Victorious in four of five bouts since moving up to lightweight, Yamauchi returns to the circular cage at Friday’s Bellator 229 in Temecula, Calif., against Saad Awad. He hopes a win puts him back in the mix for a shot at the 155-pound championship.
“I’m asking for the big fights,” Yamauchi told MMA Fighting. “I don’t want ‘okay’ fights – I want good guys, guys that are in the mix. (Awad) is one of those guys, so this is a fight that interests me.
“Besides him, there are only two or three names that I want to fight. I don’t want to fight random guys. I want big fights, exciting fights that get me closer to what I want, which is the belt.
And who are the names he’s interested in facing after Bellator 229?
Henderson, a former WEC and UFC titleholder, recently improved his winning streak to four bouts with a decision over Myles Jury in the main event of Bellator 227 in Dublin. Chandler, the only man to beat Yamauchi at lightweight, lost his Bellator title to Patricio Freire in May. Primus, another Bellator ex-champ, bounced back from a loss to Chandler by submitting Tim Wilde with a gogoplata in just 80 seconds at Bellator Birmingham.
Can a win over Awad earn such opportunity for the Brazilian lightweight?
“For sure,” he said. “If it’s not against any one of those, it has to be someone close to them. But that’s what I want. I don’t want to fight someone that doesn’t get me anywhere. If it’s only to make money, I prefer not to fight. I want big fights.”
As Yamaguchi admits, every MMA fighter always claims the most recent training camp was the best of his or her career. But ahead of Bellator 229, he guarantees it’s a real thing. Yamauchi says he was expected to return to the circular cage in April, but a lower back injury forced him out of action for months, something that was “good for me to learn about myself.”
“I had a serious lower back injury, I couldn’t even walk for a few days, but I was able to return with rehab and physical therapy,” Yamauchi said. “I think what caused that injury was the accumulation of hard training. I was focusing a lot on defensive wrestling, defending takedowns, and that was too much for my back.”
A jiu-jitsu specialist with 18 of his 23 professional victories coming by way of submission, Yamauchi expects to have an advantage on the ground against Awad. But he’s also been working on his stand-up skills with K-1 veteran Glaube Feitosa in Curitiba, Brazil.
“My ego will always make me say I’m better than him everywhere, at all times,” Yamauchi said with a laugh. “Glaube came to add a lot to my game, and that has really helped me. I’ve trained a lot of specific things for Awad. Glaube is a legend, and having him training with me was a gift.”
Coming off a win over Daniel Weichel in his last fight in November, Yamauchi wants to earn himself a No. 1 contender status with wins over Awad and a former Bellator champion next. In the meantime, he’s hoping that two-division titleholder Patricio “Pitbull” Freire wins the featherweight grand prix and moves up to put his 155-pound title on the line.
“I hope he wins this tournament, I don’t want him coming off a loss,” said Yamauchi, who started his Bellator career as a featherweight, but now aims for a future at welterweight. “I will be ready for him when he comes back. I’m already getting prepared for him. If I’m going to change weight classes in the future, which is something I want to, it would be up, not down. I’m focused at the 155 title now, but this change will happen one day.”