Norifumi “Kid” Yamamoto still gets asked about the time he knocked out an opponent in four seconds with a flying knee to the head.
He managed that feat shortly after the opening bell for his fight against Kazuyuki Miyata, a former Olympic wrestler who on that night was the unfortunate soul being kneed in the face, during Hero’s 5 in 2006 at Yoyogi Gymnasium. It was the fastest knockout ever in a major MMA circuit.
“That was an amazing fight,” Yamamoto (18-6, one no contest overall, 0-3 UFC) told The Japan Times over the phone from Los Angeles, where he’s preparing for his bout against Roman Salazar (9-3, 0-1) at UFC 184 on Saturday (Sunday in Japan) at the Staples Center. The 37-year-old MMA legend is hoping to give his fans another amazing result to talk about as he makes his return to the sport following a three-year absence.
“I want to show them that I can fight as well as I could when I was at my best,” Yamamoto said.
Fans have waited for a long time to see Yamamoto at his best. He’d fought his way into the MMA stratosphere before a brief hiatus in 2007, after which he dealt with setbacks stemming from injuries and, more recently, age. Even so, his heyday isn’t so far in the past that there won’t be a large segment of fans hoping to see him deliver a vintage performance and earn his first win in UFC. “UFC has given me a great chance,” Yamamoto said. “I want to live up to their expectation.”
In Salazar, Yamamoto faces an unheralded fighter who lost in his UFC debut against Mitch Gagnon on Oct. 4, after being tapped as a last-minute replacement. Standing 170 cm, he’s taller than the 162-cm Yamamoto and 10 years his junior. Salazar will be hungry for a win over a fighter with Yamamoto’s name recognition.
“It’s a win-win situation for me,” Salazar told UFC.com on Feb. 23. “I’m in awe still, but I have to treat him like I would any other opponent and do my best. I’ve got to be ready for anything, and I’m more than excited and up for the challenge. This is a catapult fight here. I could put myself on the map and everybody’s going to know who I am with one fight, so I have to go out there and perform for sure. I want to make a name for myself.”
Yamamoto hasn’t strayed from his normal routine during his preparation, spending time in the gym with other members of his Krazy Bee team. He’s also felt somewhat rejuvenated by training with some of the younger Krazy Bee members like Kyoji Horiguchi, a 24-year-old who will face Demetrious Johnson for the UFC flyweight title at UFC 186 on April 25.
“When you’ve got young, strong guys coming up around you, you gain confidence in yourself by working out with them,” Yamamoto said.
Many of those young fighters, and others across the globe, likely remember Yamamoto’s reign as one of the top fighters of his era.
He was a charismatic, strong and skilled all-around fighter in his prime who often won in style (only three of his 18 victories were via decision). A slick mix of power and speed, he was a nightmare in the ring and a celebrity outside it. While he was smaller than many of his opponents, he towered over them in terms of tenacity and grit.
In 2007, Yamamoto announced he was stepping away from the sport to pursue a spot on Japan’s freestyle wrestling team for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. Wrestling in many ways was the family business. His father, Ikuei, had wrestled in the 1972 Games in Munich. His sister, Miyu, is a three-time women’s world champion in freestyle wrestling and another sister, Seiko, is a four-time world titlist. Seiko Yamamoto was in the news recently after the announcement she was expecting a child with MLB star Yu Darvish. “I wish her nothing but happiness,” Norifumi Yamamoto said.
His own wrestling hopes were derailed by an injury to his arm, suffered in a match against Athens Games bronze medalist Kenji Inoue during the Emperor’s Cup in 2008, and he eventually returned to MMA. He hasn’t been the same since, having also suffered an injury to his leg, and is 1-5 since returning to the sport. He took more time off after a loss in 2012, but says he’s in good condition now.
“I suffered quite a few injuries,” he said. “My body had also become soft and less flexible than before. But my condition has gotten better and I’m closer to my best condition.”
Yamamoto’s past heights have set a bar he may not be able to reach anymore, but the Kanagawa Prefecture native says he isn’t one to dwell on the past, good or bad, anyway.
“I don’t worry about the fights I’ve had,” he said. “I only think of the future. I don’t care about what I’ve done.”
Yamamoto said he “wants to keep fighting as long as I can,” when asked about retirement.
“There’s been an absence of three years,” he said. “I’m enjoying this.”
A former great on the comeback trail is a familiar and easy story to latch onto, though Yamamoto insists he’s focused only on getting his first UFC win, not trying to live up to, or reclaim a piece of, his own legend.
“Of course there’s some pressure,” he said. “From the time I made my debut, from the time I was young until now, there has always been the pressure of wanting to win.”