by Mick Hammond – MMAWeekly.com
When MMA Weekly’s official fighter rankings came out earlier this month, three of the four participants in New Year’s Eve lightweight tournament finals were present, but there was one notable absence. Along side the likes of Takanori Gomi, Hayoto “Mach” Sakurai, and Genki Sudo should have been Norifumi “Kid” Yamamoto, yet he failed to make the rankings.
Why could this be? Yamamoto, like the three others, dispatched all his opponents en route to a highly anticipated finals bout on December 31st. His record certainly isn’t lacking, at 10-1 he has the fewest MMA losses of any of the four finalists. He’s a national superstar in his native Japan, like the other three, yet he still remains on the outside looking in.
Possibly the main reason for Kid’s non-inclusion could be the fact that he has yet to receive the kind of American exposure that the others get. Having spent most of his career in Shooto and K-1, bouncing back and forth between kickboxing and MMA, there has been less chance for American voters to see him in action.
Had people been able to watch Yamamoto fight there would be an undoubted larger support group for him Stateside. Throughout both his kickboxing and MMA careers, Kid has failed to be anything less than exciting each time out. He certainly comes from a pedigree of ballsy all-out fighters, coming originally out of Enson Inoue’s Purebread team.
In Yamamoto’s largest exposure on the delayed 2004 K-1 Premium Dynamite PPV, Kid fought hard against K-1 superstar Masato in a kickboxing bout, but lost due to size difference. Standing only 5′ 4″ tall, his height can be a problem against larger opponents, especially in a striking-only style bout, but kickboxing matches shouldn’t be the judging criteria of an MMA fighter, just ask Genki Sudo who is 2-3 in K-1 rules bouts.
Since making his MMA debut in 2001, Kid has only gone to decision twice against some of the better lightweight fighters around. Among the competition he’s faced has been the likes of Masato Shiozawa (a dominant Shooto staple during the 2001-03 years), Josh Thomson, Steven Pauling, Jeff Curran, Royler Gracie, and Caol Uno. With a resume of wins over all but Thomson (their fight ended in a no contest due to a groin kick) and Pauling, Kid has the credentials to match up to some of the best in the division.
The fact that perhaps Yamamoto hasn’t competed on a regular enough basis to qualify for MMA rankings is also possible. Since leaving Shooto in 2002, Kid has not had more than two MMA fights a year excluding this year’s three-fight tournament draw that saw him fight twice in one night.
Still, there are fighters out there that have had the same level of activity and have garnished more acclaim than Norifumi has. So what will it take for American fans and voters to finally realize that Yamamoto deserves more attention and respect than he has?
Most importantly he has to defeat Sudo at 2005 K-1 Premium Dynamite and take the Hero’s Lightweight Tournament Championship. Sudo is a name that American fans know and respect, a convincing win against him will go a long way in getting the attention of people who might not get to see the fight if K-1 does not put the show on PPV.
The next biggest step would be to take that attention and use it to get fights abroad. Yamamoto has only competed out of Japan twice in his career and not since 2003. With the current state of MMA in places like Hawaii where MMA is possibly the most popular sport, a return trip to the islands could be a big boost for Kid’s exposure in front of a hardcore crowd.
There’s an always-possible chance he may come to the mainland USA. In interviews he’s expressed interest and K-1 does promote shows in Las Vegas, but they have yet to integrate MMA into those shows. With rules differences from what Hero’s use and what the NSAC will allow, it could be a longshot to see him on a Mirage or Bellagio PPV.
If the UFC can reforge their long-standing relationship with K-1 there is a chance that Kid could compete for the company if they bring back the lightweight division. But there has yet to be a K-1 contract fighter in the UFC since Genki Sudo and Duane “Bang” Ludwig fought each other in 2003 and there hasn’t been a lightweight bout in the company since 2004.
Could Yamamoto come to the States and show people what he brings to the table he could easily become just as popular here with fans as he is in Japan. His aggressive style and natural charisma matched with his KO power could make him one of the most in-demand fighters around. But without exposure he remains a fighter with all the right credentials, just not the exposure to make him the rankable and recognized star in the US that he should be.