Sumiko Inaba studied nursing in college, expecting to go into the medical field until she was sidetracked by a boxing class she took purely for fitness. That led to her going the MMA route, winning her first few amateur fights, and then “just completely falling in love with it.”
Thursday, Inaba will make her pro debut at Bellator 251.
It’s not often that an amateur fighter makes their pro debut on a stage as big as Bellator MMA’s. But the promotion has become very well known for scouting fresh, promising talent, and Inaba certainly fits the bill.
Speaking to Cageside Press ahead of her debut at Bellator 251, the Hawaiian flyweight explained that she’d been aiming for Invicta FC, initially. “And then Bellator came in, and I was more in shock that they were so willing to bring me in, and kind of build me up. So I’m very, very excited and ready to show what I’ve got on their platform.”
Regardless of who she would be fighting for, 2020 was the year Inaba had planned to turn pro. “I had my last fight in June of last year, and that was my eighth amateur fight. And I felt ready,” she explained. After that last fight, Inaba felt that it was time to move on, and find herself a bigger platform. “When Bellator did call, I thought that was the best fit,” she told us. “They do very very well. The 125lb division is stacked. Ilima-Lei Macfarlane is the champion, she comes out of Hawaii, so I’m super-excited to represent Hawaii on the same platform.”
Besides that, amateur fights weren’t easy to come by, especially living in Hawaii. “In the beginning I only fought once a year, one year I fought twice in a year. Being in Hawaii, it’s a little bit harder to find people, especially at an amateur stage,” she noted. Not surprising when promotions had to fly in opponents. “My last three fights were on on the mainland, so I had to fly somewhere. But I ended up figuring it out, I got a good eight amateur fights, which were all awesome.”
Now that she’s in Bellator, however, Inaba believes that she can “fast-track” he pro career. “I’m hoping I come out of this one uninjured and ready to go, and I can fight again before the year ends. I’m not looking past this fight or anything, but I’m ready to get another one in,” said Inaba. “Then hopefully next year fight multiple times.”
Her desire to start building her pro record up comes after a nearly year-long layoff. During the time away from the cage, “I got a lot of training in, I’ve grown a lot as a fighter, so I’m excited to show that,” she stated.
The Hawaiian admits that training has been “really weird” because of the pandemic. Inaba avoided the gym even when it opened so that she could fight, rather than risk exposing herself to the coronavirus. Luckily, among her small circle of training partners is her boyfriend, Sean Rush, an MMA fighter and kickboxer himself, who competed as part of ONE Championship’s Warrior Series.
“The nerves are here, but I’ve experienced it with him first. And he’s cool, calm, and collected. He’s the definition of that, he’s definitely a pro fighter and he’s done this quite a few times. So he’s keeping my mind focused and right, with all the craziness that’s happened. He’s been there, done that.”
Getting that reassurance ahead of her pro debut, where “the pressure’s a little bit more there” is a huge help to Inaba.
At Bellator 251 this Thursday, Inaba takes on Jessica Ruiz, a fighter that, like herself, turned pro in the Bellator cage. “I watched her Bellator fight,” said Inaba. Luckily, she had time for that. Just barely. Originally, the promotion lined her up with another opponent. “This is short notice, my last opponent pulled out not even a week before I flew out.”
From what she saw of Ruiz, “I know she’s a southpaw, or at least that’s what I saw in the footage I watched. I don’t mind, I come out orthodox but I love to switch, so it’s going to be fun to strike with a southpaw,” Inaba said.
When it comes to the Bellator experience, Sumiko Inaba has already had a taste. The Hawaiian attended both of Bellator’s trips to the island state in previous years. “As an MMA fighter, I’m also an MMA fan, and I definitely wanted to support Ilima,” she stated.
Believe it or not, however, Inaba is actually glad she’s not making her debut at home, despite the support she gets there. “I’m glad I’m making my pro debut outside Hawaii. I think the pressure would have been a bit more back home.”
In 2021, however, she’s hoping to get to fight at home, in front of her supporters. The process to get there begins on Thursday.
Sumiko Inaba takes on Jessica Ruiz this Thursday at Bellator 251: Manhoef vs Anderson. Her Bellator 251 media day appearance, separate from the interview above, can be viewed below.