This weekend Pro Elite offers a tribute to the dearly departed Pride Fighting Championship. Referee Yuji Shimada, the Pride official best known for his trademark comical reactions to fight action will be on hand to oversee the fights.
Ring announcer Lenne Hardt, the incomparable voice of Pride, known to hardcore fans as "Pride Crazy Lady" for her high pitched introductions, will lend some pomp to a card that features an eight man heavyweight tournament.
But the icing on the cake, matchmaker Rich Chou's coup de grace, is Minowaman. The iconic fighter, whose mama actually named him Ikuhisa Minowa, fears no man, no matter his size.
On Saturday he'll take a break from fighting super heavyweights to compete in MMA action against Kendall Grove, live on HDNet. The real life action hero took the time out of his day, a day filled no doubt with speedos and monsters, to talk with Bleacher Report about his epic career.
I am one of those guys. Or at least I used to be. The polite way to describe the disease I had was "obsessive." Some might argue "insane" was more accurate. If there was a fight anywhere in the world, I wanted to see it. After all, in the early days of what we now called mixed martial arts, it took balls of steel just to hold a fight card, let alone compete in one.
My search for a fighting fan's holy grail, at least before youTube came along to make things so much easier for whippersnappers who will never understand the pain of a fourth generation tape or the follies of the U.S. Postal Service, led me to a strange store off of Peachtree Industrial Boulevard in Atlanta. It was a Japanese grocery store and man - it was weird.
Wherever you find a significant Japanese population, you'll find the Japanese grocery store. For a kid from South Carolina it was like entering a forbidden and mysterious world. There were sights and smells that redefined exotic in my young mind. Where we sold carefully wrapped chunks of red meat, they had turtles in the shell. Where we had Doritos, they had packages of seaweed inspired snacks. And, in a separate section in the back, they had row after row of VHS tapes.
Eventually I would learn to read a single Japanese phrase. Soon others would follow. But the one that mattered was puroresu - pro wrestling. In this section I found things that made life matter. Kenta Kobashi. Jushin "Thunder" Liger. And Pancrase.
One of my favorites in the proto-MMA promotion was Ikuhisa Minowa. He stood out among otherwise indistinguishable Japanese fighters. With his long go go boots identifying him as a "Punk," Minowa was nothing special in the ring. In fact, he was an unquestionable loser.
After an initial triumph over Haygar Chin in his first bout, Minowa stepped into the ring nine more times before he finally got his hand raised in a match with journeyman Adrian Serrano. When many would have given up what seemed to be a lost cause, Minowa continued to fight. He says it was something he had to do. Was born to do.
"Fighting was the only true way to express myself, my spirit," Minowaman told Bleacher Report. And so he soldiered on. Eventually the inveterate loser learned to win, going 6-2-3 in 1999, in the process becoming one of Pancrase's most popular fighters.
Ikuhisa Minowa would become famous for battling monsters. But his first time seemed like an aberration. Taking on Dutch fighter Semmy Schilt wasn't a freak show fight in the strictest sense. The seven foot kickboxer was just part of the Pancrase scene in those days.
Still skinny, a decade away from the bodybuilder's physique he would sport as K-1 champion, Schilt packed quite a wallop. Pancrase was a promotion built on Japanese middleweights, men like Minowa and Yuki Kondo who could barely approach two hundred pounds after an all you can eat buffet.
To say Schilt stood out is an understatement. His fights were at times high comedy. When Pancrase still allowed rope breaks to protect fighters caught in a submission, there were very few places in the ring from which Schilt couldn't reach out and break a hold. That gave him an enormous advantage.Even when the rule was later eliminated, height and reach were tools that made Schilt a tough draw for fighters looking to take his King of Pancrase title.
"There was no rope break rule at the time from what I can remember," Minowa said about his 1999 encounter with the giant. The key he says? "Trying to control the range."
Range was the problem for everyone who stepped in the Pancrase ring with Schilt. His opponents were looking to close the distance and shoot in for a takedown. But getting close to Schilt was like navigating choppy waters with an angry seven foot octopus on patrol. He could reach out and touch you from anywhere in the ring. Minowa was just one of a score who felt his wrath.
Semmy Schilt in Mixed Martial Arts was a mess, to say the least. Pancrase was a promotion filled with smaller Japanese fighters who would be lucky to make the six foot mark if they were wearing risers, which against other Japanese fighters was fine, but Pancrase in the early days was a lot like the wild west. Semmy stands at six-foot eleven-and-a-half inches. Put a pair of boots on Semmy and he is an easy seven feet tall. If you know Schilt from his later work in K-1 only you are missing out on a fighter who was tall and incredibly lean; think of modern day UFC Heavyweight Stefan Struve, only with more muscle and more coordination. Schilt's background is in Karate, so to say that stand up fighting was always his strength would be an understatement, but he still had a good ground game, relative to the time, too. This is the fighter that smaller Japanese fighters were being put up against, a guy that modern Kickboxing demigods like Badr Hari still can't figure out the formula to soundly defeating Schilt.
