For The Love of….Minowa?

It may seem very post-modern of me to write this piece and you could conceive that but hear me out. Post-modernism is marked by its irreverence and some say irrelevance, overwhelmed by pointless ridicule. In our MMA, we sometimes revel, joke or mock fighters, feeling let down by inexplicit losses, poor tactics or the ‘Kalib Starnes’ moments. But do we lean back in our oh-so-comfortable chairs, inappropriately giggling and jiggling our bellies as our heroes sweat, give and receive punishment that lingers for days after.

MMA can trace its history back to a same Greek era of intellectual enlightenment in democracy and philosophy paving the way for modern liberalism and thought. The Greeks idolised their Gods, high up on Mt Olympus and sought to emulate their endeavours and please Zeus and Co through sport and physical competition. Athletics and skilled events such as the javelin, born of war but pursued in peace gave celebrity and favour to ordinary supermen. An example of favoured athletic pre-eminence is highlighted in the fact the Greeks kept no record of who finished second. The martial art of Pankration and the bravery of gladiators could never be categorised as an irrelevance in any era. These were mortally dangerous arenas to enter and only the skilled, determined, brave and athletic won out. MMA can never be sullied in irreverent, post-modern terms. Whether it be deemed as entertainment or sport, the ethos of MMA are always relevant to mankind and it’s instincts to prevail.

But we are in a period of irrelevance. Everyone wants for heroes. Our dads grew up admiring Clint Eastwood or Harrison Ford wanting to adventure, fight and win. I wanted to be Han Solo or Indiana Jones. Adventurers who took ‘orders only one person Princess. Me!’  Since the Eighties it’s been an awful period for simple, male heroes Vin Deisel or Jason Statham anyone? But Jason Bourne excepted. Heroes suddenly had to be complex, emotional beings. The line between heroic and the complex was no longer clean.

With this dearth of modern heroes, we started to look back and ironically embrace retro stars in a post-modern way. Faux heroes such as Chuck Norris, the A-Team and David Hasselhoff were resurrected from their 1980s naffness. The bad special effects, 80s fashion and silly plotlines enchanted us as kids. Now we celebrate in a mildly mocking manner. In reality, it’s a commentary on ourselves, our cheap cheerfulness and lack of cultural base.

So in MMA, who we are our post-modern heroes? It couldn’t be Ken Shamrock for he takes himself seriously when few others do. Despite Dan Severn’s dogged, Magnum moustache, his persona, fighting style and lack of exposure limit his appeal. Alternatively another old-schooler Don Frye also carries a thunderous moustache yet most MMA fans welcome his appearances as much as we wince as he takes punishment he now takes.

Frye has an important trait needed for cult status; balls of cast steel. Frye always arrives ready to fight even when the odds are clearly stacked against him. Was his stand-up war with Tank the right idea? Should he have agreed to fight Le Banner in K1? Have you seen the fight? Frye also understands the need to entertain before, after and during the fight. It may be a legacy of his pro-wrestling career in Japan but deeper down, Frye has persona.

In Japanese MMA, career and showmanship has always been important. The Gracie Hunter, Kazushi Sakuraba always knew the value of entertainment, entering the arena in masks, school uniforms or on a bike. Akihiro Gono took it further, taking a full part in long, elaborate, ring entrance dance routines. Everyone loves this or you have the sense of humour of a donkey. Both Gono and Sakuraba have added showmanship and in-ring success to their repertoires and we appreciate it.

Ikuhisa ‘the Punk’ Minowa understands this showmanship legacy and too, has balls of steel. And while he does only occasionally ports some fur under his chin, his battles are looked forward to by his legions of supporters who curl behind a cushion with nervous grins. For unlike BA Baracus, Minowa is real and is a man. Just maybe not a super one.

As we know, the style of the match-up is crucial and Minowa simply doesn’t deal with strikers at all. He has been brutally ko’d by the likes of Wanderlei Silva and Crocop and painfully sliced apart by Kiyoshi Tamura in last year. That said, he submitted the dangerous Gilbert Yvel, a striker so fearsome Wanderlei Silva still wears an ice pack to bed. And who can forgot the Butterbean bout with the dropkick. No one saw that coming and no one can say it didn’t improve your day.

It can’t be said though that Minowa has no talent. He has competed well with BJJers, attempting to submit his former master Murilo Bustamente (who failed to sub him) and getting a dog of a split points decision against Ryan Gracie. 24 of Minowa’s 39 wins come via submission. He has clearly learnt. Minowa is most comfortable with wrestlers, handling the likes of Baroni and Frye with relative ease.

Similar to the recent ‘love’ of Chuck Norris, Minowa has developed a following which blurs the boundaries between kitsch and MMA. Could it be his antics in the ring from the drop kicks to the rolling takedowns; the eccentric training regimes chasing planes along the beach or trekking up Mt Fuji; his flag and mullet-shaking ring entrances? Of course it is. Who doesn’t like this showmanship, this form of MMA slapstick but with such honest class? What do we have left? Jason Miller? Chris Leben? Sakuraba has sowed these days and Gono is UFC-contracted.

Minowa is undoubtedly kitsch but is that all it amounts to? The facts say no. His MMA record doesn’t seem much to paw over. 39 wins, a massive 28 losses and 8 draws from his Pancrase days. That is impressive activity for a fighter in his early thirties, leaving little time for training especially considering some of the brutal losses Minowa has endured. But a closer look at his record indicates he didn’t win an amazing 11 out his first 13 fights (2 draws, 9 losses). Since then he has lost only 19 of his next 63 fights. It may not be Rickson Gracie but at least Minowa does his fighting in the ring. He won almost 70% of his fights. That’s better than many, including Phil Baroni, a guy he beat. Some may say lay on.

Unfortunately the Punk is often most famously remembered on the end of tough beatings, facing up to some of the biggest names in the sport such as former Pride 205lbs Champion Wanderlei Silva, current UFC LHW Champion Quinton Jackson and Pride 2006 Open Weight Champion Mirko ‘Crocop’ Filipovic. Minowa has never weighed more than 183lbs. All the names above weigh at least 25lbs more, come fight time. It’s an issue fight fans have never felt comfortable with. Yet some of Minowa’s greatest wins have come against larger opponents. His greater mobility creates room for his submission game, particularly the effective leg locks or heel hooks.

These mismatches have blighted Minowa’s career and opened up him to scorn. You may ask why does Minowa accept such fights but the politics of Japanese MMA and the close connections with pro-wrestling leave the waters very murky. Like Scorsese forced to remake Cape Fear to get the finance for An Age of Innocence, you often have to scratch backs in MMA to get continuing work. But Minowa is worthy of his place for his bravery alone. While champions like Tito Ortiz have famously avoided opponents, Minowa has put his body on the line, time and time again.

Don’t let Ikuhsia Minowa’s beatings detract from his place in the ring. He is no world beater and will never grace in the ring as he does our hearts. Say what you like, Minowa has got in the ring and fought against some of the top fighters in the world for more than a decade. And I still look forward to seeing him fight like I do with many fighters who aren’t P4P greats. So is it his showmanship, his wins and losses, his heart and determination or unpredictability? Well, it’s all of them, together as a package. And the mullet. Got to remember the mullet.

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