TOKYO (TR) – It is a windy evening in the capital in late April, and Japanese fighter Mei Yamaguchi is punishing a punching bag inside the spartan Gods gym, situated across a narrow street from a railway station.
Right. Left. Right. Left.
As Yamaguchi, 35, delivers each rocket-like blow, she lets out a muffled grunt. Robert De Niro looks on, peering from a “Taxi Driver” poster affixed to a wall. Yamaguchi then circles the black bag and goes at it again.
Left. Right. Left. Right.
Next week, Yamaguchi will put her training to the test in a mixed martial arts bout for the Women’s Atomweight World Championship title against Angela Lee at One Championship’s “Unstoppable Dreams” in Singapore — an opportunity to avenge a loss to the American-Singaporean in 2016.
“Last time, it was my first time doing five rounds,” Yamaguchi said during a break, seated on the mat. “So it was pretty tough. This time, I want to focus on my cardio training. As well, I want to be more relaxed.”
Since facing Lee, Yamaguchi defeated Jenny “Lady GoGo” Huang in June 2017. She then went to pummel Gina “Conviction” Iniong in a three-round rematch in November of last year.
Lee, however, poses a significant challenge: The 21-year-old is undefeated, holding an 8-0 record. “I have to get ahead of Angela Lee, both standing and on the ground,” Yamaguchi said of her strategy.
Yamaguchi started training in martial arts as a child, specifically learning karate while living in the U.S. During her college years, the Tokyo native began learning jiu-jitsu.
“I was really curious about jiu jitsu,” she said. “But I didn’t know any techniques or the rules. At that time, there were promoters like Pride and K-1 holding events in Japan. In watching, it was pretty sick, seeing naked guys stuck together. It didn’t look pretty for me. But once I started learning those techniques it was pretty fun.”
Through the coaxing of others, she entered the lightweight mixed martial arts tournament “Smackgirl-F 2007.” “I thought it was for amateurs, but later I learned it was for pros,” she remembered. “I won the first one. So I had to do the second one. I didn’t want to do it, but then I won the second one. Then I went to the finals, and I won the tournament. So that’s how I started in mixed martial arts.”
Next week, Yamaguchi will be focused on winning the world championship, a title she is confident she can take. However, when asked to look back at her career to this point, which has lasted for more than a decade, the fighter is quick to think about the energy she brings to the ring.
“If someone is asked about their most exciting fight, and if they were to say it was a Mei Yamaguchi fight, then that would be great,” she said.
Note: “Unstoppable Dreams” will be held at Singapore Indoor Stadium on May 18.