MMA Debut of 12-Year-Old Momo vs. Adult Draws Outrage Abroad, Support at Home

Mike ChiappettaMMA Senior ColumnistMay 10, 2017

Twelve-year-old Momo Shimizu is preparing to make her amateur MMA debut.
Twelve-year-old Momo Shimizu is preparing to make her amateur MMA debut.Photo credit: Shu Hirata

In the United States, the headlines hit mixed martial arts websites, message boards and social media like a coordinated strike against decency: 12-year-old set to fight 24-year-old adult in mixed martial arts debut

At first glance, it seemed like literal #FakeNews. But it wasn'tand isn't.

On May 20, 12-year-old Momo Shimizu will make her amateur debut against Momoko Yamazaki in Tokyo during a card promoted by Japanese organization Deep Jewels.  

When it became clear the fight would actually happen, the second wave of reaction came: concern, outrage, repulsion.

Yet in Shimizu's home country, this story is barely registering a blip on the radar screen. 

"What's the reaction? There's almost nothing," Shu Hirata, a managing partner of On the Road Management and longtime foreign marketing operations manager for Deep, told Bleacher Report.

"It's been done before here, and fans are used to seeing kids doing kickboxing and beating adults. If anything, there's more of an expectation that she's the next big thing. So her coach [Sadanori Yamaguchi] actually appreciates the concern from the U.S. side, because nobody is too concerned in Japan."

There, they see it as the inevitable destination of a life spent training in the martial arts. 

Shimizu—who is most often referred to only as "Momo" in Japan—first started training at the age of three. She told Bleacher Report that she simply wanted to follow along with her older brother, Res, when he began karate lessons.

She quickly fell in love and has been training three hours a day, six days a week since kindergarten. While she'll be making her amateur MMA debut, she's had over 100 matches in Brazilian jiu-jitsu, kickboxing and karate combined, she estimates.

All of this sounds like ample preparation, but then again, she's 12, having just started the seventh grade. 

While Hirata acknowledges concern is a normal reaction, he thinks it's important for the sporting world to understand the amateur rules in place designed for safety.

The duo, who will compete at the 95-pound minimumweight limit (Momo is 4'11"), will wear protective head gear, shin guards and large gloves with extra padding to both blunt impact and create more difficulty in passing through a defensive guard. There will also be no elbow strikes allowed, and no striking at all on the ground. The fight itself will only consist of two three-minute rounds.

It will essentially be kickboxing in the standup and jiu-jitsu on the ground.

"Of course there's always a danger as you can never say it's 100 percent safe," said Hirata, who has managed notables in his career including current UFC strawweight champion Joanna Jedrzejczyk. "But if we're talking about the danger of brain concussion, in that sense, I personally think kids' football, soccer, even playground activities could cause more danger of getting hit to the head."

The modest gym in which Momo trains is only 600 square feet, but it has developed three successful pro fighters.
The modest gym in which Momo trains is only 600 square feet, but it has developed three successful pro fighters.Photo credit: Shu Hirata

Dr. Shawn Klein, a lecturer of philosophy and a sports ethicist at Arizona State University, said the pivotal issue is not Momo's age but her ability to offer consent. At 12, children are still developing emotionally, cognitively and physically, and they don't fully understand the future consequences of their actions.

"I would think on average, it would be wrong for a 12-year-old to do this, but I think there can be exceptions if you have a 12-year-old who is exceptional across the board," Klein said.

"If you have a young person who is capable of great maturity and forethought and advanced physical abilities in the ring, it seems like you would want to allow her to engage those capacities while making sure it's safe."

Momo's team says she is exactly that type of persona savant in the training room who also draws top grades in the classroom. 

She trains at Hakuhinkai Karate, a small but well-respected gym in Toyohashi that has only eight total students including three professional fighters: 19-year-old Naoki Inoue, who is 10-0 and recently signed with the UFC; 22-year-old Mizuki Inoue, who made her pro debut at 16 and holds a 12-4 record; and 18-year-old Yukari Yamaguchi, who is 1-0.

It is a gym that prizes defensive skill and head movement. Within it, Momo is considered a prodigy.

While Momo's opponent has five fights on her resume (2-3), Hirata said the bouts came as amateur ones in an organization that routinely squares off untrained people, and that Yamazaki is believed to have little experience or training aside from those bouts. 

"I think Momo is going to smash Yamazaki," Hirata said. 

Yamazaki's motivations for competing against a child remain a mystery. Because they are amateurs, neither fighter is getting paid for the match, although it will air for a fee on Deep's digital streaming service, DeepFightGlobal.com.

In Japan, there is precedent both for this kind of fight and its expected result. 

Yukari Yamaguchi was 13 at the time she made her amateur MMA debut in 2011, easily defeating 33-year-old Nana Ichikawa via armbar submission in just 80 seconds. Last year in Deep Jewels, 12-year-old Karen Date defeated 28-year-old Ayumi Misaka via hammerlock submission.

Such fights are possible in Japan because neither the country nor its prefectures have an athletic commission to regulate bouts, leaving promoters to pair off whoever they want. However, there is an unspoken agreement within the fight community prohibiting professional bouts with anyone younger than 15. 

According to Hirata, Momo has been asking to compete in amateur MMA since she was 10, with her coach declining that request until now.

Hirata said outside observers should understand how much thought and care went into the decision.

For the fight to take place, Momo's coach, parents and schoolteachers all had to give their full approval.

Momo takes a break during a training session.
Momo takes a break during a training session.Photo credit: Shu Hirata

"That does help assuage some concern that we might have about whether she's being taking advantage of, being exploited, that it's not some sort of circus spectacle that is going to do some long-term damage to her development both as a fighter but more importantly as a person," Klein said.

"So if she has good support around her and folks who are concerned with long-term interest as well, that's helpful. That's the biggest thing about 12-year-olds. Certainly, they can think through a lot of things. They can be bright and precocious, but that long-term vision of life is not there."

Momo confirms that when asked about her own future. She wants to continue fighting for Deep Jewels and thinks an eventual run at Invicta FC sounds good. The UFC? It's too big and too far away to imagine right now.

The way she sees it, she's just another seventh-grader doing something she loves to do. And in that, in her youthful insecurity, her age becomes her.

"I don't have firm confidence to win this fight," she said. "But I don't think I would definitely lose or anything like that."

Everyone around her says she's ready. They believe in Momo, even if they understand the visceral reaction that has poured out surrounding this unconventional matchup.

To them, it's understandable. To them, our reaction is fair, if misplaced. Momo, they say, is exceptional, and thus the regular rules may not apply. 

"We appreciate the concern, because if you hear anyone say a 12-year-old is going to fight a 24-year-old, your natural reaction should be concern," Hirata said. "But people have to see the ability of Momo. This might be one of the best prodigies coming out of Japan. Just wait."