It is certainly a compliment to make the claim that Naoki Inoue’s resume in MMA does not match up with his age. At 23-years-old, Inoue has 15 pro wins and experience in major promotions like RIZIN and the UFC. What’s more, a three-fight series of wins against notable names in Japan last year has proven he has clearly hit a stride.
That stride will be tested greatly in 2021, as Inoue will be one of the 16 bantamweights to compete in RIZIN’s upcoming tournament. A successful run in the bracket could give Inoue numerous big wins and would springboard him into a title shot with current champion Kyoji Horiguchi.
Inoue is no stranger to big challenges. It’s something he refuses to avoid and even engages with head-on intentionally. His tournament run is set to begin against Shintaro Ishiwatari, who is one of the bigger challenges in the bracket. He knew this, and it was exactly why he picked him.
“I knew that he’s one of the top guys in the tournament … That’s the reason why I chose him in the first round. It’s better to beat the stronger guy first,” said Inoue through a translator in an interview with Knockdown News.
It’s undeniable that Inoue just wants to fight the best. Not only is it shown in his statements, as he said “I only care about fighting a strong fighter,” but in the track record of who he has faced and wants to fight.
When asked who he wants to be paired with later in the tournament, he named a former title challenger in Hiromasa Ougikubo and former champ Kai Asakura.
Inoue has good reason to be confident heading into the Grand Prix – his first year in RIZIN was nothing short of dominant. Inoue’s biggest win in RIZIN was on New Year’s Eve, where he submitted former DEEP Bantamweight Champion Yuki Motoya in just three minutes.
Inoue remembers what it was like after his win last year. He recalls people in his gym going up to him and saying how “incredible” the win was. But to him, it was simply him seeing the fruits of his labor manifest.
“These are all results of my hard work and hard training. I’m not really conscious of people recognizing me or praising me or anything. I just wanna keep on fighting and winning,” said Inoue.
The victory earned Inoue his 10th submission win as a pro. More precisely, it was his fourth finish via rear naked choke in his last four fights. Having succeeded with the submission, he wants to keep the pattern going at RIZIN 28.
“Since I have been winning with rear naked choke, I think it’s better to continue with that tradition.”
Inoue’s past few fights have been at different gyms than usual. Inoue previously trained at Longo and Weidman MMA in Garden City, New York, USA, although that has changed since moved back to Japan amid the pandemic. He now splits his time between numerous trainers and gyms in the country, including the Sonic Squad gym, which also includes Issei Moriyama and Tetsuya Seki.
Inoue has big plans for the future. Past the tournament, which should at least run to the end of 2021, the five-foot-eight bantamweight looks towards a title shot and figures another go in the UFC “would be most ideal.” His previous campaign in the UFC was cut short after just two fights as the promotion looked to possibly phase out their flyweight division, which Inoue was fighting in at the time.
Some fighters don’t like to look into the future and say what they want because any fight can reroute their career dramatically. While he isn’t hesitant to look more than a year into the future, it’s not lost on Inoue that he has to focus on his next fight first. His first fight in the opening round of the grand prix is scheduled to happen on a big stage, as RIZIN will make their Tokyo Dome debut on June 13th.
If Inoue can put together another quick, yet sharp performance like he has done and plans on doing again, especially on the big state that is one of Japan’s biggest venues, he would send an emphatic message to the rest of the bracket.