Mei Yamaguchi’s opponent at ONE: Unstoppable Dream was still a teenager when she became a superstar in Asia and one of the highest-earning female fighters in the sport. For the Japanese veteran, the journey to the top has taken much longer.
Yamaguchi has been a professional since 2007, but did not get an opportunity to fight outside of her hometown until her 15th fight. She’s won three different titles, but had to go through a tournament to do it on every single occasion.
Mei Yamaguchi Paved the Way for Angela Lee
She’s a big name in Asia now, but it has taken a while. Yamaguchi had been competing for nearly a decade when she got the call to challenge Lee for the inaugural ONE women’s atomweight title and, at the start of her career, she could never have dreamed of headlining a card in a major arena.
“It was really, really hard. Because I love mixed martial arts, I kept doing it and I was hoping and dreaming for a day when women’s mixed martial arts would get big all over the world.”
ONE Championship held its first female fight in early 2012 with the UFC handing Ronda Rousey her promotional debut later that year. Japan might have more history than other countries when it comes to producing women's MMA fighters, but Yamaguchi says that opportunities have always been very limited.
“When mixed martial arts first got big in Japan, a lot of people watched it, but there were no women’s matches. Now there are a lot of women’s athletes in the United States and all over the world, but it was a really hard time for Japanese mixed martial artists to keep competing.”
The Lee vs. Yamaguchi Rematch Has Been a Long Time Coming
Lee and Yamaguchi first fought in 2016. A rematch was nixed when the champion suffered a car crash last year, but the 35-year-old believes she has improved immensely in the two years that have elapsed since their original meeting.
“I have fought for the last 10 years (and) I have always had good coaches and good people around me, but there were still positions or situations that I would worry about. Now, I am becoming more perfect in every position, I have fewer things that I am worried about, and I think that has given me a lot of confidence.”
This was the 28th fight camp of Yamaguchi’s career. She has a tried and tested routine, which she does not deviate from.
“Basically, it is the same thing all the time. I do the same training over and over, and then I add new stuff. For eight weeks, I kind of concentrate on one opponent and do some stuff that I can adjust to my opponent. That is kind of my routine.”
Having shared a cage with Lee for 25 frenetic minutes, Yamaguchi knows what to expect and says she if very confident heading into the rematch.
"Some of the technique is special for this fight for Angela Lee. I have a lot of confidence now. I do not know how much, but it is pretty obvious that I am really confident in both the ground game and boxing."
Mei Yamaguchi Wants to Lead ONE Championship into Japan
ONE Championship recently signed a deal with Abema TV in Japan. The promotion has always had plenty of stars from that country, including Shinya Aoki, Nobutatsu Suzuki, and Yoshitaka Naito, but the new broadcast agreement has given it a much higher profile, according to Yamaguchi.
“I am pretty excited because now a lot of people know about ONE Championship. We have this TV program in Japan and you can see it on your cell phone. I think more people watch that than a normal TV program because it is so easy to watch."
An event in Japan has been penciled in for 2019. Fighting for Asia’s biggest MMA promotion in her hometown of Tokyo would be a dream for Yamaguchi, particularly after all those years plying her trade on cards promoted by small local organizations.
She’s fought Finnish opponents in Finland, Filipino opponents in the Philippines, and this will be her second time facing Lee in Singapore. Yamaguchi is used to being on the road and says the crowd won’t bother her.
“If I am fighting in a foreign country most of the time, the crowd will support the opponent. I know that, and I know how to prepare for that, so it does not matter that much. It is not a big deal for me. I just need to shut that out and do what I need to do.”
However, Yamaguchi feels that ONE Championship is gaining momentum in Japan and would love nothing more than to defend the atomweight title in Tokyo.
“(A title fight in Tokyo) would be perfect. If (ONE Championship) come to Japan, it is only going to get bigger and bigger. If I can fight at that card, my fans and my supporters will be excited.”
A fight for ONE Championship in Tokyo looks like a distinct possibility for Yamaguchi in 2019. If she wants to make it a title match, the veteran will have to wrestle the belt away from Lee in Singapore on Friday. It won’t be easy, but after a decade in the sport, she knows exactly what is required to win.