As the women’s lightweight champion in Deep, Matsumoto has achieved a surprising level of success in a few short years. This is especially astonishing when one considers the fact that most Japanese women with an interest in fisticuffs tend to hold down jobs outside of fighting professionally, leaving mixed martial arts as little more than a time-consuming hobby.
“I definitely can’t think of this as a hobby,” Matsumoto says. “Though I always say this, mixed martial arts is too demanding to be just a hobby. I think I’m able to do this because I feel that I’m a professional and that I have responsibilities as a professional. Martial arts is my priority.”
With that said, Matsumoto has not forsaken life beyond fighting. She does make the distinction between her career and her life away from it.
“I want to be the best in the world,” she says. “I want to defeat all of the strong fighters and become number one. For my goals in life, however, they are completely different. I want to have a normal life.”
Matsumoto (17-4) has built a respectable resume of fight experience against some of female MMA’s most notable standouts since she first appeared in late 2004. Since Matsumoto’s debut in Greatest Common Multiple’s Cross Section, she has fought almost every two months on average -- a pace many professional fighters today would find difficult to keep.
“It is for me to become stronger,” Matsumoto says. “I also think it’s because it’s fun.”
Matsumoto’s passion and persistence at keeping such a rigorous fight schedule has paid off, as 21 fights into her career, she finds herself the queen of the hill in Deep. In capturing the title, Matsumoto defied popular expectation by defeating dangerous kickboxer turned MMA champion Hisae Watanabe (Pictures) in August 2007. Matsumoto impressed in that bout, alternating between dominating Watanabe on the canvas and, most surprisingly, banging her out on the feet.
“I forgot how I really felt at the time, but I think that my performance went as I had imagined,” Matsumoto says. “However, I was able to do more than I thought I could in the striking department. I believe that I defeated Watanabe-san in striking, so after that match, I have become more confident in my stand-up abilities.”
That’s no small claim, considering Watanabe has been looked upon as one of female MMA’s sharpest shooters, responsible for the wholesale destruction of many women who have had the fortune -- or misfortune -- of stepping into the ring with her.
After capturing the title, Matsumoto resumed business as usual and wasted little time celebrating. Within the next four months, she stepped back into the ring to win three non-title affairs, all by first-round submission. While she has not competed in MMA this year, she has managed to stay sharp.
“Since the beginning of this year, I have competed in amateur Karate, amateur grappling, and recently, I have been fighting under kickboxing rules,” Matsumoto says. “As a mixed martial artist, I think these are all very good for experience.”
Be that as it may, the question still remains as to why Matsumoto maintains such a hectic schedule. With the sudden retirement of the aforementioned Watanabe, one might think the busy Matsumoto were trying to get in a whole career of experience before calling it quits. However, Matsumoto does not appear to see retirement on the horizon.
“I don’t know how long I want to continue fighting, but I feel that I can still continue now,” she says. “I think I will be doing this for two or three more years, but I really don’t know. That ‘time to retire’ will probably come to me suddenly, because I believe that fighting and doing martial arts requires you to have the mentality and urge to do it. I think the time to retire is when that feeling fades.”
Watanabe’s retirement caught Matsumoto off guard.
“I was shocked when I heard about Watanabe-san’s retirement, because I wanted to challenge her again and put a definite end to our fight,” she says. “It’s unfortunate, but I guess there’s nothing I can do about it.”
While meeting Watanabe in the ring one last time looks unlikely, Matsumoto continues to carve out an indelible position in the sport. She will defend her title for the first time at Deep 37 Impact on Sunday at Korakuen Hall in Tokyo when she meets rival Misaki Takimoto (Pictures) -- a regular on the female MMA scene in Japan and a woman with whom Matsumoto has a history.
Matsumoto dropped her second and ninth fights to Takimoto, as the Zendokai representative became somewhat of a nemesis. She remains the only woman to defeat Matsumoto twice.
“It is like fate has decided that she be my rival,” Matsumoto says. “The first and second time I fought her, since I experienced difficulty in dealing with her, it affected me mentally quite a bit. After I managed to beat her in the third fight, that feeling of difficulty has disappeared.”
Indeed, in their third encounter, Matsumoto served Takimoto a bit of her own medicine, as she turned the tables and put her away with a first-round armbar.
“For our fourth encounter, the mental pressure that was on me for the fights before has gone, so I think I will be able to take her on at full speed,” Matsumoto says. “Since Takimoto-san declared that she would win by knockout, I will say that right back to her. Last time, I finished her by submitting her, so I will win by knocking her out this time.”
While this weekend’s Matsumoto-Takimoto title bout is intriguing, there is perhaps a larger issue that overshadows their fight -- the future of female mixed martial arts in Japan. As the only other promotion outside the all-female Smackgirl to consistently showcase women’s MMA, Deep could become the new Mecca of female fighting in Japan should rumors of Smackgirl’s demise prove true.
“By not having a women’s MMA show, it is unfortunate for fighters who have until now been successful in Smackgirl,” Matsumoto says. “It is also unfortunate for female fighters who have just started MMA to lose their chance to fight. I hope with that there will be more female fighters who will aspire to fight in Deep.”
As MMA grew in popularity in the West, female mixed martial arts was slow to follow. The efforts of EliteXC -- which has showcased women’s MMA on CBS -- have changed the landscape of combat sports in America. Developments in the United States have not gone unnoticed by Matsumoto.
“I would like to fight in the U.S. if there is an opportunity,” she says. “Plus, I also just want to go to U.S. I think there are many strong fighters out there, so I would like to just go to watch them fight.”