Nothing vexes me more than the expression "pound-for-pound". Every time I hear someone say it, I cringe. It was coined to praise Sugar Ray Robinson—because though he'd never beat the heavyweight champion in a fight, he had more skill 'pound-for-pound'. It was a compliment of scientific fighting ability, an exaggeration, not a measure of accomplishment.
Nowadays we have journalists pitching in on pound-for-pound rankings, the UFC even has it's own ridiculous top 15 fighters pound-for-pound. This just plays out as a “what have you done for me lately?” table of accomplishments which can't actually be measured against each other. Certainly, does anyone think that Ronda Rousey (135lbs and ranked #7 pound-for-pound) is more skilled all around fighter than say, Eddie Wineland or Mitch Gagnon (exactly the same weight in pounds, and unranked pound-for-pound)?
But here's the real head-scratcher in the pound-for-pound debate. There are fighters who excel against heavier opponents. The small heavyweights—Fedor and Cain—the guys who hate the weight cut like Frankie Edgar, or the dynamos of boxing who challenged themselves by giving up weight time and time again—Manny Pacquiao and Henry Armstrong. Each benefited from a tremendous speed advantage, and each has struggled more against their smaller opponents.
If a fighter has the skill to lay the smackdown on men who outweigh them by ten, twenty or thirty pounds, but struggles more at what is considered their natural weight... how does one estimate their skill pound-for-pound?
And that's the point where I want to jump off of today. From about 2003 to 2007, Norifumi 'Kid' Yamamoto was a constant fixture on pound-for-pound tables, and he might even have deserved it.
A Chance Encounter with MMA
The son of a Olympian, Ikuei Yamamoto, Norifumi had a tremendous wrestling pedigree. Both of Yamamoto's sisters are accomplished wrestlers, in fact Seiko Yamamoto won the gold at four world championships, retired, had a baby in 2007, then came back to get a bronze at the ADCC no gi tournament in Beijing in 2013, with little experience in the submission grappling game. This is a family of freak athletes who take competition very, very seriously.
According to Enson Inoue, Yamamoto got himself into trouble with the yakuza and was suspended from wrestling competition. It was at this point that Inoue, a Japanese MMA hero who was married to Yamamoto's sister at the time got Yamamoto into mixed martial arts. There's an awful lot of conflicting accounts over Yamamoto's relationships with Inoue and his father, but all you really need to know was that Yamamoto was pretty darn good at this MMA lark and decided to stick with it once his wrestling ban ended.
Yamamoto was quickly picked up by K-1, who were keen on launching their own MMA brand called Hero's—their spelling, not mine. Yamamoto's Hero's career started a little uninterestingly with a couple of squash matches against guys Jadamba Narantungalag (0-0 at the time he fought Yamamoto), and Tony Valente (who fought in a Bruce Lee tracksuit), and an an unimpressive struggle against Ian Schaffa.
But doing this against anyone will get attention.
But Yamamoto, full to the brim with confidence, did insist on fighting the great Japanese kickboxer, Masato under K-1 rules in 2004. And surprised a lot of people while he was at it. Staying out of reach for much of the first round, Yamamoto shot across the floor and dropped the 2003 K-1 Max Champion with a left straight.
The bout was a foul filled battle, and Masato got the decision, but interest in Yamamoto was greater than ever. And if it proved anything, it was that Yamamoto had dynamite underneath his gloves, and that he was more than willing to jump in at the deep end. This would be the story of his career.
The Bantamweight Lightweight
The thing which is so fascinating about Yamamoto is that he could easily make 135lbs. Yet, when Hero's announced their curiously named “Middleweight Grand Prix” at 154lbs, Yamamoto leapt in headfirst. Yamamoto, unlike most elite Japanese prospects, never won a Shooto belt. Shooto is an organization whose weightclasses go all the way down to 115lbs. Yamamoto wanted to be the Hero's champion, but it didn't seem like they were going to accommodate him in their plans.
And so, Kid Yamamoto entered the grand prix along with Caol Uno, Royler Gracie, Genki Sudo, Hiroyuki Takaya, Kazayuki Miyata and Hideo Tokoro. Not only scary fighters, but all significantly bigger men than Kid.
In the opening round of the tournament, Yamamoto met Royler Gracie. While something of a relic of the old days, Gracie's Jiu Jitsu was obviously not to be trifled with. When Yamamoto leapt in with his vaunted right hook in the first round, Gracie was able to score a trip and end up on top of Yamamoto. Pretty much the worst outcome imaginable. Overcommitting on that right hook was always a theme of Yamamoto's career.
