Martial arts

Norifumi ‘Kid’ Yamamoto dies from cancer aged 41 as MMA world mourns Japanese legend

Mixed martial arts community pays tribute to ‘real life MMA superhero’ Norifumi Miyamoto, just three weeks after he announced battle with cancer

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 18 September, 2018, 2:04pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 19 September, 2018, 10:49am

The world of mixed martial arts has been left in mourning after legendary Japanese fighter Norifumi “Kid” Yamamoto died from liver cancer aged just 41.

Naturally a bantamweight, Yamamoto was considered one of the best lightweight fighters in history with his most memorable bouts taking place at 135lbs.

Yamamoto’s gym, Krazybee in Tokyo, announced the Kawasaki native’s death on social media on Tuesday morning.

Having been away from the cage for three years, Yamamoto revealed his battle against cancer in an Instagram post last month.

“I will do my best to treat cancer,” he had written. “I am absolutely energetic and I strongly want to return, so please give me warm support!”

A pioneer among the lower weight classes in promotions such as Shooto, K-1, Hero’s and DREAM, Yamamoto (MMA record 18-6-2) won 14 straight fights between 2002 and 2007.

He is perhaps best known for recording the fastest knockout in MMA history, flooring Kazuyuki Miyata with a flying knee just four seconds after the bell at the Hero’s 5 event in Tokyo in 2006.

Fighting at his walk-around weight of 141lbs, the 5ft 4 Yamamoto secured stoppage wins over Royler Gracie, Caol Uno and Genki Sudo on his way to winning the 2005 Hero’s Middleweight Grand Prix – all against competitors around 25lbs heavier than him.

As well as his good looks and “bad boy” persona, his willingness to take on – and consistently beat – bigger fighters is what endeared Yamamoto to fans around the world, at a time when Japanese MMA was far more popular than the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), with much more skilled and world-renowned competitors.

Also claiming the Hero’s lightweight championship, Yamamoto won a unanimous decision at Hero’s 10 in 2007 against renowned Brazilian fighter Bibiano Fernandes, who is now the bantamweight title holder in One Championship.

But it was his memorable bout against K1 MAX kickboxing star Masato – under kickboxing rules – at a 2004 New Year’s Eve show in front of 35,000 fans at the Osaka Dome that really catapulted him to fame.

With few giving him a chance, Yamamoto knocked Masato down in the first round before ultimately losing a decision, but the fight drew around 33 millions television viewers in Japan.

Yamamoto had already been a crossover star in Japan, having come from a family of wrestling royalty. His father Ikuei Yamamoto represented Japan at the 1972 Olympics in Munich, and his sisters Miyu and Seiko were multiple-time world champions, who many thought would have won Olympic gold in their prime had women been allowed to wrestle at the Games.

Kid Yamamoto was sent to Arizona to train as a wrestler, where he won three state titles before returning to Japan to try out for the Olympic team, but he narrowly missed out on qualification for the 2000 Games.

Under the tutelage of his then-brother-in-law Enson Inoue, a Hawaiian heavyweight MMA pioneer, Yamamoto became a legitimising star for the burgeoning sport in Japan.

His decision to leave wrestling behind caused a rift with his father though, one he aimed to heal by retiring from MMA when at his prime in 2007, in a bid to qualify for the 2008 Olympics with the Japanese wrestling team.

He went on to dislocate his elbow in a qualifying competition and failed to make the team. An ACL injury in his knee saw him lose a step and he was never the same fighter when he returned to MMA, winning just one of his next three fights.

By the time he moved to the UFC in 2011, he was a shadow of his former self. He was defeated by Demetrious Johnson, Vaughan Lee and Darren Uyenoyama, before returning after from a three-year hiatus to face Roman Salazar at UFC 184 in February 2015, though the bout was declared a no-contest after an accidental eye poke by Yamamoto.

It turned out to be his last fight, but Yamamoto had already made himself a legend in the sport, and tributes to the fighter from the MMA community have been pouring in on social media.

“Absolutely devastated by this news. MMA has lost a true legend,” BJ Penn, a former UFC lightweight and welterweight champion, wrote on Twitter.

Renowned MMA journalist Ariel Helwani wrote: “Man. Rest in peace, Kid. A real life MMA super hero, who at one time was considered one of the P4P [pound-for-pound] greats, gone way too soon.”

“A legend is forever. #RIPKID,” One Championship founder and CEO Chatri Sityodtong said on Twitter.