Bellator 251’s Sumiko Inaba, Jaylon Bates look to make good impressions in pro debuts


UNCASVILLE, Conn. – It’s rare that fighters with no professional bouts make it directly into multi-fight deal notoriety with a major MMA organization.

Within the Bellator 251 lineup, however, lightning has struck twice. The promotion, which has shown it isn’t afraid to venture outside the norm, signed strawweight Sumiko Inaba and bantamweight Jaylon Bates earlier this year.

The two previously amateur fighters will make their promotional – and professional – debuts on Thursday’s prelim card.

Both have trained long and hard for the opportunity. Inaba (0-0 MMA, 0-0 BMMA), who fights Jessica Ruiz (0-1 MMA, 0-1 BMMA) in the evening’s opener, trained in anticipation of a pro career for the past eight years and accumulated a 6-1 amateur record. After a high school wrestling career, Bates (0-0 MMA, 0-0 BMMA), who takes on former Ring Of Combat amateur champion Joe Supino (0-0 MMA, 0-0 BMMA), transitioned seamlessly to MMA, winning all nine amateur fights.

“I’m super excited,” Inaba, 29, told MMA Junkie on Tuesday. “The nerves are here. It’s a big production. There are a lot of new things happening, especially with all the COVID procedures and protocols and all that. I mean, it’s what I expected. I’m trying to not let it affect me and kind of take it all in. I’m more excited than anything.”

Bates, 23, admitted there is the pressure that comes with stepping onto the big stage right away, but also voiced confidence in a recipe that got him into Bellator earlier than most.

“I feel like it’s truly intelligence and being a smart fighter (that sets me apart),” Bates told MMA Junkie on Tuesday. “But I’m not just a fighter, I look at myself as a champion already and I haven’t even fought yet. It’s truly the will and the brainpower.”

While Hawaii’s Inaba and California’s Bates entered mixed martial arts for different reasons, their main motivation is to represent the people close to them on the world’s stage.

There aren’t a ton of “fight moms” competing at the highest level, but Inaba is one. Inaba, whose boyfriend Sean Rush is also a professional MMA fighter, has a 12-year-old daughter. Inaba hopes she can be a good role model for her daughter and her peers, and she looks to one of the more noteworthy MMA moms for inspiration.

“My daughter is a big part of why I do this,” Inaba said. “That’s funny that you say Michelle Waterson because she’s a huge inspiration to me. I love how she puts herself out there. I want to be the same. I want to be able to show girls that you can be strong and be a fighter.”

“She’s getting to the age where her friends are fighting out that your mom is an MMA fighter. She talks to me, ‘Oh, my friend wants to tell you, ‘Hi.’ She thinks you’re super cool.’ It’s to that age where she’s understanding, ‘Oh, you know. My mom is an MMA fighter.’ It’s cool. It’s a different experience. It’s awesome.”

For Bates, he’s proud of his home gym, Go Hard MMA out of Portland. He was even decked out in his team’s gear during pre-fight interviews. The gym may not be the most well-known MMA camp, but Bates is ready to change that.

“I’m truly confident with myself and my abilities and the team I have around me,” Bates said. “My team, I truly believe, is the best team in the world to get me to the next level. We’re going to prove that.”

Though their first fight weeks are a mix of emotions, nerves, excitement, and confidence, both Inaba and Bates predicted one final outcome: getting their hands raised.

“(Fan are going to see) a finish,” Bates said. “They’re going to see me go in and hurt my opponent and move forward. They’re going to see a finish at the end of the fight.”

Inaba offered a similar perspective, “I definitely want to come out with a bang. I’ve got a lot of questions asking how I like to look for the finish – which I guess I do. Becoming a professional, it’s a five-minute round. I have a lot of time in there.

“It may not be as fast. I can’t say that. I say that now, talking all cool, but I might come out and get hit one time and go for the kill. It’ll be exciting for sure.”

Bellator 251 takes place Thursday at Mohegan Sun Arena. The main card airs on CBS Sports Network after prelims on MMA Junkie.

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