Mei Yamaguchi has been on the MMA scene for nearly a decade, but this Friday’s fight will be the biggest of her career. The Japanese fighter is challenging for a belt in the main event of ONE: Ascent to Power at the Singapore Indoor Stadium.
She’s won titles and tournaments before, but beating a highly touted teenage prospect in front of 10,000 fans in Singapore to claim the inaugural ONE Championship women’s atomweight belt would be a career defining achievement.
“I think it’s the biggest belt. A lot of people throughout the world know that ONE Championship is really big, so I’m excited,” she told MMAWeekly.com.
Yamaguchi has spent much of her life living in the U.S., where women’s MMA is going from strength to strength, and she feels that the sport does not enjoy anything like the same levels of interest or participation in Japan.
Winning a title with a major international MMA organization would be a serious statement of intent. She hopes it will inspire more female fighters to take up the sport,
“It’s hard to make new fighters (in Japan). So if I was able to bring back the belt and show that we can do these kind of things, I can inspire the next generation fighters.”
Growing up, Yamaguchi divided her time between Los Angeles and Tokyo, which gave her a glimpse at two contrasting cultures. One thing that has been consistent throughout her life is a love of martial arts. She’s been training since the age of 6.
“I loved Jackie Chan, so I told my parents I wanted to do something like that and my father took me to a Karate academy when I was 6. I realized that Jackie Chan is not Karate, it’s something else, but I loved karate and now I’m an instructor. I teach a lot of kids.”
Yamaguchi will have experience on her side this Friday because she is 14 years the senior of her opponent, Angela Lee. The Japanese veteran will be making her promotional debut, but believes this could be her key to victory.
“I have more experience and I can control where I need to be aggressive and where I need to be calm. Angela is young and can be very aggressive, she mostly finishes in the first round or early second round, but I’ve been fighting like three rounds or more. I had one-day tournaments where I fought twice in a day.”
ONE Championship has been promoting female MMA fights since 2012, but the divisions are just starting to gain serious depth. Lee, who holds a 5-0 record, is undoubtedly the breakout star and Yamaguchi is well aware of her opponent’s reputation.
“She’s a really good grappler, aggressive, a superstar. That’s what I know.”
However, Yamaguchi does see some holes in her opponent’s game, which she will be hoping to exploit on Friday.
“I think her kickboxing technique is a bit rough compared to her ground game. Angela needs to be worried about my striking; (she) has more reach, but as a short fighter, I can do more inside. I think that’s what she’s never experienced before.”
Yamaguchi has claimed two titles so far in her career and recently won the Deep-Jewels 105-pound belt. However, these previous achievements pale in comparison to what winning the ONE Championship belt would mean to her.
“It’s a really big chance for me. I never thought that I would have this kind of chance. As an athlete, it’s really nice to do something in front of a large audience. I just need to get this belt.”