Fighter of the Month: Shohei Yamamoto

By Joe Wilhelm
Photos by Stephanie Drews, Primo Catalano, Meghan Wonder, and courtesy of Shohei Yamamoto

It’s August 25th, 2013 and the moment has arrived. It’s a moment 15 years in the making, a moment Shohei Yamamoto and his father Yoshitaka had dreamed of together.

Pupil and sensei: Yamamoto is one of the few proteges MMA star Josh Barnett has taken under his wing. (Photo by Primo Catalano/University of MMA)

Pupil and sensei: Yamamoto is one of the few proteges MMA star Josh Barnett has taken under his wing. (Photo by Primo Catalano/University of MMA)

Shohei is debuting against Michael Woods. At 23, the former Kyokushin karate world champion is unknown to the University of MMA fan base. Fifty-three seconds into the fight, Yamamoto earns his first career victory by way of submission through strikes.

The moment should have been joyous. But as fans cheered the birth of a star, his father was not among them.

“Josh (Barnett) called me and asked if I still wanted to fight, Yamamoto said. “But for me, it’s not only fighting. It goes much deeper than that. This was a dream for us. It was always about chasing the dream together. After my fight, I looked at my cell phone and tried to give him a call. But then I realized he’s not here.”

On August 7th, 2013, Yoshitaka Yamamoto passed away due to complications of diabetes. Two weeks prior to his debut fight, the 23-year-old was left without his ever-present companion, the man who had set him upon his martial arts journey at age eight.

“The first few months after my dad died were really hard,” Yamamoto said. “But after a while, coming to practice made me feel alive. Every fight I have gives me something to look forward to. I know my dad is watching from above. It gave me a way to break free from this strain holding me down.”

Growing up, the two were inseparable; traveling the world to Japan, Canada, and New York for Shohei’s karate tournaments. On school days, Yoshitaka would pick Shohei up early from school to make the long drive from Oceanside to the dojo in Los Angeles. When Shohei set his sights on a MMA career, the UFC became a shared dream between father and son.

Nearly a year to the date of Yoshitaka’s passing, that dream is alive and well, as Yamamoto continues to carry the memory of his father with him into the cage.

Yamamoto's ferocity in the cage comes in one part from his Kyokushin and MMA training, but also as homage to his father. (Photo by ???/University of MMA)

Yamamoto’s ferocity in the cage comes in one part from his Kyokushin and MMA training, but also as homage to his father. (Photo by Stephanie Drews/University of MMA)

“Having that first fight made me switch over from feeling negative to realizing what I need to do,” Yamamoto said. “For myself, of course, but for my dad as well. Every punch I throw, every kick I throw, is that much heavier compared to everyone else.”

Since his debut, Yamamoto has added three knockouts to his perfect 4-0 record. To date, he has yet to have a fight go beyond the first round. Opponents have been unable to adjust to the speed and ferocity of Yamamoto’s striking, the lethal product of a lifetime dedicated to Kyokushin.

“I think a lot of people will have a hard time adapting to my style,” Yamamoto said. “My striking will be naturally different from everyone else, and I think that is going to give me the upper hand. It feels like no one in the amateur field has gone through what I have gone through. Nothing scares me anymore.”

In addition to the physical advantage gained from his Kyokushin roots, Yamamoto possesses¬†uncommon poise and discipline for a fighter of his age. His soft-spoken and respectful demeanor outside of the cage inspire coach Erik Paulson’s comparisons between Yamamoto and a caged tiger, one who unleashes jaw-dropping aggression inside the cage.

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The Caged Tiger in Kyokushin action. (Photo courtesy of Shohei Yamamoto)

Yamamoto comes from a martial arts discipline frequently devoid of weight classes, meaning there where times when he gave up a natural twenty pounds to opponents in the same tournament rack. Because of this history, Paulson and coach Josh Barnett are willing to be flexible with Yamamoto’s amateur opponents.

“It makes it easier for us to find him fights, because if a gym doesn’t have someone who can compete at 170, we can fight at 175,” Barnett said. “Shohei has already fought heavyweights so it’s not that big of a deal.”

“From my perspective, I know what he’s capable of, and I know his potential. He’s already fought against heavyweights in a full-on, high-level world competition. Fighting an amateur guy at 180 if we have to is fine. Shohei is a killer at 170 or 180.”

During an MMA event, a fighter faces one opponent and typically trains for weeks or months in advance to take advantage of their opponent’s strengths and weaknesses. To win a Kyokushin tournament rack, it is common for a fighter to face six fights in a single day.

“It gets pretty brutal by the fourth round,” Yamamoto said. “When it comes to the first three rounds, you’re okay, but during the fourth, fifth, and sixth rounds, your legs start giving out and you’re mentally exhausted.”

“After going through that, experiencing MMA, where I only have to fight one person is a lot easier.”

In transitioning from Kyokushin to MMA, Yamamoto needed to develop a ground game to pair with his Kyokushin-based striking. Enter Paulson and Barnett of CSW: prestigious catch wrestlers with the knowledge to round out the most one-dimensional of fighters. Since coming to the gym in 2010, Yamamoto has dedicated himself to building upon the skills that earned him a junior world championship at sixteen.

“CSW definitely has a different aura than a Kyokushin dojo,” Yamamoto said. “But one similarity is that everyone here genuinely loves martial arts. Seeing the guys that have trained here for a long time is very inspiring.”

“The bond that you create beating each other up for four years is the kind of bond that you can’t create anywhere else. Coach Erik has been a father figure for me. Ever since my dad passed away, he’s been there for me. I don’t feel like I could train anywhere else. It feels like home.”

Paulson, the consummate tough guy and old-school fighter, softens when Yamamoto is brought up in conversation.

Yamamoto in a calmer, more contemplative moment (Photo by Stephanie Drews/University of MMA)

Yamamoto in a calmer, more contemplative moment (Photo by Meghan Wonder/University of MMA)

“Shohei has a ton of potential,” Paulson said. “I’ve already received offers for him to come and fight in the professional leagues. We made a commitment when Shohei’s father died. I made a commitment to Shohei’s father that I would take care of Shohei and bring him to the UFC.”

The next step on that journey comes August 24th at Club Nokia, where Yamamoto’s perfect record will be tested by University of MMA welterweight champion Roman Todorovich. ¬†While his immediate focus will be set upon Todorovich, Yamamoto maintains an ever-present eye towards a future of martial arts stardom.

“My goal isn’t to become just the U of MMA champion,” Yamamoto said. “It’s more than that. I want to fight the best. I want to fight in the UFC. I want to show people striking that they have never seen before.”

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