Seven-time Muay Thai champion “The Queen of Mean” Miriam Nakamoto has competed at the highest level for many years, but life as a Muay Thai fighter has been a constant struggle. It was not until her Invicta FC debut this year that affording simple luxuries like new clothes became possible.
This past Saturday, Nakamoto earned Knockout of the Night honours for her first-round stoppage of “Diamond” Duda Yankovich at Invicta FC 6 in Kansas City. Following the fight, Nakamoto spoke at length with MMARising.com about her career and about the importance of respect in combat sports.
Nakamoto (2-0-0, 1 NC MMA; 15-0-0 Muay Thai) began fighting professionally in 2005 and first became known for winning the Muay Thai-themed Fight Girls competition two years later. She captured her first world championship later that year and has since won six more world titles while maintaining a perfect professional record. After sitting out all of 2011 following ACL reconstructive surgery, Nakamoto earned her biggest victory to date in August when she defeated 53-fight veteran Julie Kitchen to win the WCK Champion of Champions title. She was then labelled by some as the best female striker in the world.
The title of “best in the world” often comes with many perks. For Nakamoto, however, winning world titles was nice but having the ability to pay bills and buy food and clothing was much more important. Most of Nakamoto’s Muay Thai victories had paid out small fight purses and she began to look for new opportunities in fighting. MMA was on the rise and Nakamoto decided to take on a new challenge.
Having already begun jiu-jitsu and mixed martial arts training at Combat Sports Academy in California, Nakamoto made her MMA debut against Elizabeth Phillips on September 15th. Nakamoto had suffered a deep cut in her WCK title fight with Kitchen one month earlier, but it proved to be a non-factor and she battered Phillips en route to a second-round TKO victory. The impressive stoppage win put Nakamoto on the Invicta FC radar and the all-female promotion signed her to its roster earlier this year.
Nakamoto’s Invicta FC debut in April originally ended in a first-round knockout victory over Jessamyn “The Gun” Duke, but the result of the fight was later overturned as a result of a second (illegal) knee that Nakamoto landed to a downed and dazed Duke after dropping her with a legal knee strike. The win was stripped from Nakamoto’s record, but she learned a number of valuable lessons from the fight.
On Saturday night, Nakamoto returned to the cage to face former boxing champion Yankovich at Invicta FC 6 and the bantamweight striker versus striker bout ended in quick and decisive fashion. Nakamoto dropped Yankovich with knees on two occasions and finished the fight with a barrage of punches on the ground at the 2:08 mark of round one. She received her second $1000 Knockout of the Night bonus for her performance and this time there was no controversy surrounding the victory.
Comparisons are frequently drawn between fight purses in MMA and boxing. Critics assert that MMA fighters are grossly underpaid compared to their boxing counterparts, but for Nakamoto, who has fought for minimal money in Muay Thai for many years, having the chance to compete for Invicta FC has been somewhat life-changing and she is very thankful for the opportunity.
“I love getting the Knockout of the Night. That’s amazing because I’ve been so poor,” Nakamoto says. “I just went shopping and spent my Knockout of the Night bonus on new clothes, and I haven’t bought new clothes in like three years. I’ve just had all of this Lululemon clothing that my sister bought me and a couple of things that I got, and all of those articles of clothing have holes in them and stains on them. They’re old and faded.
“In our gym, on the combat side, there’s a blown-up picture of me after a fight with a belt and a picture of Kevin Ross. And then there’s a poster of the whole fight team with our belts underneath. I’m in this place of honour, prestige and elevation for my achievements and for my stature, and then I have holes in my clothes. So finally, I went and bought new clothes and it feels really good. I have money left over and I’ll be okay until my next fight. I can pay my bills until the next fight and that’s a great feeling.”
Nakamoto was happy to take home the Fight of the Night bonus on Saturday, but she was not entirely satisfied with her quick victory. In her quest to continue to improve, Nakamoto is often critical of her performances and Saturday was no different. She was subdued and solemn in the hours following the fight as she thought back to what she could have done better.
