On February 11, 2010, Mei “V Hajime” Yamaguchi shocked the mixed martial arts world when she submitted Japanese legend Yuka Tsuji in just 76 seconds to become Valkyrie Featherweight Champion at 115 pounds. She will make the first defence of her title on November 28th.
From early life in both Japan and the United States as a child, Yamaguchi has always had an interest in combat sports, but never dreamed that she would become a pro fighter. She speaks with MMARising.com about her upcoming rematch with Kyoko Takabayashi and goals outside of Japan.
Mei Yamaguchi was born in Japan in 1983 but spent much of her childhood growing up in Los Angeles, California where Hollywood movies would play a pivotal role in shaping the course of her life. Returning to Japan in the mid-1990s, Yamaguchi once again found herself having to speak and write Japanese, but the move allowed her to pursue her passion for karate. Now a karate teacher and member of the MAX Jiu-Jitsu Academy, Yamaguchi has developed into a well-rounded mixed martial artist and is currently regarded as one of the best female fighters in MMA.
MMARising.com: Hi, Mei! Thank you so much for taking time out from training to speak with us. To begin, could you tell us a bit about what first led you to karate and mixed martial arts? Did you always want to be a fighter even when you were a child?
Mei Yamaguchi: I started to learn karate around age 7. I wanted to be just like Jackie Chan. He’s my favourite movie star! Then I started jiu-jitsu when I was in college, but I didn’t have any interest in MMA. Some people asked me if I wanted to do MMA because I did both standing and ground fighting. That’s when I started to think about MMA. My goal was to be a top athlete since I was a kid, but I never thought to be a fighter.
MMARising.com: You spent quite a few years of your childhood living in the United States. How did that affect you and what led to your decision to return home to Japan?
Mei: I learned that I must keep my Japanese spirit and identity wherever I am. That led me to train hard in karate, too. My family moved back to Japan, so I did not have a choice. I like both countries; both are home for me.
MMARising.com: Mixed martial arts in Japan is not as popular as it once was, but some promotions are still doing well. Are you happy living in Japan or would you like to return to North America if there were more opportunities for you to get fights?
Mei: There might be more fights in the U.S., but there are more training partners in Japan who are my size. I would like to go and train to improve my MMA skills in the U.S., but I have my karate branch in Tokyo, so it is hard for me to move back to the U.S. right now. However, I’m planning to visit to train for a few weeks next year.
MMARising.com: Other Japanese fighters like Megumi Fujii, Hitomi Akano and Takayo Hashi have come over to the U.S. to compete in fights on TV in front of hundreds of thousands of viewers. What would it mean to you to be able to compete in front of so many people who may not have seen you fight before?
Mei: In the U.S., MMA is so much bigger than in Japan, so it is going to be a great chance to show my aggressive fights. I really like to show my fighting spirit.
MMARising.com: Do you feel that Japanese fighters are properly respected by North American fans? If not, what needs to happen for fans outside of Japan to understand how talented you really are?
Mei: Fans in North America are always good supporters of us. Japanese MMA promotion is not as big as in the U.S., so there is less information for Japanese women’s MMA fights. Japanese fighters, including me, must use Twitter, Facebook, blogs and any other tools on the Internet to give information to people outside of Japan.
MMARising.com: You currently hold what is arguably the most prestigious women’s title in Japan today, as the Valkyrie Featherweight Champion at 115 pounds. You won the title with a shocking upset of Yuka Tsuji in February. What were you feeling when you won the championship and what does it mean to you to be a champion in Valkyrie?
Mei: Most of the people didn’t think that I would win against Yuka Tsuji, but I told myself that I still had a chance. I believed in myself until the last moment. After the fight, I had great respect for Yuka Tsuji for leading me to be serious and letting me know the excitement of MMA. I should always face tough opponents to make fans say that a Valkyrie champion is a world champion.
MMARising.com: Your victory over Yuka was one of the most impressive performances of 2010 and you submitted her in just 76 seconds. Did you expect the fight to end quickly or were you prepared for a longer fight like your first match with her in 2008?
Mei: I thought the fight would be three full rounds. I was prepared for a longer fight like it was in 2008. No one in my team thought that I would tap her out in the first round.
MMARising.com: So far, you have never been knocked out or submitted and your two losses both came by way of competitive decisions. You have already avenged both losses and your next fight will be a rematch with Kyoko Takabayashi for your title. What do you feel you need to do to be able to defeat her again?
Mei: Kyoko Takabayashi has really good technique in both striking and on the ground, but she is less aggressive. I need to be well prepared in technique but need to keep my distance in order to be more aggressive than her. That will lead to a KO and will stop her wrestling technique.
MMARising.com: If you are able to beat Kyoko, which other fighters in your division would you like to face?
Mei: I’ve always wanted to challenge Megumi Fujii. I’m always looking for a chance.
MMARising.com: You have also had success in shoot boxing in the Girls S-Cup tournaments. Has this helped you with your striking for your MMA fights or do you still feel that you are best when you are working for submissions?
Mei: Fighting in the Girls S-Cups helped me so much with my striking skills in MMA. Shoot boxing allows for throws and standing submissions, so it gave me technique variations in the moves between striking and the ground. It is not only wrestling moves, but also judo, muay Thai and other small parts of shoot boxing technique that are useful for MMA. After a few fights in shoot boxing, I started to feel comfortable in striking, too. Now I am ready for anything.
MMARising.com: While most other promotions in Japan still use rings, Valkyrie uses a cage. Do you prefer to fight inside a ring or a cage, or does it not matter to you?
Mei: I prefer the cage. It just feels comfortable for me.
MMARising.com: The other all-female promotion in Japan, Jewels, will crown its first 115-pound champion in December. There are many talented fighters in Jewels as well. Do you think that you will ever have the chance to fight opponents like Mika Nagano and Seo Hee Ham?
Mei: Yes, I would like to fight with some fighters in Jewels. Seo Hee Ham has good body balance and has good skills in MMA. Other fighters there seem to be very talented, too!
MMARising.com: You are already one of the best fighters in your division and you have been fighting for less than four years. What are some of your goals in MMA and what would you like to do in 2011?
Mei: My goal is to be a world champion. I know there are so many talented fighters all over the world, so I need a chance to fight outside of Japan in 2011.
MMARising.com: Some female fighters in Japan have chosen to retire once they have fought for a few years. Do you plan to stay in MMA for many more years?
Mei: If I have no serious injuries, yes, I would like to fight for at least three or four more years.
MMARising.com: For fans in North America who may not have seen your fights, what would you like them to know about you and your fighting style?
Mei: I always try to be aggressive, and show some tricky and exciting techniques for all of the MMA fans. I grew up in the U.S., so I would love to fight there someday. I feel like I have two hometowns. I’m so lucky!!!
MMARising.com: Do you have any final comments for your friends, family and training partners?
Mei: I really thank all of you who cheer and support me every day. LOVE YOU ALL!!!
MMARising.com: Thank you very much for taking time out for this interview. Best wishes for your title fight with Kyoko Takabayashi at Valkyrie 8 on November 28th.
Mei: Thank you.
(Photo Credit: GBRing.com)