Mei Yamaguchi has been fighting all her life. Born in Tokyo, Japan, she was whisked away as a five-year-old with her mother to Los Angeles, where she developed a love for the movies of Jackie Chan and helped foster an early desire to replicate her martial arts hero.
But life wasn’t easy. Yamaguchi was bullied at school because of the way she looked and talked. Then at the age of nine her mother died and she moved back to Japan to be with her father.
Such a start in life would prove derailing for many, but Yamaguchi found solace in her karate.
“It gave me confidence,” Yamaguchi told CNN Sport’s Alex Thomas. “I was training my inner mentality. That helped me to stay strong.”
She returned to the US to study and discovered Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. From here, her career in mixed martial arts (MMA) began.
And at Sunday’s ONE Championship event in Tokyo — the organisation’s 100th live show — the 36-year-old Yamaguchi will compete in her 33rd fight against Taiwan’s Jenny Huang.
But her MMA career might have easily ended after just one fight. “It was like a nightmare,” Yamaguchi said of her 2007 debut bout.
“I thought MMA is more simple, easy. Just punch, take them down, look for submission. For me it looked pretty simple. Was able to finish my opponent in the first round. But if I couldn’t then and I think I may have lost that fight.”
A week later Yamaguchi won again and a week after that, despite considering quitting midway through her maiden tournament, she triumphed again, claiming her first title as the champion of “The Next Cinderella Tournament” in the lightweight division.
Yamaguchi laughs as she reflects on life’s sliding doors but her tone becomes more sombre when asked what her mother would make of her success.
“When I do something or when I challenge something, I always think about what I can say to my mother when I die,” said Yamaguchi.
“So I want to face her with a big smile and say, “I did everything I can do. I enjoyed my life.’ So if I can say that my mother will be happy about it.”
If Yamaguchi can win this weekend, she will have a possible shot at the Atomweight title belt. That belt is currently held by Singapore’s Angela Lee — who became the youngest person to win an MMA belt when she defeated Yamaguchi in 2016 as a 19-year-old.
If Yamaguchi gets the opportunity to possibly enact some revenge, it would constitute an achievement that would no doubt make her mother proud.