“Big in Japan” is an American fad phrase that connotes cult status in the East. Ikuhisa Minowa is big in Japan, and he doesn’t need a novelty T-shirt to prove it.
“The Punk” is a Japanese professional wrestler who happens to be a 13-year veteran of mixed martial arts. But make no mistake — Minowa fights. Professional wrestling simply pushes him to work in a tumbling heel strike from time to time.
Minowa has been through the ropes of Pancrase, Deep, PRIDE, and K-1, and he currently competes in DREAM. He is the smallest competitor in the ongoing DREAM Super-Hulk tournament, weighing a generous 185 pounds. The disadvantage, though, is the story of Minowa’s career.
The catch wrestler achieved cult figure status in PRIDE’s five-roped ring. Minowa amassed a 42-30-8 record and really burst onto the scene when he stood his ground staring down a much larger and scarier Quinton “Rampage” Jackson at PRIDE Shockwave 2003 before being beaten mercilessly. He’s a crash test dummy for the sport’s elite, but his combination of fearlessness, warrior’s spirit, and showmanship transform him into a fighter to watch. He stepped into the ring against an in-hisprime Wanderlei Silva without hesitation.
But that brutal loss never stopped Minowa from entering fights he couldn’t win. The consummate underdog picked up the most notable wins of his career in 2005 when he tapped out Dutch striker Gilbert Yvel and out-pointed Phil Baroni. When he faced notable competition like Murlio Bustamante or Mirko Crocop over the years, nights were short and headaches were long.
For Minowa, it’s a matter of proving professional wrestling is best while doing Japanese fans proud. Enter “Minowaman.” Overtly entertaining on his own, Minowa adopted an alter ego for his monster-slaying ways. Wearing the Japanese flag as a cape to the ring hasn’t hurt his popularity, either.
Minowa launched himself into the superhero infamy he enjoys now in just 2 seconds. Across the ring from Eric “Butterbean” Esch in 2006, Minowa jumped into the air and drop kicked — a classic aerial professional wrestling move — Esch. The move didn’t faze the American tough man, but it did perfectly capture Minowa’s attitude toward fighting: engage and entertain. Factor in a fight against 7-foot, 2-inch Paulo Cesar “Big Foot” Silva a few months earlier, and Minowa is a certified legend of “freak-show fights.”
It’s an approach that fits the undersized Minowa purposely as Japanese fans live for David-versus-Goliath storylines. Fans recently got a vintage dose of Minowa as he defeated gigantic striker Bob Sapp in the first round of DREAM’s Super-Hulk tournament in May. True to his catch wrestling roots and fight style, Minowa prevailed via leg lock — a pillar of Japanese grappling.
Minowa didn’t submit to top-tier Jiu-Jitsu players Ricardo Liborio, Paulo Filho, Ricardo Almedia, and Ryan Gracie, yet he drops bouts to the likes of 390-pound special attraction Wagner “Zuluzinho” de Conceicao. That type of competitive rollercoaster leaves Minowa stuck somewhere between serious and surprisingly relevant. In the semifinals of DREAM’s Super-Hulk tournament this month, though, Minowa has the chance to capitalize on another event made for caped crusaders