When Mei “V.V” Yamaguchi made her professional mixed martial arts debut in March 2007, she could not even get equal billing with her male counterparts.
More than a decade ago, “V.V.” and other women in the sport did not have the same opportunities they have today. They struggled for acceptance and the same respect as their male counterparts.
“When I first started fighting in Japan, it was women-only tournaments and events like Smackgirl,” she explains.
“I started to fight in Pancrase, and that’s when the girls’ card was in between the guys’ [card]. When that happened, I remembered all the guys were saying, ‘Why is my fight before the girls’ card?’”
In those days, the Riki Gym representative found it hard to do such a thing. Women were still embracing the idea that they could become mixed martial artists. For those who already chose the path, their competition was not challenging enough.
“Women fighters had to show that our fights were interesting,” says Yamaguchi.
“We had to show aggressiveness. We had to show that a women’s card was exciting, too. I think a lot of fighters looked down on the women’s fighters.”
“There were only a few women’s fighters in those days, and the skill level wasn’t as high back then. It was very hard to show our skills when matched against the big guys.”
Yamaguchi found herself engaged in two battles – one in the ring and one to get women’s mixed martial arts noticed.
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The level of exposure was so low, the cost of training to compete cost her more money than she made, but the Japanese athlete’s love for the sport kept her going.
“If I had to get ready for a fight – and maybe I had an injury – I had to go to the doctor for treatment. I had to pay for it, and that was more than I made for the fight!” she recalls.
“It was crazy. I really couldn’t fight for money. I fought because I loved it and that was my life.”
As time passed and more women took to mixed martial arts, the opportunities for Yamaguchi and others grew.
By 2011, she had made history as one half of the first women’s main event in Pancrase when she topped the bill ahead of 20 men’s match-ups. That opened the door for more high-profile contests.
“I think the first big event was Pancrase. I fought in the main event with Tomomi Sunaba,” she says.
“She was a legendary fighter who fought from the Pancrase promotions for a long time. It was also [Vale Tudo Japan] when I fought against Megumi Fujii.
“Those two [events] were the beginning for me, and at the same time around the world, women’s fights started happening on main cards and main events.”
Yamaguchi’s perseverance paid off. The Tokyo native has gone on to compete in headline bouts in the world’s largest martial arts organization, and she will have a starring role at its biggest event.
But as much as she has helped to play a major part in bringing women’s bouts to the forefront, and paved the way for the next generation of her compatriots like Itsuki Hirata in ONE, she says she is only continuing the work of the competitors she admires.
“I’m so proud to hear that people say I’m a pioneer, but before me there were a lot of good fighters who kept doing it, and they didn’t stop even when people didn’t watch women’s mixed martial arts,” she adds.
“They might’ve only had 50 or 60 people in the audience, but they kept doing it. People like Megumi Fujii [and] all the other women’s fighters who started to fight in Japan – those are the pioneers. I’m very glad I had those people before me.”
- Watch PART I in USA on 12 October at 8pm EST and PART II on 13 October at 4am EST
- Watch PART I in India on 13 October at 5:30am IST and PART II at 1:30pm IST
- Watch PART I in Indonesia on 13 October at 7am WIB and PART II at 3pm WIB
- Watch PART I in Singapore on 13 October at 8am SGT and PART II at 4pm SGT
- Watch PART I in the Philippines on 13 October at 8am PHT and PART II at 4pm PHT
- Watch PART I in Japan on 13 October at 9am JST and PART II at 5pm JST
ONE: CENTURY is the biggest World Championship martial arts event in history with 28 World Champions featured across various martial arts. No organization has ever promoted two full-scale World Championship events on the same day.
The Home Of Martial Arts will break new ground as it brings multiple World Title bouts, a trio of World Grand Prix Championship Finals, and several World Champion versus World Champion matches to the famous Ryogoku Kokugikan in Tokyo, Japan on 13 October.