Maui professional mixed martial arts fighter Sumiko Inaba grew up dancing hula.
From 5 to 15 years old, Inaba moved delicately to Hawaiian music and chants before she found a passion in martial arts for fitness reasons in 2012, winning her first fight the following year.
“It’s a different form of art, but it wasn’t martial arts,” the 31-year-old King Kekaulike High School graduate said with a laugh on Tuesday afternoon. “Maybe, I don’t know, it translates over.”
Over more than a decade, Inaba had a successful amateur career before signing a pro contract with Bellator MMA in 2020.
After a 4-0 start to her pro career, she’s now training for her fifth professional match against Belgium’s Nadine Mandiau (2-5) in the women’s flyweight division. The bout is set to be part of the card for Bellator 286 on Oct. 1 at the Long Beach Convention & Entertainment Center in California.
“I’m super excited, which is what I say every time, but there’s no other emotion to express that,” said Inaba, who’s endorsed by Hilo-based Waiakea Water Company. “Just feeling super grateful, honestly, I still get to do this. This is my fifth professional fight with Bellator. It’s pretty close to home, it’s in Long Beach, California, so I can’t complain and yeah, it’s coming up to crunch time.
“It’s always exciting these last couple of weeks.”
A native Hawaiian with Japanese heritage, she said she picked up the name “Lady Samurai” early in her career and “it’s stuck with me ever since.”
Leading up to Bellator 286, Inaba has been “putting all the puzzle pieces together” with boxing coach Wayne Cambra in Pukalani, doing jiu-jitsu at the NEST Maui in Wailuku, and training at home with her fiancee.
Four years ago, Inaba beat Mandiau by TKO in the first round in an amateur fight in Las Vegas, but the pair will be facing off again.
“She’s willing to take on a rematch, she wants to see if she’s improved over the last for years and so do I,” Inaba said. “So, it’s going to be great to put our skills that we’ve accumulated over the years, put it all out there, and see who comes out on top.”
Also a mother to 13-year-old Kiyarah-Lei, who’s attending Kalama Intermediate School, and a foster parent to a 14-month-old baby boy, finding time for both family and workouts has been crucial leading up to fights for Inaba.
“Physically, I’m pretty prepared,” she said. “I took the last eight weeks of hard training, but mentally, for this camp, I’ve really tried to manage my stress. Being a mom and a fighter in general, being able to figure out where my energy goes, and realize there’s always a balance to everything.
“I think that with each fight it gets a little bit easier — just gaining experience and being able to get through fight training and then get back home and mellow out. So, it’s just being able to figure out the balance and this camp has been really, really important for me.”
Growing up on Maui, where opportunities sometimes feel out of reach, she hopes to show keiki and adults that they can still reach their goals.
“It’s amazing, I’m hoping with my whole fight career I am to show that even though we live on a tiny island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean we can chase our dreams,” Inaba said. “Even though we have limited resources and sometimes we don’t have all the chances, I was given these chances and I’m running with them now.”
Starting her pro career at 29 years old is far from the norm, but Inaba keeps pushing for her dream of a world championship.
“I’m on this huge platform and I hope I get to show — not just young girls, but anyone in general pursuing their dreams — that if you put in hard work and you stick to it and chase your dreams, you totally can get to that next stage,” she said. “I hope that I’m going to be a proven example and show the world.”
*Dakota Grossman is at [email protected]