“I think that I could have ended the fight sooner,” Nakamoto says. “After I landed the first elbow – the really devastating elbow – if I had thrown a flying knee to the face after that elbow, it would have ended sooner. That was something that I could have improved upon. And also, after she dropped when I first kneed her in the head, I got carried away when I was standing over her and trying to ground and pound her. I’m still green at that and I think I got a little greedy.
“I paid more attention to punching her than making sure that I was safe, and that’s how I got into the situation with her [attempting a] heel hook. I really like to err on the side of caution, especially in MMA, and at that point I think I had gotten a little ahead of myself. I think that the reason why people get caught with stuff is that they become a bit careless.”
Overall, Nakamoto knows that she did many things right on Saturday night and she sees continued improvement in her technique and skills with each passing fight. She is now focused on channelling her own self-criticism into a positive motivating force, and she identifies the improvements that she has made during the past three months.
“Every fight, I get better,” she says. “I’m always improving and I definitely feel that I am maturing as a fighter. I think that has a lot to do with being older and feeling comfortable in my own skin. It’s also about being at a point where I can be honest with myself and channel critical negativity into something more productive. Like knowing that I have to put in the work instead of just being self-deprecating.
“In this last fight against Yankovich, I was very responsive to her penetration of my space and my territory and that’s why she couldn’t just corner me against the cage. The thing with Duke was that she just rushed in at me, even though she supposedly had good striking, too, and just pinned me against the cage. I wasn’t responsive enough to not let her do that to me, so that was my fault.”
Nakamoto describes at length her decision not to taunt opponents or celebrate her victories in an overly aggressive manner. For her, having years of experience in combat sports and multiple world title wins under her belt has taught her how to remain composed, both in and out of fights. She believes that this is an area for improvement among today’s MMA fighters.
“I was watching my fight [against Yankovich] on YouTube and listening to the commentary,” Nakamoto recalls. “They were saying things like, ‘I can’t believe Nakamoto’s composure. Wow, her composure.’ They don’t understand that when you fight for world titles, that’s a lot of pressure. These MMA world champions, they’ve defended their belts once or twice. Maybe three times at most. I’ve won seven world titles [in Muay Thai]. This was only my 25th fight, but I’ve fought for world titles a bunch of times.
“With that amount of pressure and craziness, I think that’s why I don’t celebrate a win the way that other people [in MMA] do. They’ll run around the cage and all of that, and I never really do that because I’ve won world titles. [Doing] that is not like winning an MMA fight or a boxing fight. The way that I respond to wins and the way that I conduct myself in the cage is very different from the way that most other MMA fighters conduct themselves. I’m happy about that.
“Even at the weigh-ins, I feel half-dead,” Nakamoto adds. “I’m not going to pose and posture and I’m not going to act tough. I am exhausted, I want to cry, I feel like s–t and I’m barely holding myself up. I don’t need to act tough. I can smile at my opponent, shake her hand and bow at her. It’s the same thing when I’m walking out and getting into the cage. I don’t give a s–t about posing and posturing.
“When the bell rings, I’m going to touch gloves and I’m going to do my job. I don’t need to be angry about it. I don’t need to mad-dog them or be disrespectful. I need to be calm, cool and just be this cold-blooded assassin. And then after I beat them, or even if I don’t beat them, I can bow and shake their hand and tell them thank you. And check to make sure that they’re okay.
“I feel like, with MMA, that’s the attitude that is missing,” Nakamoto continues. “The way of behaving is missing, so I’m really happy to show a different way of being. To be as vicious, as technical and as scary as I am in a fight, and also be very respectful and mild-mannered and professional. I think there is a serious lack of that type of behaviour in MMA.
“I think that it’s because so many people, even though they’re on a big stage and they have all of these fans, they’re very green and very young in the sport. They haven’t competed much and that’s when you mature as a professional. I don’t need to put a weird spin on stuff and call it something that it isn’t. Hopefully, if I can show that to an MMA audience, it will help to change people from the inside out.”
Respect among fighters is also very important to Nakamoto, and those who treat her with respect receive that same respect in return. She speaks highly of her most recent opponent’s toughness and professionalism, but has harsh criticism for Duke, whom she feels was dishonest and disrespectful when discussing their controversial April fight with the media.
