Reflections of a Samurai: An Exclusive Interview With Enson Inoue

Enson Inoue

Last month, Enson Inoue was honored in a retirement ceremony at Vale Tudo Japan 6 in Tokyo, putting an official end to possibly the most unique of MMA careers.

A Honolulu native, Inoue left the University of Hawaii to further a racquetball career in Japan in the early 1990s– eventually turning up at a tryout for the seminal Japanese MMA promotion Shooto. Inoue, who had trained extensively in Brazilian jiu-jitsu with Relson Gracie back in Hawaii, was hoping to test his own fighting spirit for one fight.

But he essentially never left Japan, or fighting, behind.

One fight led to another, and Inoue became a legend: known as “Yamato Damashii,” the spirit of ancient Japan — a man whose “never say die” attitude brought the samurai spirit back to his adopted home.

Enson Inoue on Retirement

Similarly, his retirement ceremony was at once traditional, and unconventional.

“I did something different, but I think it went really well,” Inoue explains in a phone interview from his home in Saitama, Japan. “Usually with these ceremonies, the commission buys a bunch of flowers, calls in some famous people, and has them go in the ring and present flowers. I’ve seen that, like at Rumina Sato’s retirement (earlier this year).”

“I just felt my retirement ceremony shouldn’t be people thanking me,” he continues. “It should be me thanking the people for being fans and supporting me throughout my career. I didn’t want to get any flowers; I wanted to give flowers.”

“But I decided the only flowers I’d give were to my parents,” he says. “So I told them they didn’t need to call any famous names, just flowers to give to my parents, and that’s it.”

In a brief speech, Inoue described his parents as “teaching the way of Yamato Damashii” and “showing the meaning of integrity” before presenting them each a bouquet.

The genesis of the ceremony was also unusual. In fact, it began with promoters from the Shooto organization, where Inoue began his MMA career in 1995, contacting an “unofficially retired” Inoue about a final fight. Inoue suggested a retirement ceremony instead, and as Inoue puts it, “they got really excited about that.”

Enson had thought the ceremony would happen at a Shooto show, where MMA bouts still take place in a ring, like the ones where he cut his teeth in the 1990’s. But it was decided to have it at a Japan Vale Tudo event instead, which uses the cage more common in today’s MMA scene.

“They were debating either having it in a Shooto ring vs. having it in Vale Tudo (cage),” Inoue explains.  “They said, you’re Mr. Vale Tudo, you helped make Vale Tudo Japan what it is, so I agreed to it.  Maybe the ‘full circle’ in my career would have been Shooto ring, but I wasn’t really particular about it. I was glad to get the ten-count and get everything closed off. My preference would have been Shooto, but they had a good point. A lot of the big moments that made my career — the Randy Couture fight, the Frank Shamrock fight — were there. When anyone mentions Japan Vale Tudo, they think of those fights, so it made sense.”

Enson Inoue’s Best Fight

That Randy Couture bout at Japan Vale Tudo 1998 is remembered by many fans as Inoue’s greatest fighting moment. Couture was regarded the top heavyweight in MMA when Inoue scored an armbar submission victory that night. But, Inoue disagrees.

His journey in martial arts was highlighted by his defeats — the times he grew spiritually fighting valiantly against the likes of Igor Vovchanchyn and Rodrigo Noguiera.

“Compare it to something like surfing,” Inoue says, his Hawaii accent still strong despite his years in Japan. “Those first Shooto fights were me getting up on the board and finding my balance. In PRIDE, fighting Igor or Nogueira, those were riding those huge, humungous waves. The development, the spiritual growth – that was more in the PRIDE rings. Those had more impact on me than even the fights with Couture & Shamrock.”

“I got to say what I wanted to say to the crowd, my last words to them,” Inoue recalls. “Then the ten count. It was awesome, everything worked out perfect: the mood, the timing of it was right.”

Inoue always described his fighting career as a step in his journey “to become a man.” In recent years, he also tested his resolve in a lengthy pilgrimage, all on foot, of the 108 Buddhist temples in Shikoku, Japan.

What’s next for Enson?

Next in the journey? He says, simply, “To help people.”

Inoue has been busy lately with trips to Japan’s north, where many are still displaced by the typhoon disaster of 2011.

“Everything is about helping people, I think that’s my calling,” Inoue says. “I’m making a trip up North on the second of November. We’re bringing rice, water, beer to the people. Then I’m going to drive down to join (longtime friend) Michael Fowler, who is on the (Shikoku) pilgrimage now.”

There’s time for a little fun, too. Inoue recently appeared in a brief scene on the television series “Hawaii Five-0” in a turn of events that surprised him as much as anyone.

Inoue’s older brother Egan trains the shows’ stars, Alex O’Loughlin and Scott Caan, in jiu-jitsu, and had already appeared on the series — along with other former MMA standouts like John Lewis and Chuck Liddell.

“It wasn’t anything that was planned,” Inoue says with a laugh. “I was actually in Hawaii and I took my girlfriend to the set of Hawaii Five-0 to check it out. I guess a discussion happened between Alex and the producer Peter, and after lunch the producer calls me over and says do you want to be in Hawaii Five-0? I’m like, yeah — but I’m not an actor, you know?”

“He mentioned it’s a gangster, you just have to look mean – can you do that?” Inoue laughs.  “I said, I’d love to try. That’s how it happened. The character didn’t get killed, so maybe they’ll have me back!”