Having won consecutively in national wrestling championships since her early teenage years, Miyuu Yamamoto was the youngest champion in the history to win the World Wrestling Championships. She retired at a young age but came back again, and transitioned to mixed martial arts (MMA) in her forties. Perhaps, her career might seem wild, free-spirited, or maybe even reckless. But is she in real life? Her thoughts and beliefs that she shared with us in our interview were quite the contrary, filled with dedication and profound honesty.
This interview was held in December 2019.
Yamamoto started her intensive training in wrestling when she was in sixth grade. Needless to say, her first trainer was her father, Ikuei Yamamoto, a wrestler representing Japan in the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich. Yamamoto participated in the 1st Japan Women’s Championship shortly after, at age 13. “Today, the championship is divided into different age groups like ‘junior’ and ‘cadette,’ but at the time, anyone above junior high school participated in the same championship. Kids who’ve just graduated from elementary school had to fight against university students and adults.” Sounds quite crazy, but despite the incredible odds, Yamamoto won the 44-kilogram weight class. Not only that, but she won for four consecutive years after that.
Being the youngest ever champion in the World Wrestling Championships which she participated for the first time at the age of 17, her records are outstanding. But after she won the World Wrestling Championships again at age 21, she retired as she got married. After that, she has returned and retired again and again; at the longest, she has been away for seven years. “When I quit, it was because I felt satisfied and felt like I’ve done it all. And when I came back again, it’s because my sister Seiko calls me to be her training partner, so I get fit again, right? And before I realize it, I’m fighting in matches again. That’s how it always goes,” she laughs.
Yamamoto decided to be a mixed martial artist when she was in a dark place, after being declined to participate in the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro as a Canadian representative due to paperwork procedures. “I came back to wrestling in hopes to fight in the Olympics, but I couldn’t. I kept on training anyway to not let it all go to waste, but at the same time I was aware that I didn’t have the same level of focus anymore. That’s when Mr. Sakakibara, who founded the Rizin Fighting Federation, contacted me and I thought, this is it!” Yamamoto admired how her brother, Norifumi “Kid” Yamamoto, also began his career in wrestling, but transitioned into mixed martial arts having experienced some setbacks, which made him a star. Dancing her way to the ring to her entrance song to increase her concentration is also what her brother used to do. “Until then, never in my life did I think that I wanted to be a mixed martial artist. I really believed that it must be painful and scary, so when my eldest son Arsen started MMA, I was strongly against him right until his first match. Well, who would’ve thought that I’d be doing it too 10 months after that!”
Coming back and going back out for several times, why does Yamamoto continue to be a professional athlete? “I get that question all the time, to which I always respond, it’s because I want to, and because I feel that I’m capable. No one knows what comes next, whether I’d suffer from a major injury. I don’t like to be swayed by unexpected setbacks either. So, instead of creating life plans and setting new goals or starting a second career, I decided to do what I want to do and give it my absolute best. I look forward to wrapping a title belt around my waist someday, but right now I’m focused to be a stronger fighter in order to even get to that level, and I believe that every process of the way means something.” Yamamoto’s life may seem quite eventful, but to her, there was only one path that she just had to follow the entire time. She has stomped every step of the way, however, showing no room for even a hint of doubt or fear. She certainly lives by her motto to “‘own the moment.’ It’s what my coach during my years in Canada taught me. I can interpret it in many ways like controlling the pace of a fight, and making use of every experience and lesson. It’s been a really good reminder for me.”
When asked how she wants to fight, Yamamoto answered, “in a way that I can perform the techniques I do best at my own pace. No matter how strong a fighter may be, there’re times when they’re under pressure or perhaps on the brink of losing, but I want to be a fighter who can gain my control back and flip that situation to win the fight.” But to be able to do that, she needs to gain experience to broaden her fighting tactic. “At my age, to be honest, it’s hard to build the same amount of experience as a fighter who has already fought like 20 matches. Which is why I need to gain twice as worth of experience in every match. And I can’t afford to waste a minute or a single second.” Not only does Yamamoto take her matches seriously, but she is also hardcore in her training and very disciplined in her daily life. She definitely lives by her motto, “own the moment.”
Yamamoto has three children, and being a mother has been an important factor to shape her athletic career. “I bet there are fighters out there who are determined but in a desperate way, who’d never tap out from a submission, or think that their calling is to die from fighting in the ring—but I’m nothing like them. Of course, I give it my absolute all when I’m fighting, and I never, ever slack off from my training. I’m really hard on myself, and I’m confident that I train harder than those fighters. However, as long as I’m a mother, I can never die from a match. I’ve put my kids through some things that they probably didn’t have to if I wasn’t an active athlete. So, if anything happens to me, it’s not fair to my kids, right? I’ve made a rule for myself that after every match, I’ll still be fine to walk away from the ring.” As Yamamoto stepped off the ring after the last match, she did seem frustrated, but her walk showed that she didn’t suffer that much damage. And in the interview afterwards, she had a beaming smile on her face. It might have been a secret sign to her children, “mama’s fine and coming home to you soon.”
Yamamoto currently resides in Guam, where she lives with her children. “I’m not around that often because of training sessions and matches, so my kids take turns to do chores around the house besides cooking. I’ve heard that Arsen makes his little sister and brother do his dishwashing, though.” Because the children know that their mother works so hard, they’re all in this together. The Yamamotos are a warm, supportive family. “It’s important to expose our kids to people who try their best to accomplish something. House chores aren’t really my thing, and it’s not like my job creates something that lasts. Wrestling and mixed martial arts are the only things I can show my children how their mama fights for what she wants. And I might as well enjoy it, right? Because it’s what I love, it makes me want to get better at it, which makes me think, what do I need to get better? I want them to learn that process from me as well, because that’s something that everybody needs, that drive to rise higher, no matter what their careers are. If they can do that, they can broaden their own world, and mature as a person.” To Yamamoto, fighting is her profession, her love, and her way of raising children. To her, fighting is living.