“I think that people were feeling like the illegal knee was how I won the [Jessamyn Duke] fight, but it’s not,” Nakamoto says. “It was because of the first knee, and fighting the way that I did in this last fight just proves that that first one wasn’t an accident. Duda was way tougher than Jessamyn was. Elizabeth Phillips was way tougher than Jessamyn was. [Duke] just took that shot and she crumbled, whereas with Duda I kneed her in the face twice and elbowed her. That was a hard elbow.
“I think that [Duke] is not very honest,” she adds. “I think there’s a lack of integrity. Often times, fighters are more interested in what people think of them and how they are perceived by those people than how they perceive themselves. I think that some of the things she has said are kind of insane. Like, ‘Well, she’s got good standup, but I’ve got good standup, too!’ Yes, your standup certification is comparable to that of the WBC world champion. Probably, yeah. That’s a valid statement…you f–king idiot.
“She says, ‘You’ve seen me get rocked in fights [before] and I could have come back from that.’ Really? Really?!? ‘I was moving decisively towards a takedown.’ Really? You were flat on your shins, leaning forward with me propping you up. That is a severe lack of integrity. I think it’s really rude and low to take away somebody’s efforts because you don’t have the honesty in yourself, because of your pride, to admit that you got your ass whooped. That is what I don’t respect.
“With Duda, she was just like, ‘She was the better fighter that night and that’s why that happened.’ She wasn’t like, ‘Oh, I just wasn’t used to elbows and that’s why I lost, and blah, blah, blah.’ She just said, ‘She was the better fighter,’ and I can respect that because that is a woman’s response. That’s being a real woman. Like me, when I fought Julie Kitchen, and I had blood streaming down my face. I had blood all over her and I sprained my neck, and I fought her [even] harder. That’s a real woman’s response. I don’t make any excuses. F–k that. That’s the difference between a champion and everybody else.”
Nakamoto’s frustration with Duke subsides as she jokingly describes her disastrous weight cut from this past Friday. For the first time in her career, Nakamoto almost gave up midway through the cut, but she was lucky to have a teammate at her side to keep her on track.
“I’d really like to thank Jenny Benda,” Nakamoto laughs. “She was awesome. I had to go to the sauna [to cut weight] twice and this was the first time that I’ve ever bolted from the sauna. In 25 fights, I had never bolted from the sauna on my hands and knees and had someone grab me around the waist and try to drag me back in. I did that to her, and she was like, ‘You’re not going to let coach down!’
“I’ve never done that before. I’ve cried and done the hysterics on the floor, but I’ve never run out of the sauna on my hands and knees. She stuck through it and we got the 12 pounds off. I just have to thank her because she was really great. I’d also like to thank [coach] Kirian Fitzgibbons for sending Jenny out with me and for everything else.”
Nakamoto will have little time to savour her weekend victory. She puts her WBC world title on the line for the first time at a WCK-promoted Muay Thai event on August 24th. An opponent has not yet been announced, but Nakamoto is hoping for a challenge and she is ready for anyone. She also hopes that her recent success in MMA will translate into an increased interest in the sport of Muay Thai.
In addition to her Muay Thai title defence, Nakamoto would also like to participate in Brazilian jiu-jitsu tournaments this year. The two-stripe white belt is working hard at developing her ground game and is eager to learn new things. She is most comfortable when new techniques start to come naturally.
“I don’t like it when something doesn’t feel right and I can tell when it doesn’t feel right because it feels hard,” she says. “I always want that easy feeling, where it’s smooth like a hot knife through butter. I know when it doesn’t feel like that, it’s wrong. I don’t like being uncomfortable in the sense that I’m doing things wrong. I want that comfortability and that grace and easiness of how it’s supposed to be.”
At age 36, Nakamoto knows that there is little time to waste in MMA, but at the same time she does not want to rush her career. She took a moment to admire the Invicta FC titles on Saturday and hopes to one day capture an MMA championship of her own, but for now it’s one day and one fight at a time on the way to the top of the highly competitive women’s bantamweight division.