Mei Yamaguchi is no newcomer to the Japanese combat sports scene. Having fought for more than a decade, Yamaguchi has been in numerous promotions and lived through many eras in the scene.
Yamaguchi entered MMA at an interesting time, joining in just as the women’s side of the sport was expanding. While Strikeforce was first booking women in the late 2000s, Yamaguchi got her career started in promotions like Smackgirl and Pancrase, and also fought under Shoot Boxing rules in none other than Shoot Boxing.
Into the 2010s, Yamaguchi continued to be a regular in Shoot Boxing, including a bout against then-rising name RENA. But she also started to appear in rising promotion JEWELS. She continued to stay active in the regional scene up until 2015.
Reflecting on this time, Yamaguchi feels that expectations were high. As women were trying to cement themselves in the sport, Yamaguchi felt a personal duty to put on good fights that would win over critics.
“I always thought that we had to show how good we are,” said Yamaguchi, during an interview with Knockdown News in May. “[If I had a] boring game, everyone’s going to think ‘see, women [in MMA] are boring. So I felt I had a responsibility.”
In 2015, Yamaguchi made ONE Championship her home. The heavily-funded promotion aimed to get fighters from all around the globe, providing many names with their first look at other talents in the sport from different geographic scenes. The promotion gave Yamaguchi something that earlier fights in Japan didn’t provide: the ability to represent and learn on the international stage.
“I was always dreaming of representing Japan and proving what I can do on a global stage … Fighting in Japan is nice, but when you fight with a foreign fighter, you feel a lot of difference in power and technique,” she said. Not only that, but she felt that the international feel of ONE allowed her to learn more about different cultures and religions.
Representing herself in ONE was not just about improving as a fighter or as a person. She hoped that the bigger stage would give her a chance to tell her story, as someone who lost their mother quite early in life and has had to overcome adversity.
“Fighting in ONE Championship, it made me feel like ‘okay, I can share that story and that can give power to other people.’ That’s what I can be as an athlete, you know?”
Yamaguchi’s Thoughts On The JMMA Landscape
The sheer experience that Yamaguchi has makes her an interesting person to talk to regarding Japanese combat sports. She views the scene as one that is growing currently, but also as an environment that needs more change. For training, in particular, she said gyms need to break out of traditional practices and look at how international gyms operate.
“I see a lot of young fighters that are improving so fast. But still, if you compare to the level [of fighter] in America, we’re not good enough,” she said. “I think in foreign countries, they are really good at building up their training schedules. Like, coaching athletes. Those [are the] kinds of things I feel like we really need to work on.
On the side of marketing, Yamaguchi felt that it would be beneficial for fighters to learn English so that doors could be opened with promotions around the world.
“I think we need to learn English and to learn how to communicate … That’s one thing stopping athletes from going to foreign countries. Even fighting, like [in] ONE Championship, Bellator, UFC, [there’s a] lack of communication. If you can express yourself in English, that’s even better.”
The Final Chapter of Yamaguchi, The Fighter
Yamaguchi’s storied career is coming close to its end. When asked about future plans, Yamaguchi revealed that she is getting ready for the final part of her fighting career.
“I’m getting old and I don’t think I can fight for a long time,” she said. “I hope I can do something for Japan. Maybe fight in Japan … That’s what I’m getting ready for. I don’t know where I’m going to fight, but hopefully I can do something for Japanese MMA.”
Yamaguchi explained that it’s hard for her to quantify how much is left for her exactly. If she can fight more than one fight, then she might do more than one fight. But, injuries are a real thing and she is aware that she isn’t untouchable. “I always have to be careful,” she said.
Yamaguchi claims the end of her MMA career does not mean she will suddenly vanish. She hopes to remain around combat sports for as long as possible, even if she isn’t fighting anymore.
“Even when my career ends, that’s not the end. That will be the start of my other new career.”
Other Notes From The Week
- Something very special launched this week! The “JMMA Monday” podcast debuted today with special guest Charlie Jewett of sogo-kaku.com. In the episode, we discussed the upcoming RIZIN Super Atomweight Grand Prix, the recent DEEP 108 Impact card, Mikuru Asakura’s “Breaking Down” show, and more.
- Two more fights joined RIZIN 37 this week.
- Most notably, lightweights Johnny Case and Koji Takeda will face off. They’re both coming off losses from the promotion’s April card.
- In a kickboxing bout, Ryusei Kumagai and Kaiji will face off as well.
- Shooto Japan held its fifth numbered event of the year on Sunday.
- Veteran Mina Kurobe prevailed in the main event, submitting Park Seo-young with a rear naked choke. It was an easy fight on paper for Kurobe, as Park entered with a pro record of just one win and one loss.
- Also of note: prospect Wataru Yamauchi picked up his fourth pro win in the co-main event. Went three rounds for the first time as a pro! 23 years old, he’s one to watch.
- Tapology results are here. GONG has a written report as well (Google Translated needed).
- Itsuki Hirata will return at ONE Championship’s August 26th event. Appearing for the first time since taking her sole pro loss, Hirata will face Lin Heqin.
- A side note: That event will be on at primetime in the U.S.
- DEEP Impact will do a 16-man flyweight tournament this year. That’s a pretty massive field for a regional promotion, so I’m interested to see how it will look.
- GONG’s (Google Translated) headline gave me a chuckle: “If RIZIN doesn’t do it, DEEP will do it.”
- DEEP Impact announced some fights for their August 28th event in Osaka.
- Hot off a win at DEEP 108 Impact, Shunsuke Miyabi will face Wataru Mimura. Interesting matchup, honestly.
- Emi Tomimatsu is also back, facing Sadae Manhoef.
- Big week for DEEP Impact news, I guess. To keep things going: RIZIN alums Masakazu Imanari and Takahiro Ashida will face off at their August 21st Korakuen Hall event. Big matchup!
- Here’s a little peek behind the curtain of “JMMA Monday:” To the surprise of likely nobody, I write these notes on Sunday night. As I write this message, Pancrase 328 has yet to happen. But by the time this is published, it will have wrapped up. Awkward timing, since it makes it look like I’m neglecting the show here (and I promise, I’m not). I’ll make sure to mention the results in next week’s episode. Tapology has the lineup (and presumably results now, too!) here.
- You know the drill, it’s time to end the article on a fun note. K-1 Japan kickboxer Takeru threw the first pitch at the July 16th game between the Yomiuri Giants and Hiroshima Carp.
- A few observations. For one, he had quite a good first pitch! He threw from the mound and pitched a straight line. GONG is reporting that he threw a 104km (roughly 64 mph) ball.
- Also, there’s something funny to me about how he was wearing his fighting shorts during this appearance. Commitment to the kickboxer bit, I guess.
- One more thing: he was at the Tokyo Dome, which he headlined just last month!