Despite MMA’s successful and short history, many athletes have unwillingly wiggled their way out of the minds of fans, media members and fellow competitors, with only a thread of the fanbase keeping their legacy alive. Many of these fighters belong to the dark ages, a period in the sport’s history where it was yet to reach the mainstream, with numerous promotions across the globe showcasing their talent in order to solidify themselves as the top seed. Due to the mass amounts of competition and substantially smaller fanbase, it’s no secret why many have been left to canker in the past.
Mitsuhiro Ishida (20-8-1) is one of these fighters. Although he never attained a notable world championship or put on an impressive stint in one of PRIDE’s Grand Prix’s, Ishida played an important role in Japanese MMA at a time where his nation most definitely needed it. A veteran of PRIDE, Shooto and even Strikeforce, the lightweight threw down with some of the world’s best in a career that spanned the better part of a decade. He wasn’t by any means a prolific finisher, however his style was savvy enough to defeat UFC veterans Marcus Aurelio and Christiano Marcello, and even hand former lightweight king Gilbert Melendez his first professional loss. The opposition was always larger, but that was never an issue.
Shooto Born & Bred
Tsukuba is a city located in Ibaraki Prefecture, Japan, known for its 50-year-old science park and world-renowned space centre, where the nation’s astronauts are often trained before departing to the International Space Station. It has been responsible for producing two Nobel Prize winners, as well as actor Yasuaki Kurata. Another accomplished citizen hailing out of this city is Mitsuhiro Ishida, one of Japan’s very own fighting sons.
Ishida proved to be talented in combat sports from an early age, ranking in the top five nationally for Greco-Roman wrestling while in high school. Wrestling deemed to be his greatest asset as a mixed martial arts participant, which he modified efficiently in order to take control of his opponents in the ring.
In 2001 he made his MMA debut at Shooto: To The Top 6, aged just 19. His opponent, Daisuke Sugie, sported a record of 2-0 and was known as a dangerous jiu-jitsu practitioner; he is currently looked upon as one of the country’s more notable jiu-jitsu fighters. The fight itself was scheduled for two rounds that consisted of five minutes, however Ishida was ineffective for both. He was smothered by his opponent for the duration of the fight, losing a unanimous decision on all scorecards.
Following a disappointing but necessary debut against Sugie, Ishida accumulated four straight victories which included one finish and was eventually paired with Naoki Matsushita in July 2003. The fight was highly entertaining, with “The Endless Warrior” finding himself steamrolled by a right hand early in the first. He rose to his feet before the 10 count, which was a regular attribution to the promotion’s ruleset at the time. He instantly recovered and landed a slick outside trip, demonstrating his wide array of offensive wrestling. Ishida made a name for himself through not only his ability to score takedowns, but harsh ground and pound which played an essential role in each victory.
His contest with Matsushita was ultimately ruled a draw, albeit I personally believe Ishida won both rounds convincingly. In spite of it being early in his career, he had already developed profoundly and was quickly cementing himself as a legitimate contender within the Japanese MMA circuit.
After an unfortunate draw in a match many thought he won, he focused his attention on returning to the ring, picking up two dominant decision victories. Riding a seven-fight undefeated streak, Shooto decided it was time to match him up with one of the division’s most promising prospects, Vitor Ribeiro, an unbeaten jiu-jitsu champion with a knack for securing his patent arm-triangle choke. This fight was personal for Ishida as the Brazilian had defeated good friend and teammate Tatsuya Kawajiri two years prior.
On top of his impressive accolades outside of the ring, Vitor Ribeiro walked into the match as the promotion’s world lightweight champion, however the title was not on the line. As fate would have it, he would suffer the same outcome as Kawajiri, losing a lopsided unanimous decision. When you take into account the visible size difference, as well as time spent in defensively challenging positions, it’s amazing the fight lasted the time it did. It’s nothing but a testament to his heart and durability.
It’s all about PRIDE
Like the majority of combat sports, losses are not taken lightly in the field of MMA and after suffering his second, Ishida bounced back in impressive fashion by putting together a phenomenal eight-fight win streak. The first of which was against the ever-familiar Daisuke Sugie.
The rematch was easily one of the more exciting fights of Ishida’s career with back-to-back knockdowns rounded off with numerous submission attempts. Despite it being more competitive than their first encounter Sugie remained somewhat well versed on his takedown defense, sprawling his way out of the majority of his opponent’s grappling ventures.
Ishida relays on simplicity and speed, two fundamental principles required in order to be a success as an undersized competitor. The rematch with Sugie highlighted both these areas as the lightweight stuck to basic punches and takedowns. In the end, he was awarded the decision victory in a fight that could’ve gone either way. Following his long-awaited revenge, Ishida knocked out his next two opponents, looking dominant in both performances. This earned him a shot at Shooto’s Pacific Rim Welterweight Championship.
