Do you remember what you were doing in your early 20s? Studying in college? Starting a new job? The possibilities are endless. Whether you’re finding your passion in a career dear to your heart… Or so you believe at the time… Not many people can say that they were competing as a professional athlete no matter the sport, whether it was then or it’s now. That happens to be even more of a rarity when it comes to MMA.
Now, think back to even earlier than that, to the days of high school at ages 15 and 16. At this stage, we all were still growing up, trying to figure out and become who we are today. Well, for Japan’s Mizuki Inoue, that was becoming a professional fighter.
Obviously, getting punched in the face or getting into fights in one’s youth is a somewhat normal occurrence at one point or another. But nothing good ever comes out of it, especially as far as the wallet is concerned.
Having literally grown up in the fight game, Mizuki is now 24-years old and has nearly 10 years of fighting experience under her belt. A shocking accolade to be presented with, time really does fly and she couldn’t agree more. “I actually don’t really think about my career but when you asked me this then I realized, ‘Wow, I have been fighting that long…'” Mizuki said when speaking with The Body Lock.
At age 15, Mizuki made her professional combat sports debut as she fought Kanako Oka in a Shoot Boxing match. She would have two more fights after this before making her MMA debut at 16 in October 2010.
For the beginning of her career, Mizuki became a staple of the Shoot Boxing and Jewels rings in Tokyo as she would fight 19 times before finally making her way to the United States (13 Shoot Boxing matches and six MMA bouts).
With 19 bouts in three years, at only 19 years old, Mizuki had already amassed more experience than a lot of fighters get to in their whole careers. Yet she was only still just getting started.
July 13, 2013, marked the official Invicta FC debut for the Aichi Prefecture native as she would take on seasoned Aussie striker, Bec Rawlings. Successfully winning her US debut via unanimous decision, Mizuki would head back to Japan for three fights before returning.
As is the case with growing up in life itself and finding someone’s proper calling, Mizuki still found herself doing this like everyone else… It just came in a much more unique, and physical, fashion. Eventually becoming one of Invicta’s biggest stars, especially internationally, the longterm goal would remain the same from early on for the young veteran.
“Right now my goal is to fight in the UFC,” she said. “From the moment I won a belt in Japan, UFC has always been my goal. And if I can go to UFC then I would like to make it to top 15 in the rankings. But it’s not right for me to say this since UFC hasn’t signed me yet. I just want to test my skills against top fighters in the world.”
And testing her skills against the very best she has.
In the fight prior to her last, the Japanese strawweight challenged for the Invicta FC title for the very first time when she took on the then-unbeaten Brazilian submission master, Virna Jandiroba. Unfortunately, the bout wouldn’t go in her favor as Jandiroba walked away with the decision victory and gold strap around her waist.
Throughout her career, Mizuki hasn’t really been ‘fed’ easy competition though. Thus making her journey all the more unique. In just her third pro-MMA bout, she took on the greatest atomweight fighter we’ve seen in Ayaka Hamasaki and only more Japanese MMA veterans would follow. And that being before taking her talents to America to face the likes of the aforementioned Rawlings, current top 10 UFC contender Karolina Kowalkiewicz, and a fellow top prospect in Alexa Grasso.
Going through the wringer early has forced Mizuki to learn faster and become stronger in quicker periods of time than many other fighters. And because of this, it’s just another comparison that can be drawn to someone growing up in their life during those very important years.
“Maybe I have better cardio than Virna but in terms of physical strength and skills on the ground, she was far better than myself,” Mizuki recollected. “Before that fight, I was ready to fight her on the ground as well but when the fight hit the ground, I couldn’t reverse the position and realized I don’t think I can beat Virna on the ground. She also had power behind her striking too so I think she has what I need.
“There are so many moments in Invicta but if I have to choose then it would have to be the fight against Karolina and also against Virna. In that fight against Karolina, I think I could have done more. I think that is the fight I could have won but I didn’t do enough. In terms of the fight against Virna, that was my first title fight outside Japan and also the first time I fought five rounds.”
Despite all the growing and learning that she has done in combat sports over the years, Mizuki continues to do so to this day. However, for her next venture, she’ll actually be the most well equipped to tackle the challenge as opposed to her seven elder counterparts.
This Friday night, May 3, from the Memorial Hall in Kansas City, Kansas, she’ll partake in Invicta’s first ever one-night tournament. The event will kick off the new Phoenix Rising series and see a new strawweight champion be crowned.
