If you were a legitimate MMA nerd in 2005, there was only one other fighter who could match the type of pious whispers of admiration directed at Fedor Emelianenko. And that man was the 135lb Norifumi 'Kid' Yamamoto.
Back in 2005, you couldn't digest MMA below Lightweight the way you can now. Featherweights, and Bantamweights were not sharing the spotlight with Doug Marshall and Rodeo tournaments. Instead they belonged in Sherdog's fine print, and obscure websites selling Shooto DVD's.
Like most of the lighter weight elite, Shooto is where Kid began his career. He made his debut at Shooto: To the Top 2; a card that featured Anderson Silva against Ketsuji Kato in a bout that would be one fight removed from his challenge to Hayato Sakurai's WW throne. Some fans, and it's possible they'll poke their heads out from underneath the bridge in these very comments, would argue that Kid was always just a construction of 'otaku' worship. He had done nothing to warrant discussions among the lightweight elite.
To be fair, it was somewhat true, but also a cynical dismissal of Kid's talent. Spawned by Ikuei Yamamoto, a participant in the 1972 Games in Munich, and sharing a pedigree for freestyle wrestling along with his two sisters, Kid would go on win three state championships for Marcos de Niza High School in Tempe, AZ.
Kid wasn't a work in progress when he began his MMA career. He was obliterating people right out the gate. He even had a notable opponent early on to gauge his talent; political ombudsman, Josh Thomson. While the bout ended in a NC when Josh kicked Kid in the groin, Kid managed to make an impression. Josh was still a solid fighter even then, so early in his career, and it was incredible to watch a visibly smaller fighter effortlessly dominate the bout prior to the illegal kick.
However, Kid still didn't have the big stage to display his talents. It wasn't until his foray into K-1 that he began to really turn heads in Japan. It's really easy to fall into the hyperbolic trap on this one, so I'll dive head first anyway. Kid had one professional K-1 bout prior to his bout with Masato.
Unlike most inexplicable Japanese matchups, the K-1 brass was justified in believing a complete kickboxing novice deserved time in the ring against Japan's kicking version of Oscar De La Hoya (well, justified in the context of half-baked ideas I mean). In the October before K-1's Dynamite show in December, 2004, Kid obliterated the Mongolian kickboxing veteran, Jadamba Narantungalag in an MMA fight...with a first round KO*.
It was enough to turn heads. And so the stage was set. Rather than describe the fight to you, you'd be better served by just watching it:
Despite the defeat, Kid earned himself a lot of fans. It also silenced the critics in some ways. Yea he wasn't proving his MMA worth in the ring/cage, but he just went toe-to-toe with frikkin' Masato. And his wrestling's already insane.
When K-1 decided to run their own MMA show, called Hero's, Kid was their posterboy. From 2005 to 2006, he was a certified success. A "hero", if you will. Within those two years, all of his bouts were won by KO/TKO, with the Lightweight Grand Prix Title to show for it.
Rani Yahya, Genki Sudo, Kazuyuki Miyata (how is it possible that this guy is 37?), and Bibiano Fernandes all fell victim to Kid's "hype" through the years. It wasn't until the infamous bout with Joe Warren at Dream 9 in 2009 that Kid's career began to "spiral". The decision was a certified punchline, but it displayed holes in Yamamoto's game; namely, that he just wasn't that good off his back.
Two fights later, and the UFC finally made a move to sign the Japanese star for their 2011 show, UFC 126. He took on current Flyweight titleholder, Demetrious Johnson, losing via unanimous decision. Not a bad loss in retrospect, but that's in stark contrast to his next two defeats: one to Darren Uyenoyama and one to Vaughn Lee.
What went wrong? How did so much promise turn into so little manifestation?
To me, Kid's transition from Japan to the US illustrated a broader problem in Japan's MMA scene. Awhile back I put together a feature for my previous home, Head Kick Legend. In it, I picked from two brains: Daniel Herbertson, and Tony Loiseleur.
Both of them reached a consensus; Japan isn't able to foster mixed martial artists the way the US does, despite an organized amateur system in Shooto. Even the world's top fighters train in cramped, underground Tokyo gyms compared to the large warehouses of the US system. Where a network for world class fighters to train amongst each other exists, Japan remains disconnected. While geography, and economy are worth noting, it's the point on coaching that is especially illuminating. Highlighted by Tony's interview with Yushin Okami, coaching functions on the basis of learning each discipline, be it striking, grappling, or wrestling on its own rather than as the form created by the interaction of all three that a mixed martial arts fight simulates. This is what coaches in the US "get" that Herbertson and Loiseleur argue that coaches in Japan don't.
Although Kid is 0-3 in the UFC, and 1-5 in his last six, he's still got a shot to snap the losing streak. For those that were scratching their heads like I was, the UFC still has him on their roster, and he's slated to fight Ivan Menjivar in Toronto for UFC 165.
Hopefully we can enjoy the fight for what it can be: two grizzled veterans, removed from their prime, but not from their resolve.
*It should be noted that Jadamba has turned into a solid mixed martial artist, standing at 8-3, with notable wins over Akihiro Gono, and Kazunori Yokoto.