A three-round majority decision saw him crowned champion with a title he would never defend. This wasn’t out of brashness though: Mitsuhiro was taking the next logical step in his career, and it was all about PRIDE.
PRIDE Bushido 10 was staged for April 2, 2006, featuring names such as Joachim Hansen, Dan Henderson and former UFC champion Jens Pulver. The event had zero (that’s correct, not one) bouts go to a decison, with a plethra of finishes spread amongst it. One of these belonged to the scrappy Ishida, who needed less than three minutes to snatch a guillotine chokehold.
With this victory Ishida announced himself to a wider portion of the MMA world. Not only had he secured himself further fights in the organization, fans were eager to see him compete – just how far could he go in the ring?
His return to action two months later would see him claim a massive win over Marcus Aurelio; momentum would continue to jump, as later in the same year he bested two more UFC vets in Christiano Marcello and David Bielkheden. An outstanding 5-0 record in the calender year set Ishida up for the biggest fight available; one that would discover the true posterboy of Japanese mixed martial arts. In PRIDE’s 2007 end of year show, he was going to fight Takanori Gomi.
It’s easy for modern day fans to point out and laugh at the record currently held by the ageing Takanori Gomi, who is currently 42 years old. 36-15-1 certainly isn’t an amazing record (particularly on the surface), but lets rewind to the 2000s for just a moment.
At his peak, Gomi held a record of 29-3-1, only losing to the likes of Joachim Hansen, BJ Penn and the aforementioned Marcus Aurelio, all absolute greats in their own right. This speaks volumes about the level of Gomi, who, when in his prime, tore through PRIDE in fierce fashion. Jens Pulver? Knocked out. Ralph Gracie? Kneed to sleep in six seconds. Kawajiri? Choked. Nobody was safe from a good beating, and this all famaliar tune played clear for Ishida.
Just over a minute into the opening round, Ishida met his end, succumbing to a series of soccer kicks and punches. The result wasn’t entirely unsurprisingly; many had decided long before the bell that Gomi would be the victor, however the manner in which he executed the win sent a message to all lightweights.
While Gomi would continue his reign in Japan (prior to an anticlimatic UFC stint), Ishida would sit on the sidelines for precisely a year. A return to the ring would take place at the one-off Yarennoka! event in 2007, where he’d collect the most notable and impressive triumph of his decade long career. Reigning Strikeforce lightweight champion and pound-for-pound titan Gilbert Melendez was the name, and the task was more than complex. 13-0 was the record of the surging Melendez, who had built up the reputation of a dangerous striker with mean intentions.
Mitsuhiro would best Melendez over the course of three rounds, handing him his first professional defeat. Within 15 minutes stocks were raised and stocks were dropped; the Japanese athlete had displayed his hungry inclination for takedowns, tirelessly pursuing the single leg en route to taking the back.
Handing Melendez a loss, particularly his first as a professional, is something that has only aged gracefully as times rolled on. Sure he’d go on to lose plenty as a UFC athlete, but within in his era, Gilbert quite literally reigned supreme for a number of years.
The Final Chapter
A unanimous decision win over Gilbert Melendez was the last great triumph of Ishida’s career. Over the course of the next four years, he’d string together a 5-5 record, competing for DREAM, Shooto, DEEP and Strikeforce. Caol Uno would force him out of DREAM’s Grand Prix with a rear naked choke; future UFC vet Mizuto Hirota needed just 93 seconds to put to bed a Shooto return; and asides from a slick armbar victory over Justin Wilcox, his Strikeforce days were cut short by familiar foe Melendez in a bout for the interim lightweight belt.
In spite of being a visually undersized 155-pounder, Ishida never took the easy path in competition. Even post-prime (and following beatings from Hirota + Melendez) he continued to scrap with noteworthy names. The year 2011 – his last as a professional – was one of the toughest, as it saw him contest with both Joachim Hansen and fan-favorite Doo Hoo Choi (a current UFC featherweight). Although his bout with Hansen was a competitive split decision defeat, the latter was a nasty beatdown that ended early in the opening stanza. By this point, even his biggest fans had accepted the obvious: his career was over.
Mitsuhiro Ishida’s service to Japanese MMA should not go undermined. A name often surpassed when gossiping about the mid 2000s, Ishida is one of the figures accountable for raising his nations repute. Ask yourself this – would the likes of Kyoji Horiguchi and Naoki Inoue be able to walk the trail already blazed if not for their predecessors?
”The Endless Warrior” is just one of many mixed martial artists who were undeserving of how little attention they received. While not a fearsome finisher, the grappler brought the fight when it was most needed.
Say his name. Watch his bouts. Keep his legacy alive.