Mizuki Inoue, who will not turn 20 until August, owns a 7-1 record. | Photo: Dave Mandel/Sherdog.com
The Ultimate Fighting Championship on Dec. 13 absorbed a sizeable contingent of strawweight fighters from Invicta Fighting Championships ahead of “The Ultimate Fighter” Season 20. One name notably absent from the 11-woman list was that of Japanese prodigy Mizuki Inoue.
Language issues ruled out Inoue for “The Ultimate Fighter,” but she plans to resist any UFC overtures, at least for the time being, because her management team wants the 7-1 prospect to continue developing her career under the Invicta and Deep banners, rather than risk having her enter the Octagon at too early an age.
A passerby conducting a casual inspection of Inoue on the street would be more likely to mistake her for a schoolgirl than a mixed martial artist, but the 19-year-old has quickly forged a reputation as one of the brightest young talents in women’s MMA. She introduced herself to American fans with a hard-fought decision win over “The Ultimate Fighter”-bound Bec Hyatt at Invicta FC 6 in July and followed it by outpointing Emi Fujino at Deep “Jewels 2” in November; the victory over Fujino landed Inoue a 114-pound title fight in February.
Inoue, who was just 16 when she made her professional debut, owes almost all of her success to the vision and open-mindedness of a karate trainer who decided to embrace MMA after seeing Royce Gracie dismantle one of his compatriots at UFC 2. Regardless of whether Inoue competes in MMA, kickboxing or shoot boxing, she will have karate coach Chairman Yamaguchi in her corner. He has guided her career from its inception. Yamaguchi claims he was originally inspired to start studying the relatively new sport of MMA after UFC 2 exposed the limits of traditional martial arts.
“I became interested in MMA when I saw a fellow karateka Minoki Ichihara losing to Royce Gracie in UFC 2,” he told Sherdog.com. “I began thinking, ‘[A] karateka needs to be able to win [an] MMA bout, too.’”
The majority of Yamaguchi’s students might be more interested in learning karate for fitness and self-defense purposes rather than as a base for a competitive combat sport. Inoue represents the exception to the rule.
“If you want to be the best fighter in the world, then you have to do MMA,” Yamaguchi said. “If you can’t use your karate to win an MMA bout, then karate means nothing.”
The small dojo Yamaguchi runs in Nagoya, Japan, has hardly registered on the Japanese MMA map, as he remains known more for teaching karate to local schoolchildren than producing fighters capable of competing in the cage. However, ever since Yamaguchi saw Gracie submit Ichihara with a lapel choke in 1994, he has wanted one of his students to succeed in the sport. Inoue was an unlikely candidate. She first met Yamaguchi when she was 11 years old and remembers him encouraging her to make the transition from karate to MMA.
“My brother was taking a karate lesson, so one day, when I was a fourth grader, I tagged along with my brother to his karate lesson, and I liked it,” Inoue said. “About a year after, I joined Hakushinkai Karate and began MMA training because it was recommended by Chairman Yamaguchi.”
If Inoue does eventually sign with the UFC, she could surface as a contender for the newly minted women’s strawweight belt, raising the intriguing possibility of her becoming the first Japanese fighter ever to win a title inside the Octagon. Not even Yamaguchi realized what he had on his hands the first day she walked into his dojo. However, he immediately recognized certain qualities that would enable his new student to succeed.
“Inoue was a younger sister of one of my students at karate class, and I did not know immediately she would be a champion,” Yamaguchi said, “but from the beginning, I knew she had the patience to continue training without ever complaining.”
At the age of 15, Inoue turned professional in shoot boxing, a style of standup fighting which incorporates throws and standing submissions. She lost by majority decision. Undeterred, she returned to the ring two months later and went on to become a two-time S-Cup tournament winner at 53.5 kilograms. Inoue claims she would have started competing in MMA even earlier but believed erroneously that she was too young.
“I was 15 when I first fought in a professional kickboxing bout, but I didn’t make my MMA debut until I was 16 because, at first, Master Yamaguchi thought I had to be 18 to do MMA,” she said, “and that’s why I did kickboxing first.”
Inoue was only 18 when she made her first appearance inside the Invicta organization in July, defeating Hyatt by unanimous decision.
“Hyatt had a strong heart, and she was physically stronger than me,” Inoue said. “Her punches were heavy, so I was very cautious about not giving her a clean shot. She is a charming person with great personality, too, so I felt very honored to be able to fight her.”
The sight of a recently vanquished foe being awarded the chance to secure a UFC contract would frustrate most fighters. However, Inoue’s career is being carefully guided by Yamaguchi, who wants her to focus first on capturing the vacant Deep “Jewels” 114-pound title and then becoming S-Cup tournament champion for an unprecedented third time.
The Deep “Jewels” title will be on the line when she takes on Emi Tomimatsu in the final of a four-woman tournament put together to find a replacement for former champion Ayaka Hamasaki. After defeating Fujino by decision in the semifinals, Inoue admits she has grown more determined than ever to claim the first major title of her burgeoning MMA career.
“Fujino-san was very technical and landed a couple of good punches and also a knee shot, too, but I was able to edge her out in the fight,” Inoue said. “I did feel Fujino-san’s strong heart, and I learned a lot from that fight. Now I definitely have to become an MMA champion.”
Inoue’s only MMA loss came in her third fight, where she dropped a decision to Hamasaki, an opponent 12 years her senior. With both fighters now signed to Invicta, the possibility of a rematch seems inevitable. However, Inoue does not believe the time has come for her to attempt to avenge that defeat.
“I need to keep on improving to be able to beat Hamasaki, and I need to concentrate on winning [the] Deep ‘Jewels’ 114-pound tournament now,” she said, “so I probably won’t fight for Invicta FC again until the middle of next year.”
In 1994, Yamaguchi recognized the limitations of karate and embraced MMA at a time when the sport was still in its infancy. Nearly two decades later, his star pupil hopes to broaden her horizons and has stated she will not settle for success in just one combat sport. While her mentor sees MMA as the ultimate proving ground for any fighter, Inoue desires to prove her skills are diverse enough to win championships in multiple disciplines: “I want to win titles in MMA, kickboxing and shoot boxing.”