What is crazy is that Schilt had a whole MMA career before he dipped his toe into the waters of K-1 and found out that he was much more comfortable fighting in K-1 rules than he was in MMA rules. He kept fighting in MMA, but it became less and less comfortable for him and finally in 2008 he decided to stop fighting in MMA and focus on K-1 exclusively. He was easily the first "monster" that Ikuhisa Minowa ran into who had some chinks in his armor when it came to submission defense, but size kills and Semmy was a natural Heavyweight who was crushing Middleweights who would, in the modern age of weight-cutting, be fighting at Welterweight. The way that Minowa fights now is also vastly different than when he timidly stepped into the ring against the monster Schilt. He has put on a significant amount of weight and adjusted his tactics after so many battles. If both men were to square off today, the question is how different of a battle would it be.
Minowa's career outside the safe confines of Pancrase started the same way most Japanese stars began their careers in big league MMA-by being consistently drubbed by foreign stars in Pride.
Minowa was beaten into an unrecognizable pulp by both Rampage Jackson and Wanderlei Silva before Pride decided to ease off the accelerator. Instead of the sport's top stars, Minowa was given winnable fights. He continued to face much larger foes, again two top kickboxers (Gilbert Yvel and Stefan Leko) before finally getting a chance at an opponent that would define his career as a serious fighter.
People have said a lot of things about Phil Baroni. Yes, he blows up faster than a sex doll at a bachelor party. No, his style hasn't evolved much since his UFC debut in 2001. But the man can wear a pair of sunglasses. And, by the way, hits like a Mack Truck.
None of that phased Minowa, who went right when everyone thought he would go left. The consensus at the time was that Minowa would eventually get Baroni to the mat and make him scream uncle. Instead, the Japanese star decided to prove a point.
"People know I have a ground game," Minowa said. "So I wanted to show my stand up fighting style."
It was, perhaps, a mistake. The first fight between the two men ended with Baroni stomping on Minowa's head. That's usually a sign that things have gone horribly wrong. It was a tremendous fight, and in Japan, losing with honor in an exciting bout can go a long way towards making an ordinary fighter a legend.
Baroni believes it is a fight that would have been a star maker here too, if only it had happened in the UFC octagon.
"I think if people had seen me, seen fights like the one with Minowa, I would be a really popular and big name fighter," Baroni told me last year. "But unfortunately I was always in the wrong place at the wrong time. When PRIDE was at its best, I was in the UFC. When the UFC blew up and PRIDE was crumbling, guess where I was? I was in the wrong place at the wrong time."
The second time out, Minowa was all business. Baroni was upset about the rematch and didn't try to hide it. In a prefight interview he called Minowa a "chump" and told him "don't forget your shine box." I'm not sure what that means in the context of MMA, or how easily it translated into Japanese. But it was provocative if nothing else. Got the people going.
Minowa didn't need any extra motivation. He had the legendary fight the first time out. This time he wanted the win. His strategy was simple - grapple, grapple, grapple.
"Try not to play his game as much as possible," Minowa said of his gameplan. "But when I did get hit I just sucked it up and continued fighting."
Baroni showed a new side to his fight game, ably defending submissions. He ended both round in the top position, raining blows. But it wasn't enough. Minowa fought a strategic and brilliant bout, walking away with the biggest win of his career.
"Giant" Silva lives up to his name in every way. Everything about the man is big. Head, hands, and body. He's 7-2, weighs upwards of 400 pounds, and let's not mince words-he's a hastily put together individual. I don't want to say he's ugly, but he clearly has no alibi.
Silva was also a complete bust in the fight game. He wasn't coordinated or charismatic enough to make something of his run in the WWE as one of the "Oddities." And as a fighter, well, he was somewhere south of "Big" Jon Hess in the talent department.
He was also a strange opponent for Minowa, still a top 25 fighter at middleweight, if clearly not championship material. It couldn't have been easy to abandon a goal to be the world's best. But I suppose it's easier to make the transition to "King of the Freak Shows" when it comes complete with your very own super hero gimmick.
Minowa, once dubbed "the Punk" became Minowaman.
"I'm normally Ikuhisa Minowa," he explained to the Japanese press. "When I get in the ring, I become closer to a super human."
Against Silva, giving up 17 inches and more than two hundred pounds, Minowa would have to be super human to win. He was. He did. And he did it with style. A training camp that included one fighter on another's shoulders hitting Minowa with a pair of bamboo sticks apparently worked wonders.
A forward roll ended with a takedown. A succession of knees soon followed. David conquered Goliath. The fact that Goliath's offensive techniques included mainly variations of fly swatting mattered very little to anyone. It was spectacle the crowd wanted and spectacle is what Minowa delivered.