But Yamamoto surprised many by immediately getting his butterfly hooks in and scrambling back to his feet. Gracie maintained a guillotine and jumped guard on the standing Yamamoto along the ropes. Yamamoto shucked his head free, the two stumbled across the ring and Yamamoto hit a lateral drop, winding up on top of Gracie.
The two returned to the feet shortly after, and the rest of the first round was a case of Yamamoto circling at distance, occasionally leaping in with a booming hook. In the early going of the second round, Yamamoto switched it up and landed a thudding left hook to the ribs of Gracie. Gracie got a bit too smart and tried to catch the vertically challenged Yamamoto with a knee the next time he stepped in. That same right hook connected flush and Royler Gracie fell to the floor like his soul had been snatched.
That exact same downward hook we talked about the other day with Nick Diaz vs. KJ Noons.
In his second fight in the same night, Yamamoto took on lightweight veteran, Caol Uno. The bout was a back and forth war, and at one point Yamamoto, scrambling up from the bottom, ran through the ropes with Uno attached to his back.
The bout was stopped due to cuts to Uno's face opened by—predictably enough—Yamamoto's right hook.
Yamamoto was through to the final to meet the surging Genki Sudo. Taking place three months later, the bout became one of the most hotly anticipated fights of the year. Sudo was easily the best fighter in the tournament, and Yamamoto was the black horse who had made it to the final. Unfortunately the bout did not live up to expectations, as Sudo caught a right hook, fell to his back and while Sudo playing an effective guard and keeping Yamamoto from landing the truly punishing shots, the fight was called off.
Now in possession of a grand prix title, Yamamoto had four more bouts before suffering a crippling knee injury. One of which contained perhaps the finest jumping knee you will have ever seen against the powerful wrestler, Kazuyuki Miyata.
Following his destruction of Rani Yahya, Yamamoto blew out his knee and was out of action for the best part of two years. When he returned, he looked nothing like the Yamamoto of old. The right hook was still there, but the fleet footed movement was not. Yamamoto had never had decent head movement, and got hit a lot when he was in range, but he had always been able to limit the exchanges by bouncing around at range, and then leaping in with the hook deceptively quickly. It is one of the classic ways to beat bigger men, stand so far away and get in so quick when you do attack that their reach advantage is a non-factor.
But that wasn't the only issue. When Yamamoto returned, he was an old man—a veteran of the sport, but he had never truly graduated from being a prospect. The strong wrestling was there, and the right hook, and some effective knees from the clinch, but he'd never developed much else. When the Olympian, Joe Warren put him on his back, he looked a little confused. And his chin was only getting worse.
When Yamamoto fought featherweights, they were still bigger than him and now they were catching him clean, and when he finally moved down to bantamweight he found himself in against men who were quick enough to make the most of his porous defence at every turn. The UFC picked Yamamoto up on a 1-2 skid, in the same way they contracted Takanori Gomi—it was better to have him on the roster than have a Japanese show like DREAM profiting from his name value.
And here's the sad thing: the power is still there.
Yamamoto knows it, his corner know it, and throughout his fights with Darren Uyenoyama and Demetrious Johnson they were telling him that he just needed to land one. Every time DJ stepped in, Yamamoto would whiff a huge uppercut and be right there for Johnson to take down again.
In his recent match with Vaughn Lee, Yamamoto's feet even seemed to have come back to him a little as he glided around the Octagon, a glimpse of his former beauty just as Mirko Cro Cop showed when he danced around the cage against Roy Nelson. But in exactly the same way, Yamamoto's chin seems to be less sturdy than ever before. He battered Lee with some huge punches early on, but a small flurry in the clinch put Yamamoto on wobbly legs and he never recovered.
Certainly, Yamamoto has become something of a glass cannon over the years. Swinging after the right hook at any cost to his own health.
At UFC 184, Yamamoto makes a return to the Octagon after another hiatus, this time it's been three years. The fan inside of me wants him to pick up a win in the UFC and call it a day. But the cynic who has been around combat sports too long knows that a win will only convince a fighter that he's still got it, and that there might be a title run left in him.
Whatever Yamamoto decides to do, we will always have his early body of work to look back at and think “What if that guy had stayed healthy?” and “What if bantamweight were a popular weight class back then?”
Was Yamamoto one of the pound-for-pound best in the world in terms of scientific, all around skill? Probably not. But then, if you can beat the elite two weight classes above where you should be, do you need to be?
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