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Mizuki Inoue navigating the gap between blue-chip prospect and desired headliner

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

We have to be careful about sweeping generalizations regarding the state of Japanese mixed martial arts (MMA). There's been an undeniable contraction, but not equally in all parts. A more compartmentalized reduction in size and scope, has affected every portion of the game and sport, but in different ways.

The women's side of the game has taken a hit. Women were never treated as equals to their male counterparts, but they weren't entirely bereft of opportunity either. Promotions like Smackgirl, Jewels, Shooto and others helped foster the development of female Japanese fighters both in numbers and, on occasion, in individual careers of prestige.

Elite Japanese female competitors like Megumi Fujii, Satoko Shinashi, Hisae Watanabe, Yuka Tsuji, Miku Matsumoto and others evidence this fact.

The market and competitive opportunities for women in Japan have declined even from the days when things were uneven, but new blue chip prospects and elite contenders continue to emerge. At the front of the pack of the new vanguard of female fighters from Japan is Invicta strawweight Mizuki Inoue.

A glance of her performance on tape immediately underscores her rare and formidable ability. When standing, she's possessive of crisp jabs, superb reflexive head movement, punishing output and powerful hooks. She's patient when grappling, but never slugging. In all dimensions of her game, being proactive on offense is a hallmark of her style.

Her story and career to date, though, exemplifies both the rich tradition and unique eccentricities from which she arrives as well as the present state of malaise in Japan. It's also one of potentially being too good for her own benefit in a world where talent moved too quickly ultimately stunts true career potential.

On Saturday, Inoue fights for the second time in Invicta when she faces Karolina Kowalkiewicz in Invicta FC 9's co-main event. She already defeated The Ultimate Fighter (TUF) 20 contestant Bec Rawlings at Invicta FC 6 (and holds a win over Alex Chambers, another TUF 20 contestant; both wins she earned as a teenager).

Her contract has an out clause in case the UFC ever comes calling. She can also go back and forth between Invicta and Jewels, something she did after defeating Rawlings.

Inoue says he has no choice but to between two organizations to get the kind of experience, both in volume and unique challenge, to properly progress. That's something she simply can't get by strictly competing in Japan. "In terms of my weight division, I do feel there's not many fighters out there. It's getting a little small," she tells MMA Fighting.

"From the fighter's perspective, in my weight class, for example, a champion like [Ayaka] Yamasaki went down to 105 pounds. I'm losing all these opponents in my weight class in Japan."

Competing internationally to get proper experience isn't necessarily a new phenomenon for women in Japan, but the difficulty of the predicament has risen. The one upside, though, is that promoters are all too willing to share Inoue to maximize her ability to mature. "I don't feel any pressure from promoters in Japan because they actually have the attitude now that, 'Hey, if you want to go to America and fight, go ahead and do it.' I'm just looking for the right moment," says Sadnori Yamaguchi, Inoue's trainer.

To date, the plan has worked well for Inoue. She's the current Deep Jewels lightweight (115lbs) champion. She only has two blemishes on her resume, one from fighting Yamasaki early in her career. The other is a fight she won, but was ultimately disqualified from for missing weight (more on that here). Despite having considerable striking prowess, all but two of her eight career wins are by submission.

Perhaps most importantly, though, isn't necessarily what she's done, but how's she done it. Inoue started training and competing in the fourth grade. That early start facilitated learning, but it was what she was being taught that made a notable difference as she aged.

She's a practitioner of karate, but an unusual variety: Hakushinkai Karate. According to Yamaguchi, this version of the art is comprehensive in all forms of unarmed combat, which means Inoue has been training in a version of MMA since she was a pre-teen.

"First of all, even though Hakushinkai Karate is a karate dojo, the real, original karate back then had the throws, submissions, everything. It's like Okinawa karate. The same thing," he says.

"My philosophy about karate is MMA to begin with. I always thought MMA, the UFC style of fighting, is the real, true ideal karate style. Mizuki has been training since fourth grade, but she was already wearing helmet doing elbows, doing jiu-jitsu and all kinds of stuff. This kind of karate is like MMA."

Yamaguchi argues there is a strain of limiting traditionalism in karate. Dojos hand down what is practiced and taught because of the belief that what is traditional is preferable to more 'modern' adaptations. Yamaguchi, by contrast, doesn't believe kata-style demonstrative punching stances actually allow for more force to be applied. Where "many other karate dojos like to inherit," Yamaguchi leans toward what he sees that works.

The other key to Inoue's development isn't just cross training, but cross competition. Yamaguchi doesn't want Inoue to jump to the UFC for a host reasons, not least of which is that it'd prohibit the rising star from competing in shootboxing, a style of kickboxing in Japan that allows for standing throws and submissions.

Yamaguchi contends unlike in MMA today, shootboxing has more competitors for Inoue to fight. In addition, the clinch position in shootboxing forces quicker reactions than in MMA contests. Yamaguchi believes over time, this will confer real advantages in high-level MMA bouts, especially for an offensively-minded fighter like Inoue.

Inoue's trainer notes that for all of the reduction in the size and scope of Japanese MMA and the need for competition in America, it's these sorts of opportunities in Japan that have been critical for the strawweight's unusual development.

Still, though, the pressure on Inoue is heating up. Invicta has placed her in the co-main event spot in just her second bout in the organization, something she says she's "honored" by even if somewhat surprised. Kowalkiewicz, a top Polish prospect, is undefeated and also boasts a reputation for having skilled, proactive offense.

"I actually think Karolina ranks maybe a little bit higher," Inoue contends. "That's how I feel. She's truly well-rounded. She can do everything, but I think this fight's going to be a striking battle. I'm thinking about engaging in a striking battle early and she how she reacts."

Inoue, though, still talks as if she's an amateur competitor merely looking for a few rounds of work while she's in the nascent stages of her career.

"I don't think I'm in the top 10 [of the division]," she says. "I don't know if I'm being modest here, but I don't think so.

"In the fight with Bec, I ran out of gas in the third round. I felt that I need to gain my cardio more. Not only that, I need to learn how to construct an entire three rounds in a way that I want to fight. I still have many things to improve striking and grappling. In this upcoming fight, I want to try new moves and offensive attacks," she continues. "I want to show more variety of attacks to the fans, so they can see I have more than in the last fight."

Ready or not, though, Inoue is on the fast track. A win over Kowalkiewicz could net her a title shot against reigning Invicta strawweight champion Katja Kankaanpaa. From there, the UFC wouldn't be too far away. Inoue says she expects to be in the UFC one day, but never talks of it as if its an impending shift.

She occupies the precarious space of being a blue chip prospect on the rise and a young athlete who still needs her career properly manicured by those she works with and for. For now, she's safe in the in-between spaces. And a breakout performance demonstrating technical maturity could assuage any concerns she's being rushed along for promotional purposes.

Tellingly, her only stated goals are self-referential: improving her strikes, her takedowns, her fight management skills. As for what she wants the outside world to think of her when Saturday's fight is over?

"I'm not sure," she says laughingly.

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