I can’t sing, I can’t dance, and it beats fuckin' working for a living. – Phil Baroni.
I’m sure every fighter has their own reason for getting into the sport of MMA. For every Baroni who apparently wanted to avoid the 9-5 life (and who wouldn’t?), there’s a myriad of others who basically stumbled into the sport. High school or college wrestlers who found their talents were best suited to pounding another man in the confines of a cage. Life-long martial artists who ended up making the transition when they found their karate training just wasn’t doing it for them. Some likely have more unique reasons – perhaps finding it a way to get themselves out of street fights or gang situations. In the future, I’m sure, young people will look to break into MMA for their shot at the glory, the fame, and the celebrity that goes along with being a top fighter. And then there are those rare breeds of people who are simply born to fight. Born warriors. Rich Franklin and Randy Couture have stated in the past that they view MMA as simply a competition, a human chess game. This breed of fighter would disagree. Many of the men who claim to be "born fighters" are probably not, in fact. They’re using the term in order to amp up their reputation. On the flip side, there’s Enson Inoue.
Now, I’ll freely admit, I am a little on the ignorant side when it comes to the majority of Inoue’s fighting career. Sporting a record currently standing at 11-8-0 (according to Sherdog), Enson’s documented fighting career began in the mid-90’s, in the Shooto promotion. After a brief stop-off in the UFC, Inoue faced the likes of Frank Shamrock and Randy Couture in Japan before finding himself in the PRIDE ring. Enson only fought five times in PRIDE and I’ve only seen four of those fights. In my early days of watching MMA I heard about the reputation Inoue had as a tough guy, but at that point I’d seen little to back it up. Granted, I’d seen him pass out rather than tap to a Rodrigo Nogueira triangle, but while that showed toughness it didn’t seem to live up to the legendary reputation the guy sported. Somehow, with what more educated fans were saying, I expected more.
And then I saw him fight Igor Vovchanchyn.
It almost seems strange to be talking about Inoue-Vovchanchyn as a classic fight, as really it’s largely one-sided. PRIDE as a promotion always did enjoy putting on a good beating, and back in the late 90’s and early 00’s nobody dished out a beating quite like Igor Vovchanchyn. Despite losing to Mark Coleman in the finals of PRIDE’s Grand Prix earlier in 2000, coming into the fight with Enson – at PRIDE 10 on 8/27/00 – Vovchanchyn held a record of thirty-two wins with two losses. One of those losses was the afore-mentioned one to Coleman, and the other was a controversial "chin-in-the-eye" submission. Vovchanchyn had defeated thirty-two men and more often than not it had been in the most brutal fashion possible – with clubbing blows from his sledgehammer-like hands. Inoue had only had three fights since 1997 – Vovchanchyn had won four fights in 2000 alone. I wasn’t around to see betting lines but I don’t think I’d be wrong to presume Igor was the heavy favourite.
The first notable point of the fight is pointed out by commentator Eddie Bravo. Eddie’s noticed that Enson’s come in wearing gi pants rather than trunks or shorts, and praises him for this gameplan, noting that Inoue’s lone chance in the fight is probably to catch Vovchanchyn with a submission from his back, and the pants will give him more hope of doing that than trunks would. It’s pretty clear that Enson’s smartest gameplan would be to get this fight to the mat as soon as possible. Instead he comes charging out of his corner like a madman, and throws a right hand at the Ukrainian that lands. A brief clinch, like the calm before the storm, follows, and then the trade that follows has to be seen to be believed. Both men throw a series of haymakers that, if any of them landed cleanly, would probably be enough to knock out an elephant. Luckily for both neither man lands cleanly, simply throwing too hard and too fast to care for accuracy. In a Rocky IV-esque moment Inoue actually lands the best shot of the trade – cutting Vovchanchyn under his left eye. But as we’ve seen before real life isn’t like the movies, and unlike Ivan Drago, Vovchanchyn doesn’t slow down.
Instead, almost inevitably, Igor lands the harder punches as the trade continues. When you’re hit on the jaw repetitively, even Enson Inoue’s level of heart will struggle to keep you vertical, and the punches finally take their toll, wobbling him. Vovchanchyn follows by simply throwing him to the ground and following him down. Time to make use of those gi pants, and sure enough Enson throws his legs up for a triangle attempt, but Vovchanchyn’s having none of it. After avoiding the attempt, it’s clobberin’ time. It would probably be argued today that of all the fighters to compete in MMA, Fedor Emelianenko has the most devastating ground-and-pound attack. Watching this fight, it’s hard not to argue in favour of Igor Vovchanchyn in those stakes. Punch after punch after punch lands, and Enson takes them all. In the UFC this round would be over. In PRIDE there’s still five minutes to go. And it’s five minutes of sheer pain for Inoue, as Vovchanchyn continues to punish him with those sledgehammers.
Three minutes to go. Lesser men would’ve tapped out long ago but Enson’s still hanging in there, still taking shots from Vovchanchyn who’s now landing at will, but somehow Enson’s still with it. Vovchanchyn passes to half-guard, and then gets free of that, looking for the full mount. Enson rolls slightly to his side, trying to avoid the blows, but only exposes himself further as Vovchanchyn opens up with some of the most vicious punches I’ve ever seen in a mixed martial arts fight; hard, clubbing blows to the head and the face, over and over. If this were presented as evidence in a court of law Igor would be looking at a 25-year stretch. Instead the bell mercifully rings, and the Ukrainian calmly stands and heads for his corner. Enson Inoue remains on the canvas, his head freakishly swollen like he’s been involved in some sort of horrific accident.
The second round never took place, as the doctor duly stopped the fight between rounds, due to the culmination of damage to Inoue’s head. Enson Inoue never quit. His corner never threw in the towel and seeing Inoue’s horror at the doctor stopping the fight, I have to believe that if they had thrown in the towel he would never have forgiven them. Enson Inoue wanted to carry on the fight and come out for the second round. I hate to imagine what might’ve happened had that been the case. Enson Inoue wasn’t thinking that far. Because he’s a born fighter.
Often I wouldn’t defend what appears to be stupidity in the name of bravery. I laughed at the idiocy of TUF V’s Marlon Sims, for example, when he denigrated other members of the cast for tapping out while he, the warrior, allowed himself to be choked unconscious. But with Enson Inoue, somehow it’s different. Even as a fan who has seen precious little of his fighting career, I can see that. Perhaps it’s because it’s clear that he’s not refusing to quit because he thinks it’ll make him seem more like a "warrior". I’ve seen Enson talk online in an unbelievably frank manner about what it means to him to never quit in a fight. This man doesn’t refuse to quit to make himself seem more of a warrior. He refuses to quit because he is a warrior. And that’s what makes his fight with Igor Vovchanchyn a classic. No matter that Igor won the fight in the most convincing way possible. No matter that the fight’s largely one-sided. The fight’s still primarily about Enson Inoue and it is still a war. Perhaps, in a way, it was a war in Enson’s mind, too. I’m sure part of him wanted to quit as those sledgehammer-like blows pounded the side of his head in. But the stronger side of him kept him in the fight. Some fighters call themselves "born warriors" because they’re trying to convince themselves that’s what they are. On the flip side, there’s Enson Inoue.