And then he did it again. And again. It was a gimmick that kept giving and giving. Ikuhisa Minowa: Giant Hunter. Silva fell. Butterbean fell. Even the WWE's Brawl for All champion Bart Gunn wasn't able to best the Japanese hero.
But even Minowa wasn't unbeatable. The 6-7, 390 pound Zuluzinho proved too much. So did 240 pound judoka Min Soo Kim.
"There are guys of every size that are tough," Minowa said. But bigger guys, he's admitted, are more dangerous. Even the uncoordinated goofball can hurt you if they weigh 400 pounds. So improvisation was the name of the game, takedowns the ultimate goal. "If they are so big that I can't waistlock them, I'll grab their thighs."
The Super Hulk Tournament, promoted by K-1's "Dream" offshoot back in 2009, was like a dream come true for fans of sideshow freaks, roided up baseball players, and Korean strong men. It was a melting pot of some of the best and worst ideas in MMA history.
An open weight tournament? Great idea.
Including Jose Canseco in said tournament? Another great idea.
Who are we kidding? This tournament was 100 percent win for everyone but the most dour sourpusses complaining about little issues like "legitimacy" and "pure sport." And who better to conqueor the whole field than the great Minowaman?
"I wanted to prove that small men could beat big guys so I got into the tournament as it was being planned," Minowa said. "I won the Super Hulk title so I think I accomplished my goal of proving that."
HDNet announcer Michael Schiavello called the action from ringside. I talked to him last year and he raved and raved about the fight:
From the moment it was announced I was excited as a fan for the Super Hulk tournament. Of course I knew it wasn't going to feature top-of-the-line technical MMA matches but for entertainment value and broad appeal it was one of the most ambitious and smartest promotions to come out of Japan. The mix of characters -- as that is what they all were, characters -- was highly marketable, including of course retired controversial pro baseballer Jose Canseco; the world's biggest professional athlete Hong Man Choi; the monstrous Bob Sapp; formerGrand Prix Champion ; champion Gegard Mousasi and also in the mix, of course, perennial entertainer Minowaman.
For me a tournament like this was made for Minowaman and I was most excited to see his participation in it. For someone like myself who grew up on the flamboyance and pageantry of professional wrestling and also has a love for the intricate technical proficiency of the highly skilled mixed martial artist, Minowaman embodies the complete fighter. He has the flair of a pro wrestler (given his pro wrestling background), the inventiveness of a Japanese pro wrestler, the high entertainment factor of a pro wrestler but he combines it with tremendous technical talent, particularly with his submissions, of which he is extremely well versed. This is a very rare combination to find and it is hard to list many MMA fighters who also boast this combination, Sakuraba is one who springs to mind.
When Minowaman beat Bob Sapp at DREAM 9 it was phenomenal how easy he did it. But the defining moment of Minowaman's Super Hulk tournament was at DREAM 11 when he submitted Hong Man Choi. That is a fight I can watch over and over again and for sheer theatre -- the entrances, the crowd noise, the back and forth battle, the survival suspense and the ultra-climactic submission ending -- it remains one of the most entertaining single MMA matches of all time. Sure it wasn't a technical battle and in a day and age in which the sport is becoming more and more refined, we will most likely never see a David vs Goliath battle like Minowaman vs Choi. But once again, for sheer entertainment, while still maintaining a highly technical proficiency, it is hard to go past Minowaman's run in the Super Hulk tourney, particularly THAT match against Choi.
Life is never boring when you're Ikuhisa Minowa. When you aren't fighting pituitary freaks and other enormities, you're faced with your mentor and idol Masakatsu Funaki. Minowa fell to the Pancrase founder in the former champion's final fight in 2008.
After consecutive losses, Funaki seemed old and very beatable. He surprised the world with a quick submission win. Minowa may have lost in less than a minute, but you could tell his heart wasn't in it.
"Yes, it was very hard for me," Minowa admitted. "Unconsciously I think I held back in that fight."
The Funaki fight, along with the Super Hulk tournament, were Minowa's swan song in big time MMA. He's turned his attention to pro wrestling, a boyhood obsession that he's been thrilled to take up as an adult.
"I had always seen myself becoming a pro wrestler so I'm am very blessed to work with guys I view as legends," Minowa said. "Antonio Inoki! It was so surreal."
He's brought his pro wrestling spirit into his fight this weekend with former Ultimate Fighter winner Kendall Grove. At a photo shoot, Minowa performed an impromptu pro wrestling match with a training partner, ending with a suplex into the pool.
Although his days in the MMA mainstream are slowly waning, he's stayed active on the independent circuit in Japan. In the Princess Bride, Andre the Giant has trouble with a single opponent because he's used to fighting gangs of men. Conversely, Minowa is used to fighting giants. Is he ready for Grove?
"Well most of my fights in 2011 were against guys my own size," he says, referencing five wins against normal sized, if unknown men. "So I'm OK with it."