For a man tasked with leading leading the next generation of Japanese fighters into the future, Yusuke Yachi is remarkably humble.
I first met him in 2012 at the Krazy Bee gym, just after he’d won the 66kg Shooto Pacific Rim belt. His coach, Kid Yamamoto said to me: “This is my boy. Do you know who he is?”
“Of course I do,” I said as I looked at this tall skinny young man with unkept hair giving me a toothy grin, covered in head to toe in Hard Hit, Kid’s fashion brand. He looked like a skater punk lumberjack.
“He’s going to be the future – you watch him,” Yamamoto added.
Yachi was just a fresh-faced 22-year-old with a big future in front of him. Since then, he’s done a lot to fulfil Kid’s prophesy, while maintaining the cheerful, boyish personality that’s earned him a lot of supporters. It’s hard to believe that he’s been fighting professionally for almost 10 years.
“My earliest memory in the beginning was Kid teaching me how to kick,” Yachi said. “I started MMA because of PRIDE – I’m that generation. My goal was to go to PRIDE.”
During the first four years of his professional career, Yachi followed the Krazy Bee construction plan and competed in Shooto. He fought a wide range of opponents, exuberantly attacking each fight, and along came his breakout year in 2012. Finally, his first belt was in sight. He was matched against the much more experienced and very defense-savvy Miki Wataru for the vacant 66kg Shooto Pacific Rim title. And after putting in the work to prove his hot prospect status, Yachi walked away with the win.
“I realized my first short-term goal: to win a belt with Shooto,” Yachi said. “I was so happy.”
That’s when Yachi’s ring personality started to take shape. He was a kid who followed his dream very early, and got the good fortune to land in the arms of his idol, Kid. Yachi was coached well, loved his life, and his future was as bright as the sun.
So when he was set for his first title defense against the #25 lightweight in the world, Hoshino Yuji, it was just another day at the office.
“I wasn’t intimidated at all by his name, because I had confidence in my own strength,” Yachi said. “And since I was able to knock down a strong wrestler, I believed in myself even more.”
But the Japanese MMA climate had drastically changed since Yachi embarked upon the road to fulfill his dreams. Something new was on the horizon.
“PRIDE had disappeared,” Yachi said. “The UFC was now the best. So I started aiming for the UFC.”
One door closed and another door opened. UFC feeder league Pacific Xtreme Combat signed Yachi for 2 years. It was a fierce up and down stretch that peaked when he won the PXC featherweight title.
But everything plummeted when he lost it.
It had been a given that Yachi would sign with the UFC with a PXC title defense, and the opportunity remained if he could win a deserved title rematch. But the promotion’s show schedule dwindled and stopped. In 2016, he found himself back in Japan, this time in Pancrase. It seemed that Yachi had to start over. But he didn’t see it that way. He was still gunning for a belt.
“I always felt like I wanted to fight in the UFC,” Yachi said. “Rather than wanting to be a champion of Pancrase, I thought that I had to get a belt to go to the UFC.”
While that opportunity still hadn’t come, another sprung up in its place.PRIDE founder Nobuyuki Sakakibara launched RIZIN and a version of Yachi’s original dream finally came true. He signed to RIZIN, and in 2017, he finished three world-ranked opponents, becoming a sensation.
“Daron Cruickshank was a strong UFC fighter,” Yachi said. “I gained the confidence to believe now that I am at world level.”
Yachi’s next opponent, Kitaoka was the number one ranked lightweight in Japan. So, does that mean Yachi took his position?
“No, I don’t I don’t think I’m number one,” he said. “Because Japan still has a lot of strong fighters.”
Yachi’s last opponent in 2017 was none other thanPRIDE legend Takenori Gomi. Amazingly, Yachi wasn’t the least bit intimidated, just the same as his humble days in Shooto.
“Gomi was my hero during my childhood, I was honored to be able to fight him,” Yachi said. “After we fought, he said he would leave the 70kg division in my hands.”
Finally, was the toughest fight of Yachi’s career – and a defining moment that truly changed him from eternal hot prospect to world level: Diego Nunes. The dizzying three-round battle earned a Fight of the Year nomination by The Fight Nation and had the entire arena screeching his name.
“That was a very tough match and a very tough fight,” Yachi said. “However, by overcoming it, I feel that I became one more level stronger.”
Yachi is headlining RIZIN 12 in Nagoya, Japan in front of 7,500 people – a testament to his popularity and success.
“No, I don’t think it can be said that I’m successful,” Yachi admits. “Nothing has changed. I just get to eat more delicious things.”
He’ll be facing a hyped up Wanderlei Silva prospect, Luiz Gustavo.
“He’s a young and strong fighter with a lot of momentum,” Yachi said. “As all his wins are finishes; I’ve got to be vigilant.”
There’s one topic that’s become a little bit sensational in RIZIN lately: a spate of romances blossoming. Such as young superstars Tenshin and Kanna. Yachi’s turned from a scruffy smiling kid into a physical specimen. More and more women are showing up at Krazy Bee to take his classes. So, does Yachi have a girlfriend?
“I will leave it to your imagination,” Yachi said.
After winning two belts and fighting in RIZIN, the resurgence of his original dream, what are Yachi’s MMA goals now?
“I want to be loved by everyone and I want to be a fighter that everyone knows,” Yachi said. “I want to win a belt at RIZIN.”
That’s not all. There’s still a fire burning for that opportunity that has so far eluded him.
“And I want to fight in the UFC,” Yachi said. “Ultimately, I want to become a UFC champion.”
From his do-or-die aggression to his over-the-top happiness, Yachi is the poster boy for the Japanese MMA fans. And he’s even become a heartthrob, which I find – after fondly remembering the 22-year-old grinning kid I first met – hilarious.
But there’s nothing funny about Yachi inside the ring.