Talking To Momo, The 12-Year-Old Female Japanese MMA Star Who Fights Opponents Twice Her Age

Tucked away in the city of Toyohashi, Sadanori Yamaguchi of Hakushinkai Karate is developing a completely unorthodox MMA gym. The 450-square foot spartan facility has one punching bag, one bench press, one leg press, and a single mat.

From this humble gym, multiple up and coming UFC fighters have emerged, and now Momo, a star female student at only 12 years old, will be taking on a woman twice her age in the DEEP Jewels promotion.

The initial reaction to this fight was outrage. Some cried “child abuse” as the announcement of the fight made the rounds of MMA media. It turns out Momo already has 100 amateur fights in BJJ, kickboxing, and karate combined. That’s far more experience than her upcoming opponent, Momoko Yamazaki, who works at Hostess Bar and allegedly barely trains.

The small gym is known for creating young talent such as Yukari, who won her first pro MMA fight at the age of 15 (you can go pro at 15 in Japan), defeating Mei Yamaguchi who is now a contender in ONE FC. DEEP has also pitted teens vs adults before, with both fights being won by the younger fighter.

Momo began training at Hakushinkai Karate when she was a three-year-old — still wearing a diaper at the time. Since then, the seventh grader has been training at least three and half hours a day, six times per week. She’s grown up under the watchful eye of Yamuguchi, who has trained UFC fighter Mizuki Inoue (the 12-4 Invicta vet), who King Mo called “the best boxer in all of MMA” when she destroyed Bec Rowlings in 2013, when she was just 18 years old.

MMA purists are still questioning the motivations and methodologies of this Japanese MMA pre-teen incubation club, but you can’t deny the fact that training with these adults and kids seems like what Momo wants to do. She has the full support of her parents, who, like the parents of the rest of the kids on the team, show up early before practice to hold the pads as their kids get warmed up. According to Hirata, head trainer Yamaguchi will not allow kids to train if their schooling suffers, telling a mother to bring their kids home if they don’t have excellent grades.

But what about the questionable act of training these young children to fight their way to the top, sometimes against older, more mature people? Yamaguchi doesn’t force anyone to do anything. He believes people should leave whenever they want. And when it comes to fighting, Yamaguchi teaches defense, head movement, and footwork first before punching or kicking. The well-being of his students is first and foremost.

Obviously, a bout between a pre-teen and an adult is shocking enough to some, especially when women’s MMA is still considered divisive in the U.S. (not to mention MMA was banned from PPV just 20 years ago), so I spoke to Momo to see how she felt about the Stateside reaction to her fight.

We’re sure you’ve heard about the concern of you fighting a grown woman stateside. Why is this not a big deal in Japan?

In the past, DEEP JEWELS in Japan matched fighters my age against an adult, so I think there are few responses but not so much.

Are you not at all nervous to fight an older woman whose body has developed?

My upcoming opponent is just little bit taller and heavier, so I am not sure I can win, but I am really looking forward to this fight.

What got you interested in martial arts? Are you a fan of MMA?

My older brother began taking Karate class and I just followed him. Instead of promotions, I am a fan of strong female fighters such as my senpai [older teammates] Mizuki and Yukari Yamaguchi, and also I like RENA [Kubota]. I did watch [the] last RIZIN show though. But I really like watching Invicta FC and DEEP JEWELS.

How do your parents feel about your combat sports career?

My dad and mom are very supportive of me.

Did your parents train in the martial arts?

Actually, both my dad and mom have zero combat sports experience.

Was there anyone specifically that inspired you to go down this path?

It’s not like I was inspired by anyone, my older brother was learning Karate, so it was more like when I realized I was already taking a karate lesson.

What is your future? Do you hope to have a long and illustrious career?

I am not that strong yet so not sure about my future, but I do like to continue fighting for DEEP JEWELS.

Are you at all concerned with what fighting at a young age may do to your body? Will it affect your longevity?

I am not injured and I have no intention of quitting. I don’t know much about longevity.

Have you ever been injured?

I’ve never had any serious injuries. Only once I did have a minor fatigue fracture on top of my foot, but that was about it.

In Japan, you can go pro in MMA at 15. Do you hope to one day fight in the UFC?

For now, I want to fight in DEEP JEWELS. UFC is too way up there, so I don’t know what to think.

What is your preferred martial art? BJJ? Stand up?

Recently, I really began enjoying grappling but I also like striking too.

Are you a Josh Barnett fan?

I think sensei Yamaguchi has mentioned that name, but I don’t know who he is.

Do other young girls try to fight you to test your skills? How does that work out for them?

Recently I’ve only fighting boys, so sometimes I won and sometimes I lost. Against girls, I have been winning most of the time. Last loss against a girl was a kickboxing bout I did in Osaka last year.

You’re in seventh grade. How do your classmates and teachers feel about you being a martial artist?

All my teachers at school are very very supportive of what I am doing.

When did you start competing?

I think my first fight was kickboxing, and I was in the first grade.

If you had to choose between a school dance or gathering for example, or training/fighting, which would it be?

Right now I want to learn more karate and became a champion.

How do you feel about the perception that some people think you fighting a grown woman is “child abuse?”

I have fought boys in my age and they were bigger than my next opponent so for me, it’s no difference of any other fight. I am so looking forward to my next fight though.

What is the hardest part about being such a young fighter?

Sometimes, training can be hard. My training partners in the dojo are all bigger than me so I do get tired though.

The interview was edited for clarity and to remove the heavy smiling emoji use of a 12-year-old Japanese girl who is preparing for an MMA fight.