As much of a historically innovative throwback as the Phoenix Rising series is going to be, it won’t be the newest of formats for one of Japan’s finest as she competed in a one-night tournament very early on in her career.
“I never really thought about that until I saw the records of other seven competitors in the tournament,” Mizuki said. “I believe I am the youngest and have most fights under my belt so I was actually surprised.
“I have competed in the Shoot Boxing’s one-day tournament before but I consider MMA totally different from Shoot Boxing so although I have an experience [edge] I am approaching this tournament as a sticky road. In fact, I have so many concerns for this tournament since the first two fights are just one-round fights. But one thing I want to be careful of is, I want to avoid a big injury like what happened in my last fight. Being able to win a belt is a big motivation for me. I feel I have to win this belt but at the same time, I do have many concerns though.”
Following Mizuki’s title fight with Jandiroba, she underwent a big change in her career and that was switching training camps and heading to America where she would settle down with the Serra-Longo Fight Team in New York.
Making large life changes is never easy but leaps of faith need to be taken just for the possible chance of bettering that ever eventual growth we all seek. And if her rebound performance against Viviane Pereira was the evidence we had to go off of, the change absolutely paid off… Even if she doesn’t quite think so. We’re all our own worst critics though, aren’t we?
“I belonged to Karate Dojo in Japan [prior to the camp change],” Mizuki shared. “Sure we did MMA training too but since it’s Karate Dojo, it was a bit different from other MMA gyms/teams in Japan, I think. The training hours were very long and it’s not like the dojo had many different classes. We just did kickboxing, MMA, wrestling and grappling training every day.
“In America, instead of going through a long training it’s more about quality over quantity. I do many trainings to gain skills then do sparring. At first, it took me a while to get used to this situation but now I feel like I have gained so many skills training at Serra-Longo Fight Team.
“I don’t think that was a very good fight for me [against Pereira] but by discussing with [Coach] Ray Longo, I was able to establish a good gameplan and I was able to pursue this, and also, I did beat a UFC veteran so in that sense I guess it was a good fight for me,” she continued. “But I didn’t finish her so that is something I do regret.”
The upcoming obstacle will be similar and new at the same time for the 24-year old. In the Phoenix Rising series, the quarter and semifinal rounds are both one five minute round with the finals being three five minute rounds. The reason for this is due to the American commission’s ruling that fighters cannot fight more than 25 minutes in one night. Therefore making this the best format for one-night tournaments held in the country.
Additionally, there’s no traditional bracket. The quarterfinal matchups were decided via a random draw and assuming there are no finishes in those first four fights, there will then be another draw to determine the semifinal matchups. However, the fighter that scores the fastest finish in the quarterfinals gets to choose their opponent for the semis. If that wasn’t incentive enough, monetary bonuses will also be handed out for finishes.
As Mizuki prepares to enter her first one-night tournament in six years as one of the favorites to win it all, she continues to lead the way for Japanese fighters in North America as she intends to make history by winning the first Phoenix Rising tournament, becoming Invicta champion, then one-day writing herself into the history books as the first Japanese UFC champion. And she still has plenty of time to make those dreams a reality.
“Since the first two fights are going to be a one-rounder I was thinking, I have to be careful with the fighters with a wrestling background,” she explained. “Then, I found out that I am facing Sharon Jacobson who probably has the best wrestling among all of us in this tournament so honestly I feel very cautious about her but on the other side of the coin, if I can beat her then I will have a bigger chance of winning the tournament. I am also cautious about fighters with long reach and long legs.
“There aren’t many Japanese female fighters competing outside of Japan so I am conscious about that. I really appreciate that Invicta FC thinks my fights are exciting. But I don’t feel like I am a representative of Japan because I am not so famous in Japan. However, when I fight, I do think that I want to prove to the world that Japanese fighter can win in the world level as well.”
When Mizuki Inoue steps into the Invicta FC cage on Friday night, she’ll be stepping into a combat sports enclosure to compete for the 32nd time in her 24-years of life. As well as potentially the 33rd and 34th times if everything goes according to plan.
Assuming they do, Inoue will get to add a new accomplishment to her resume and that’s Invicta FC strawweight champion. Even with a bright future still ahead of her, she’s already crafted a full career in her wake. Like her inspirations in Ichiro Suzuki and Yuzuru Hanyu, she maintains the highest level of professionalism while looking to put forth maximum effort accompanied by sustainable longevity. Well, it has been so far so good for truly the youngest veteran in MMA today.