Shinya Aoki is the only fighter to have ever won titles with ONE FC, Shooto and Dream. He has been at the top of the lightweight ladder in Asia since before the decade began. It would be easy for the 30-year-old to become complacent, but after ten years and 40 fights, he is still looking for new challenges.
This is why he decided to travel to the U.S. earlier this year to face Kron Gracie in a No Gi grappling match that few gave him any chance of winning. It is also why he embraced the challenge his Evolve MMA coaches set for him: to see if he could replicate the phenomenal success he has enjoyed as a lightweight in a lower division.
Aoki’s ONE FC: Total Domination bout with Cody Stevens will be a step into the unknown because it is his first time fighting in the featherweight division. He readily admits that he has no idea how his body will cope competing 10 pounds below the weight class with which he has become synonymous.
“I don’t know what will happen because in training my cardio is fine, but I don’t feel as strong at 145, let’s see,” he told MMAWeekly.com.
In a sport where uber-confident is a de facto mode for most fighters, Aoki’s honesty is both refreshing and alarming, but the concern is that this commendable absence of bravado could be because the Japanese veteran is genuinely concerned that the weight cut may be too much for him.
Aoki knows he can make the weight. He’s completed at least one successful test cut and said he was already 69.5 kgs (153 pounds) three weeks before the fight, smaller than the average 145-pounder would be that far out from fight night. The question is whether he will be able to replicate the form that has seen him win 10 of his last 11 fights in a completely different division.
It is a question Stevens will endeavor to pose as problematically as possible. This is by far the biggest fight of the American’s career and a win over Aoki would see him rubbing shoulders with the likes of Eddie Alvarez and Gilbert Melendez, who are responsible for the two most recent blemishes on the record of the “Tobikan Judan.”
Coming off back-to-back wins over touted Australian prospect Greg Atzori and UFC, Strikeforce and Bellator veteran Dustin Neace, confidence should not be in short supply for Stevens.
“He is a strong and aggressive wrestler with excellent cardio,” Aoki said in assessing his Oct. 18 opponent.
Aoki will be fighting in his new home for the first time since deciding to make a permanent move to Singapore earlier this year. He’s been working hard to improve his English and can now be found conducting classes at Evolve MMA in between training sessions.
Having lived in Japan his entire life, Aoki has settled remarkable quickly and says he is already comfortable in his new surroundings.
“I have been to Singapore many times to train at Evolve. Now I have moved permanently and I feel at home,” he told MMAWeekly.com.
When Aoki joined the Evolve MMA fight team in 2011, he had a reputation as being one of the greatest grapplers in the history of the sport, but a somewhat one-dimensional fighter who would struggle if he couldn’t get the fight to the floor.
You don’t win 33 MMA fights and register victories over the likes of Tatsuya Kawajiri, Mizuto Hirota, Joachim Hansen, and Eddie Alvarez without being reasonably well rounded, but striking has never been Aoki’s strength and this is one aspect of the game he has been working tirelessly on since moving to Singapore.
The results were there to see when he used body kicks to devastating effect against Satoru Kitaoka at Dream: Fight for Japan, and hit Antonio Mckee hard enough to make him tap at Dream 18. Aoki says he has been working tirelessly with one of the veteran Muay Thai trainers at Evolve MMA.
“I have been training every day with our world champions in Muay Thai, BJJ, boxing, wrestling and everything. For this fight, Orono Wor Petchpun has been my main striking coach. I am lucky to train with so many BJJ Black Belts at Evolve too, and Heath Sims is one of the best MMA coaches in the world.”
It was at the instigation of Sims along with Evolve MMA owner Chatri Sityodtong that Aoki decided to test the featherweight waters. If he can compete at 145 pounds as effectively as they believe he will, it will make his previous achievements as a lightweight all the more remarkable.
Chatri has previously compared Aoki’s potential at featherweight to that of Jon Jones, stating that he believed at 145 pounds the Japanese fighter would benefit from being able to utilize his height and reach in the same way that the reigning UFC light heavyweight champion does.
According to Aoki, he was taken aside by the coaches at Evolve MMA and told that he had been competing at the wrong weight class his entire career.
“My coaches thought it was best for my career because they think that I am too small at lightweight. Chatri Sityodtong and Heath Sims believe that I will have a significant size and reach advantage at featherweight.”
While Aoki is adamant he wants to challenge for the ONE FC featherweight title, which is currently the property of Koji Oishi, he has some silverware of his own at 155 pounds and the likes of Kamal Shalorus and Caros Fodor are queuing up to take it off him.
You get the impression that if Aoki’s featherweight debut goes to plan, he will seek to make 145 pounds his permanent home, but ONE FC CEO / Owner Victor Cui apparently has other ideas.
“I met with Victor Cui last week and he asked me to defend the lightweight belt at least once, but I want to fight at featherweight now,” Aoki told MMAWeekly.com.
A defense of his lightweight title might be imminent on Aoki’s agenda, but if he can overcome Stevens at ONE FC: Total Domination then he will be a strong contender for a shot at the 145-pound strap. It’s a situation that is guaranteed to cause the matchmakers sleepless nights, but if anyone competing in Asia is capable of dominating two divisions it is the Japanese submission specialist.