There’s a Norifumi “Kid” Yamamoto fight that’s an icon for the DSL-connection era of video clips, right up there with Mike Vallely taking off his shirt and punching those unfortunate kids in a parking lot while that DMX song with the necrophilic lyrics played in the background. It took place a decade and three weeks ago. It was the entirety of Yamamoto's Hero's 5 fight with Kazuyuki Miyata: a four-second flying-knee knockout, and a GIF-ready moment before those became an ordinary mode of Internet expression.
It's also the lead on a highlight reel for a once barely defeated fighter who, just as MMA was beginning to put down roots in the America's mainstream, had become legendary for his brutality in Japan. Others here have written about Yamamoto’s yakuza-colored backstory as well as his family’s wrestling pedigree and his personal predilection for right hooks, but the short version is that throughout the early to mid-2000s, Yamamoto was a god among men in K-1 and Shooto. If Genki Sudo was the colorful lightweight standard bearer with the memorable walkouts, the always-undersized Yamamoto was the guy who (kind of) beat him into the canvas on New Year's Eve in Osaka.
Then he became a mere mortal. Yesterday, the UFC booked one-time bantamweight title challenger Joe Soto against Chris Beal at UFC Fight Night 89 because Yamamoto withdrew with an injury, the fifth time he's dropped out of a scheduled UFC bout in five years. It’s been 15 months since Yamamoto last fought—a no contest against Roman Salazar—and it was a full three years between bouts before that. After that most recent fight and the three losses that preceded it, he's still hunting for his first UFC win. And at 39 years old, it's never been further away.
Yamamoto's woes began in 2008, when he temporarily retired from MMA to pursue a quixotic dream of repping his home country in the Olympics in Beijing, just as his father did three decades earlier in Munich. He dislocated his elbow in a match against Kenji Inoue and failed to qualify, and later on, he had surgery to repair his ACL. When he returned against the then-unknown Joe Warren in 2009 and lost a split decision—his first true defeat—against the future Bellator champion in Japan, it was the start of a slide 1-5-1 slide that continued even after he dropped to bantamweight.
If champion Dominick Cruz's career arc is living proof that there's hope for bantamweight greats with bad knees, Yamamoto's looks mostly like a hopeless "what if." What if he wasn't so injury prone? What if he was born a heavyweight, where one good punch carries you far in a division of lumbering longevity? These are strange questions to consider if you remember him from the days of Limewire downloads.
There's another aspect of Yamamoto's waning career that means he's probably not done trying to return: his sole TKO loss was 14 years ago, and it was because of a cut. At a time when chronic traumatic encephalopathy is the most pressing concern in contact sports, he hasn't had the nights ending on a stool with a penlight in his eyes that would compel most fighters to stop. Unless his camp is hiding a history of him being on the wrong side of reckless secret knockouts—the specific nature of Yamamoto's most recent training injury as well as the ones preceding hasn’t been revealed—his trouble is the orthopedic injuries that afflict plenty of AARP cardholders but have afflicted him much sooner.
In its own special way, that sort of damage to joints and bones and connective tissue can be as insidious as brain trauma. You can spend a good part of your career convincing yourself that showing up to a fight with bumps and bruises and aches and pains is the sign of a hard, thorough, productive training camp. But soon enough, you're training around injuries that don't go away, trying to close the gap between chronological and biological age with experience. Eventually, it becomes a matter of "staying healthy," of tricking your body into thinking you're still the same ass beater with spring-loaded ligaments even if you can't use them as much. You'll be ready to kill when it counts. You'll be just like you were a decade ago. Just not today.
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