SHINYA AOKI MAY APPEAR TO BE AT THE PEAK OF HIS POWER, BUT HE TELLS JAMES GOYDER HE STILL HAS MORE ROOM FOR IMPROVEMENT.
For years Shinya Aoki was competing almost exclusively in Japan, but since signing for ONE Championship the legendary submission specialist has started to take his show on the road, winning fights in Singapore and Dubai and becoming the organisation’s lightweight champion.
It’s a title he also held with the now defunct DREAM and WAMMA, as well as being the welterweight (76kg) champion with Shooto, but in a career which has spanned 11 years and 43 fights, Aoki is currently coming off arguably his most impressive performance.
Kamal Shalorus was expected to provide a stern test at ONE FC: Reign of Champions in Dubai last August, but Aoki took less than three minutes to take down and choke out the UFC veteran and seasoned wrestler.
Aoki successfully defended his tile in Singapore last month with a unanimous decision victory over Japanese rival Koji “The Commander” Ando.
It was an emphatic performance which cemented Aoki’s status as the number one lightweight in Asia, but he remains extremely humble.
“I was surprised how quickly I was able to finish the fight because I trained very hard at Evolve MMA and was ready to fight five rounds. It was lucky, and I know I still have many things to improve on as a fighter,” he says.
Aoki dispatched Shalorus so rapidly that he never had the opportunity to showcase his much improved striking skills, but says he was simply happy to have registered a win.
“I train a lot in Muay Thai and I always want to use it, but I took a method with less risk in this fight. I am not afraid to test my striking against any opponent, but fighting is about intelligence as well as courage.”
Aoki has received plenty of plaudits for the improvement he has shown in his all-round game – utilising body kicks to devastating effect against Satoru Kitaoka a few years ago; and doing serious damage to Antonio McKee’s eye with an overhand right.
However, he is first and foremost a grappler, who holds black belts in both BJJ and judo, but the list of lightweights to have been submitted by Aoki in the opening round is a long one, with Shalorus the latest name on a list which also includes Tatsuya Kawajiri, Mizuto Hirota, Joachim Hansen and Eddie Alvarez.
I AM NOT AFRAID TO TEST MY STRIKING AGAINST ANY OPPONENT, BUT FIGHTING IS ABOUT INTELLIGENCE AS WELL AS COURAGE.
Hirota was the reigning Sengoku 155-pound champion and Aoki held the DREAM belt when they met in a highly publicised fight which took place under the Dynamite! banner on a New Year’s Eve show at the Saitama Super Arena in 2009.
As well as the personal animosity between the two fighters, there was also a promotional rivalry because they were both champions in their respective organisations and, with so much at stake, Hirota refused to tap despite being caught in a first-round hammer lock. The result was a broken arm which kept Hirota out of action for almost two years, and Aoki remains bewildered by his opponent’s actions that night.
“If he had tapped, then the result would have been the same, but he would have been able to train again the next day, I don’t know why he didn’t.”
Other names on Aoki’s impressive resume include Caol Uno and GZ Cavalcante who he both beat by unanimous decision. But while some of the aforementioned fighters are fast falling from relevance, the reigning ONE FC 155-pound champion still appears to be in his prime.
Aoki has seen both MMA promotions and fighters come and go and believes the key to his longevity is an obsession with continuous improvement.
“I always try to be a better martial artist and that is the reason I started doing my training camps in Singapore. I have a lot to learn, every day at Evolve MMA I learn new things from the Muay Thai trainers and BJJ black belts and wrestling trainers and I always try to improve,” he says.
Aoki prepared for his last fight alongside former Bellator 170-pound champion Ben Askren who was challenging for the ONE FC title. Both scored first-round finishes to bring home the belts and he made the most of the opportunity to train with one of the most decorated wrestlers in the sport.
“I was most fortunate to be able to practice with Ben Askren and it was a splendid experience for me, but I have also learned a lot from Heath Sims who also has excellent wrestling skills,” Aoki says.
A new crop of potential future opponents for Aoki is fast emerging and there are plenty of challengers waiting in the wings. At this stage of his career, the Japanese fighter is content to fight a couple of times a year and by the time he mounts his next defence, a clearer picture should have emerged of who is the number one contender.
Leading challengers include former Legend FC 155-pound champions Adrian Pang (20-8-2) and Koji Ando (10-3), while Eduard Folayang (14-4) and Vuyisile Colossa (7-4) have both registered back-to-back wins and Timofey Nastyukhin (7-1) has signed for the promotion on the back of seven successive first-round stoppages.
Lowen Tynanes (6-0) could also come back into contention having ironed out his contractual differences with King of the Cage, and Roger Huerta (22-7-1-1) is resurgent after scoring a first-round TKO win over the previously undefeated Christian Holley in his most recent outing.
Lightweights Holley (10-1) and Rafael Nunes (10-1) both saw undefeated win streaks snapped on their ONE FC debuts, which is testament to the strength in depth the division now has and Aoki is excited by the challenges which lie ahead.
“ONE FC is a very good environment for me, there are many fighters with a high level and I am very much satisfied with my decision to sign. I am glad to see ONE FC grow and am proud to be a part of it.”
He dropped down to 145 pounds for the first time last year to defeat Cody Stevens in Singapore, but while the decision was clear cut it was not the most impressive performance of Aoki’s career with a nasty looking low blow clearly taking some of the wind out of his sails.
It’s worth noting Aoki has won five of his past six fights by stoppage, with Stevens the only fighter to take him to a decision since 2011 and, while he doesn’t rule out dropping down a division again, it’s not something he is desperate to do.
“It is possible I will choose to do it again in the future, but I think 155 is better for me because I feel strong at this weight.”
ONE FC has expanded rapidly in recent months moving into multiple new territories, with shows in Taiwan, Dubai, Cambodia and China, in addition to the events which have already been held in Singapore, Malaysia, the Philippines and Indonesia.
There is a sizeable contingent of Japanese fighters on the ONE FC roster and Tokyo, for so long the epicentre of Asian MMA, seems an obvious destination, but Aoki is unsure about the timescale for fighting in his homeland again.
“It would be for the best if there was a ONE FC event in Japan, but this is a difficult time for MMA in Japan and the situation is still not too good,” he says.
With the scene in Japan somewhat stagnant, Aoki’s new training base of Singapore seems to be firmly established as the unofficial nerve centre for the sport in Asia and he says he is happy to showcase his skills in new cities across the continent.
“The experience in Dubai was very good and it is a memory from my career which will always be precious to me. I like Singapore because I think Evolve MMA is the best gym in the world, but I also like the country very much and it’s one of my favourite places to fight because I always have a lot of support from everyone.”
Given the length of time for which Aoki’s name has been synonymous with the Asian MMA, the number of different titles he has held, and the frequency with which he has fought on marquee events over the years, it seems surprising he only recently celebrated his 31st birthday.
It’s an age at which most fighters are approaching their prime and, given Aoki has been firmly established as the most dominant lightweight in the region for several years, the prospect of him improving further is a scary one for opponents.
He believes he still has plenty of room for improvement and has not even contemplated the possibility of retirement.
“I feel good because I do not drink or smoke, I do not put on weight between fights and I want to keep improving as a martial artist and to test myself by fighting. Also, I want to help ONE FC become the biggest MMA promotion in the world.”
With ONE Championship expanding into different destinations and announcing new signings every week, it’s difficult to predict where Aoki might fight next or who the opponent will be, but despite being into his second decade as a professional mixed martial artist, the Japanese lightweight remains at the very pinnacle of the sport.