“All the world’s a stage.” – William Shakespeare
In starting with the Shakespeare quote I want to convey that everything is performance. When a kid does his homework, he’s performing the role of a student. When fighters discuss the PPV on twitter, they’re performing as fans. Although many MMA fans have distanced MMA from the spectacle of professional wrestling, MMA, and all other sports for that matter, is a performance and fights are not just about two men (or women/other) entering a ring or a cage to beat the hell out of each other for sport. From Tito Ortiz’s heartfelt post-fight interviews after getting his first win in five years and his subsequent losses to Rashad Evans and Lil Nog to Jose Aldo’s electrifying celebration in the crowd of his home country Brazil, the stories and the emotional scenes that capture these stories mean so much more than the fights themselves.
At UFC 144, these stories were on full display. Takanori Gomi made his triumphant return home. Mark Hunt continued his miraculous UFC run with another devastating knockout for nostalgic fans worldwide. Tim Boetsch mounted a stunning comeback that made Joe Rogan squeal in ecstasy. Quinton Rampage Jackson made us all revel in the past with the Pride theme ushering him into cage and a vintage Slampage slam while Ryan Bader reigned us back into the present with his dominant performance. And Ben Henderson put the exclamation point on a magnificent show and his improbable career with his Lightweight Championship victory over Frankie Edgar.
All of these fights (and the fights I didn’t mention) were fantastic performances of real human dramas, but Norifumi “Kid” Yamamoto’s performance was particularly moving. After a rough1-4 five fight stretch including back-to-back UFC losses, Yamamoto needed a win and the UFC’s return to Japan was supposed to be his return to form. With thousands of Japanese fans cheering him on, Kid Yamamoto took center stage in his fight against Vaughan Lee, and for a brief moment, Yamamoto looked like the old Kid. Midway into the first round, Yamamoto delivered a thunderous right hook that sent Lee reeling against the fence. Smelling blood, he pounced and poured on the punches, but Lee defended his head (unfortunately, for Kid fans, he didn’t need to defend his body at all) and survived to stagger Yamamoto with a powerful knee that swung the momentum to his favor. Lee continued his assault with a brutal combo that put Yamamoto on the defensive. Yamamoto desperately took Lee down, but Lee quickly attacked with a triangle. Yamamoto managed to wriggle free, but Lee did not relent and transitioned into an armbar.
The referee stopped the fight and the camera focused on Lee as he walked away and celebrated his well-deserved victory. “Thump. Thump. Thump.” In the background, Yamamoto pounded the mat furiously as he slumped on his knees in defeat.
As glorious as Gomi’s and Boetsch’s come from behind wins and Henderson’s five round championship victories were, Yamamoto’s defeat was as tragic as those moments were wonderful. The scene captured a range of feelings and the real and stirring art in mixed martial arts: Lee at his highest high with Yamamoto at his lowest low behind him. The fallen great releasing his frustration on the mat. The passion and desire to get the elusive win he needed to save his career and the poignant reality of coming so close only to have it ripped away. The raw emotion. While the young, dynamic Kid would have dominated a fighter like Vaughan Lee, in defeat, Kid Yamamoto moved me with his candid heartbreak in a way that a flashy knockout never could and truly delivered his most beautiful performance.