We lost Norifumi “KID” Yamamoto to cancer tonight. It is one of the first times that we’ve lost someone in the modern era of MMA who made a real lasting impact, Evan Tanner and Kevin Randleman being the others. While Tanner’s loss was tragic, it didn’t strike me in the way KID’s has. Tanner’s death was a fatalistic end to what seemed like a tragic life. Tanner struggled with this mental health and alcoholism for years, his death was the fitting end, in a beat poet kind of way, the sort of thing Jack Kerouac would write about. A tortured and conflicted soul drives his motorcycle out into the desert and never comes back. Maybe Kevin Randleman was the closest we’ve ever got to what happened tonight. Kevin Randleman had all the potential in the world, like literally all the potential. His athleticism was incredible, and not in a racialist kind of way people talk about all black athletes, he was that kind of athletic that was startlingly impressive. But, he never put it together, he never achieved his potential. So when we lost Kevin, the narrative wasn’t that we lost one of the greats, but rather that one that centered on “what could have been.” KID’s death is different. Cancer took him from us, not in his prime, but far too young. We got to see his prime, and it was one of the truly great stretches ever put together in this sport. We got the decline, we got the whole arc of his in-ring career. But we won’t get much else, and that is the real shame. We still needed to see him corner his nephew Erson and his sister Miyuu. We still needed to see the next generation of Krazy Bee fighters rise to prominence. We needed to see a middle-aged KID cornering young wrestlers in the Shooto Rookie Tournament. We won’t get that. We won’t get that last chapter.
KID Yamamoto was a phenom, a real actual phenom. Even from his earliest fights in Shooto, he was just a supernova of violence and it wasn’t always reserved for his opponent, the referee wasn’t safe either. When he felt like the referee wasn’t allowing him to put the proper violence on Masashi Kameda, he threw the ref out of the way. He didn’t always play by the rules, and in a way that was the appeal. He seemed like the kind of guy who would be fighting in the streets if he didn’t make money doing it, and not in the kind of sad “Tank Abbott is fighting someone’s uncle in a bar at 7pm because he said Franklin Peirce was a bad President” way or the “this guy is dealing with mental illness in the completely wrong way” way, but in a cool way. KID was the guy who would talk shit and the beat the breaks off you when you took umbrage.
Even in his earliest fights, KID Yamamoto was good at this MMA thing and in a real demonstrable way. KID wasn’t just your average violent fighter, his violence wasn’t based on pace or cumulative damage. His punches took years off of your life. See the fight with Hideki Kadowaki, this blog’s namesake. It looks like his fist is gonna pass through Kadowaki’s skull, and these are punches from the guard. It was just next level stuff, especially for 143 pounds, it was basically unheard of. Later on he separated Royler Gracie from consciousness with one punch, used his knee to send Kazuyuki Miyata to heaven, punted Rani Yahya’s head into the cheap seats. Go out and find these fights. See these things for yourself, witness these moments, they are incredible.
This sport has a history of great fighters, fighters blessed with tremendous talent and capacity of inflict damage, but that doesn’t mean that anyone really cares. People never gravitated to Demetrius Johnson, Fedor was only ever a mild curiosity for most people. Talent and mass appeal aren’t exactly linked, but people cared about KID Yamamoto. He was the spearhead that brought K-1 into MMA, His fights in K-1 Max, especially his New Year’s Eve kickboxing bout with K-1 Max ace Masato made him a superstar. Eventually, KID headed K-1’s answer to Pride FC, and along with recent Pride defector Kazushi Sakuraba, Hero’s became Japan’s biggest MMA promotion — Hero’s was their promotion, built around them, built for them. While in America it seemed like Pride, until it’s demise, ruled Japanese MMA, Hero’s was the preeminent MMA organization in Japan from it’s inception. In Japan everyone knew KID, everyone watched Hero’s, Pride wasn’t on the same level anymore. KID did that.
Even before he shot to super stardom in K-1, KID was always highly sought after. Yamamoto’s fourth MMA fight, promoted by future UFC matchmaker Sean Shelby, against Josh Thomson was a showcase for Dana White. That card, titled Shogun, is the card that got Robbie Lawler signed, and if would have gotten KID signed, but he didn’t want to go to the UFC. And so, for the next nine years, KID Yamamoto was Dana White’s white whale, the guy he wanted to sign but always turned him down, again and again. Dana wanted him to fight in the early days of the UFC’s lightweight division, fights with Jens Pulver, BJ Penn, Caol Uno, Matt Serra. KID stayed in Japan. When Urijah Faber was running roughshod in the WEC, KID/Faber seemed like the biggest fight they could make. KID stayed in Japan.
But finally, when Pride, and K-1, and Dream, and Sengoku had all dried up, when all the money in Japan was gone, Dana finally got KID. It was the end of the career, his best days were behind him, but he went to the UFC, Things did not go well. His first fight, against future Pound-for-Pound king Demetrious Johnson, served it’s purpose, Johnson got an impressive name on his resume, KID looked alright, and everyone could move on. His next two fights were also losses, to lesser opponents. Ones KID probably should have won, but he just didn’t have it anymore. And because bookends don’t really exist and because careers never end fittingly, KID’s MMA career ended when his opponent couldn’t continue after an eye poke. KID was denied his final moment, to end a career in triumph or go out on his shield. The doctor stopped the fight, it ended in a no contest. In no way was it a satisfactory ending, and not the way KID Yamamoto’s story should end. So, what are we to make of KID’s career, what should be his lasting memory? I know what it is for me.
In my late teens, I spent a lot of time sitting around listening to Sherdog Radio shows on my 5th generation iPod video; somewhere around 20 hours a week. I was into it. It was a big part of my life back then. Nearly every bit of MMA knowledge I have is from those shows, it is how I know that Fabiano Iha is King of Armbar, how I know Dave Menne smells bad, how I know about Croatia’s second greatest heavyweight Jerry Vrbanovic. It is also how I know that KID Yamamoto was, for a time being, the greatest fighter on the face of this planet.
It was an episode of the Jordan Breen show, the most hardcore of all the shows on the network. It was the show that would breakdown “BJ” Kojima’s next fight, the show that let you know that this Kyle Baker guy had some interesting strikes in the clinch, and it was the show that you would go to with your weird MMA questions. So, someone calls and asks about a “Shrink Ray Grand Prix.” A theoretical tournament, where we shrink down all the best MMA fighters to the same proportional size and see who wins, a real pound-for-pound tournament. Today, the answer might be different, maybe it would be Jon Jones, but at that time the answer was easy, almost a foregone conclusion: KID Yamamoto. He was the best. The guy who, if all things were equal, would beat everyone. When I think about KID, that’s what I think about.