A month ago, news broke of Japanese fight promotion Deep organising an amateur MMA fight between a 12-year-old known as Momo and 24-year-old Momoko Yamazaki at the event Deep Jewels 16 on May 20th. Yamazaki has been billed as a former delinquent with a love for street fighting, with an amateur record of 2-3, while Momo—predictably—is slated to make her debut. The pair will be fighting at the 95lbs minimumweight limit.
Western fighters and journalists were outraged. Former UFC middleweight Gerald Harris said the fight shouldn't be legal, while former UFC bantamweight Sarah Kaufman questioned how this could possibly be allowed by an athletic commission. This is Japan—like in almost every country bar the United States—Japan does not have an athletic commission in the same way the USA does. The UFC just announced it will be returning to Japan's famed Saitama Super Arena in September and the promotion, like before, will be acting as its own commission, conducting its own drug testing and medicals, to make up for that fact.
Whether it was virtuous faux horror or legitimate anger emanating from the western MMA scene, Yamazaki, who has lost two fights in a row, felt the need to defend her decision to fight someone half her age.
Considering the fact one can become a professional MMA fighter aged 15 in Japan, this is just an exhibition bout and Deep Jewels amateur rules are rather stringent. Both competitors will be wearing headgear, shin guards, knee pads, and gloves with thicker padding. On the feet, it will essentially be an amateur kickboxing contest—the only part of the fight which allow strikes to the head—while any ground play will effectively be a grappling match without the strikes like in professional MMA.
Oh, and by the way, the above video from a Deep Jewels event shows 13-year-old Yukari Yamaguchi easily defeating 32-year-old then veteran of 19 fights, Nana Ichikawa. It's regular practice in Japan. Young fighters with lots of potential will often be paired up against older and relatively unskilled opposition in the amateur ranks to whip up some hype well ahead of their professional careers. Momo's contest against Yamazaki is no different to what happened with Yamaguchi back in 2011.
Like Momo, Yamaguchi hails from the famed Hakushinkai Karate gym in Toyohashi. Other teammates of Momo include young, upcoming Japanese talents such as 22-year-old Invicta FC veteran Mizuki Inoue and her younger brother, Naoki Inoue—who at 19, has already earned a UFC call-up thanks to the flyweight's flawless 10-0 record.
Hakushinkai coach Sadanori Yamaguchi has a knack of developing fighting prospects. His student Yukari has already found success in both MMA and shoot boxing in her native Japan despite her mere 18 years, while Mizuki Inoue defeated UFC's Australian strawweight duo of Alex Chambers and Bec Rawlings aged just 17 and 18 at the time.
According to the Hakushinkai coach, Momo has been training at the gym since she was in kindergarten. He offered a statement to CJS Report saying: "[Momo's] fight is going to be held under amateur rules in the preliminary part of the event and Deep Jewels amateur rules are very safe. Some of the reports published in America have false information such as Momo will be fighting a professional fighter. That is not true at all. Momo is fighting an amateur fighter with no pro-experience. Also, Momo has been training 6 days a week since she was in kindergarten. So far she has competed in over 100 amateur BJJ, Kickboxing, and Karate matches, therefore, she has far more experience in combat sports than her upcoming opponent Ms. Momoko Yamazaki.
"Since Momo is just three centimeteres shorter and three kilograms less than Yamazaki, I have decided to accept the offer from Deep Jewels because I believe Momo is fully capable of fighting Ms. Yamazaki. As far as I know, in the past, Jewels has done fights between 13 year olds vs adults, 12 year olds vs adults, and in those fights, the younger fighters won by submission."
Yamaguchi later added: "If you look at these proven track records of teenage fighters from my dojo, and if you can imagine the effort my students have been putting into training, I hope, all of you out there realize that this matchmaking by Deep Jewels is not something crazy. In addition, I've never forced my students to fight or compete. Momo is very excited about fighting for the promotion she has admired for years and she has been training very hard."
A lot of the furore of Momo's debut amateur contest from this side of the world stemmed from journalists living outside the MMA bubble, with the NY Post, UK tabloid press, and Complex being among those who exaggerated the announcement's shock factor for precious internet traffic. The article from Complex is rather telling in this, with writer Chris Yuscavage opening his piece with an admission that he's never watched Japanese MMA, but had become acquainted with Japan's "shock factor" MMA fights while researching about Momo. Meanwhile, the UK's Daily Star outright lied, claiming Momo's opponent Yamazaki was a professional.
12-year-olds competing in amateur MMA may not sit well with you, but it's not considered taboo in Japan. Reducing the Japanese MMA scene to only focusing on its "shock" side is fast becoming tired editorial trope. Culturally, Japan is totally different to what we're used to in the western world and we can't expect their MMA scene to be any different—Japanese fight organisations are catering for their audience, not ours. Still, one can't help but to worry that matchups like these only hurt the reputation of MMA as it continues to solidify itself as a mainstream global sport.