from the lucrative U.S.-based circuit after three straight losses.
One would expect nothing less from a man who quietly declared: “Fighting is life, you know.”
Rise of a legend
Yamamoto was born into a life of fight sport. His father, Ikuei, was an Olympic wrestler in 1972, and his sisters Miyu and Seiko are former world wrestling champions. By the end of high school in Arizona, U.S., Yamamoto himself had clinched the state wrestling championships three times.
Upon his return to Japan, the law degree-holder was on course for a career in wrestling – until his sisters passed him a video showcasing local MMA promotion Shooto.
“Some guy came out, he was my weight,” said Yamamoto, describing how he was instantly attracted. “I was like, I’m better, I can beat him.”
So the then-24-year-old made the switch, winning an amateur tournament just a year later to earn his Shooto debut in 2001. Yamamoto’s induction into MMA was later than most, but over the next two years he quickly established himself as one of the most thrilling fighters to watch.
His aggressiveness captured national interest in Japan when, in 2002, he continued to pound on his opponent’s face even after the bell was sounded. Yamamoto had to be pulled off by a few men, and went on to flex his biceps in celebration.
But only after moving to the Hero’s promotion in 2004 did his impressive athleticism get thrust into the global spotlight. A natural bantamweight, fighting under 61kg, Yamamoto elected to compete at middleweight against opponents nearly 10kg heavier, and promptly knocked out most of them en route to the division title in 2005.
A year later, he wrote himself into record books when his flying knee dropped Kazuyuki Miyata after just two seconds into a fight – a tie for the fastest knockout in present-day MMA.
Then, coming off the back of a rampaging 14 straight wins and a growing reputation as one of the best fighters around, Yamamoto upped and quit MMA to focus on qualifying for the Olympic wrestling event at Beijing 2008.
Unfortunately, in the semi-finals of a national competition in 2007, Yamamoto dislocated his elbow, forcing him to abandon what popular opinion saw as a dream of emulating his father.
It is not a sentiment that Yamamoto doesn't readily agrees with. “I always do what I want,” he said, furrowing his brow. “I felt like I wanted to wrestle. So I quit, and wrestled. I like free.”
Yamamoto soon returned to MMA, and was snapped up by new organisation Dream in early 2008. Months later, however, he tore his knee ligament – a devastating injury that many claim he has yet to fully recover from. His fight record since of five defeats and one win adds weight to that belief.
Still, in 2011, Yamamoto finally signed with the world’s largest MMA promotion, UFC, after fans spent years rooting for his inclusion. He’s lost all his UFC bouts so far – including the latest one in February last year, in front of a home crowd at the Saitama Super Arena.
Even then, his cult-like status in Japan remains cemented – and it's something he’s uncomfortable with.
“Me? I’m no legend. I never feel legend,” chuckled Yamamoto. “If I feel legend, I’m finished, you know. I always think I’m bottom.”
Perhaps so, but when someone of his name and repute makes the news for jumping onto train tracks to rescue an injured man, and passes his time teaching wrestling to children and senior citizens at his father’s Yamamoto Sports Academy, it’s not all that far-fetched to see Yamamoto as something of a national hero already.
Yet this warrior is not quite ready to sit back and enjoy his day in the sun.
Just the slightest hint at an end to his martial arts career, and Yamamoto showed a glimpse of his old swagger, curtly dismissing the notion. “I’ve never thought about it.”
This “Kid” still wants to play.