The MMA world has lost one of its pioneers, as Japanese combat sports lifer Norifumi “Kid” Yamamoto died, a month after being diagnosed with cancer. He was 41 years old.
Kid was the youngest of three, born into a famous Japanese wrestling family. His father Ikuei wrestled at the 1972 Olympics, and his sisters Miyuu and Seiko have seven world championships between the two of them. (Seiko is also married to Yu Darvish.) Kid was sent to Arizona to go to high school and train as a wrestler under Townsend and Tricia Saunders; after winning three state titles, he returned to Japan and nearly made the 2000 Japanese Olympic team.
The legend goes that Kid first got into MMA when his then-brother-in-law Enson Inoue, a Hawaiian MMA pioneer, helped him get out of a jam with yakuza after Kid accidentally shot a mafioso in the face with a BB gun. Inoue is one of the most notable heavyweights from the early days of MMA, and he helped turn Kid into a bona fide star. MMA in the early 2000s was the wild wild west, and Kid was one of the most legitimizing forces for the sport in Japan, as it slowly turned from a strange rigged spectacle into a real sport.
Lighter weight classes didn’t have the same prestige as, say, light heavyweight back in the day, and even though Kid was only 5-foot-4 and something like 150 pounds, he fought at featherweight, lightweight, and anywhere else he could get a fight. His good looks, bad boy persona, and fearless desire to fight bigger men made him a true celebrity in the early aughts. On New Year’s Eve, Kid kickboxed against Masato, a world champion 20 pounds heavier than him, and scored an early knockdown on the way to a thrilling decision loss.
Kid fought for Shooto and K-1 HERO’s in Japan, amassing a 17-1-1 record before his first retirement in 2007. Though the base of his game was wrestling, Kid was a freak athlete who finished ten straight fights from 2003 to 2006. One of those was his famous four-second flying knee KO against Kazuyuki Miyata.
He also blanched Royler Gracie (the thumbnail’s fucked, but the video works).
After Kid dislocated his elbow while trying to make the 2008 Olympic team, he lost a step and only won one of his next three fights. He was signed by the UFC in 2011, though the version of Kid that fought Demetrious Johnson in 2011 was nowhere near as fearsome as he was in his prime. It’s a pity that Kid never got to step into the octagon until he was washed, since he would certainly have wrecked shit.
He ended his career 18-6 with two no-contests, but his impact is far bigger than that. Kid Yamamoto was among the best pound-for-pound fighters in his day, and the sport of mixed martial arts wouldn’t be where it is now without him.