From the very beginning, Ikuhisa Minowa stood out. With his hair dyed pink and boots that read "Punk" he was a red speedo wearing bundle of energy in a sea of sameness. The potential was obvious from the start. Minowa was a lighting quick, smooth grappler - and he was a loser. After winning his first Pancrase bout in 1997 against Haygar Chin, Minowa hit the ring eight times in a row without taking home a second win.
Finally he turned a corner against Adrian Serrano and eventually became one of Pancrase's most enduring stars. Like most of the promotion's top fighters, he moved on to bigger things - in his case literally. His career in Pride started in typical fashion; he was a punching bag for much larger foreign fighters like Quinton Jackson and Wanderlei Silva. Things turned around and he sported a nearly even record by the time he fought his first giant at Pride Bushido 10.
Of course, larger opponents were nothing new for Minowa. He had faced enormous kickboxer Semmy Schilt in Pancrase and legitimate heavyweights like Gilbert Yvel in Pride. But his bout with 7-2, 400 pound Giant Silva in Bushido was a career changing moment. He was a top twenty fighter as a middleweight, but would never be the best. With Silva he found his lane - now dubbed Minowaman, he became king of the freak show fighters.
"I'm normally Ikuhisa Minowa," he explained. "When I get in the ring, I become closer to a super human. I just added "Man" to make it easier to understand."
After a forward roll into a single leg takedown, followed by some brutal ground and pound, the referee had to stop the fight. David had beaten Goliath. Unlike the biblical tale, he would be asked to repeat his miracle again and again. He was soon a leading expert in man versus giant combat. While his opponents were rarely high caliber, Minowa recognized their danger:
If you let a chance slip by once, there's a good possibility that it'll turn the match upside-down. If the tide turns for the worse and you want to get it going back in your direction, it takes so many times more energy than if you were fighting in the same weight class. You lose power just running and waiting for the next attack. Well, I guess that's the same in any weight class.
By 2009, Minowa's career was clearly on the downward slide. The super hero looked surprisingly human, losing to fighters like Taei Kin who he would have walked through a decade earlier. Now fighting for Dream, Minowaman was still a star - one the promotion thought it could leverage one more time to boost flagging television ratings.
The "Super Hulk Tournament" was seemingly created by an evil scientist who retreated into his lab, returning days later with the wackiest and most amazingly random idea of all time. Together with baseball star Jose Canseco, perennial novelty act Bob Sapp, and giants like Hong Man Choi and Jan Nortje, Minowa joined legitimate fighters like Rameau Sokoudjou and Gegard Mousasi in the sport's freakiest tournament. Announcer Michael Schiavello called the action for HDNet:
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; former K-1 Grand Prix Champion Mark Hunt; DREAM 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.
After dispatching the once fearsome Bob Sapp, Minowa met Korean giant Hong Mon Choi in the semi-finals. The Japanese crowd was electric for the bout; humorless MMA fans in the States were furious. It was a throwback to the ridiculousness of the early sport, when giant sumos roamed the Octagon and kung fu artists and aikido guys actually believed they had a chance. The roar was defeaning in the second round when Minowaman finally got his patented heel hook applied and the giant fell to a mere mortal. Schiavello was the perfect man for the call:
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.
The finals were almost an after thought. Sure, Minowaman beat light heavweight Sokoudjou with a left hook, but that was just mortal against mortal. The tournament was capped off in hilarious fashion when Dream couldn't locate the title belt they had created for the occasion. Minowaman, "can do" spirit shining through, accepted a belt made by a Japanese school girl. It was perhaps the crowning moment of a long career - and the perfect close to the freak show era of mixed martial arts.