Shinya Aoki: a household name in MMA around the world. In rainbow spats or an Evolve MMA cap, he is an iconic figure of a man who is lanky yet fierce, boyish yet threatening. Every moment of his career is hawkishly observed by both insanely fervent fans and enthusiastic naysayers. The polarity surrounding him is palpable when he fights in Japan, but in his new base of Singapore – throughout all of Southeast Asia, in fact – the phenomenon that is the Japanese MMA legend receives nothing but fanatical adoration.
With a career spanning ten years through promotions that have risen and fallen in Japan, Aoki has stayed at the top of the sport almost since his MMA nascence. Stints in Strikeforce and Bellator pitted him against the best rather than allowing entry level ladder climbing – pretty much a testament to Aoki’s worldwide ranking. Looking to continue his career in Asia, Aoki stepped out of the comfortable confines of being the top dog in Japan and moved to Singapore’s Evolve MMA, and eventually signed with the city-state’s own ONE Fighting Championship. In just their sixth event, Aoki debuted and was fed the fabulous Frenchman Arnaud Lepont, which made for an appealing appetizer but not much of a main course – Shinya ate him in just 1:25 of round one.
On April 5th, Aoki faces his next opponent for a title shot. ONE FC has chosen him as the (obviously) top contender for Kotetsu Boku‘s Lightweight strap. Boku’s Shootist family of Yamamoto Sports Academy – Krazy Bee is no stranger to the former Shooto champ Tobikan Judan, and they themselves have recently followed up with more title-collecting in Shooto with the Pacific Rim and World Lightweight belts, snapped up by Yusuke Yachi and Kyoji Horiguchi respectively. Aoki will be rolling deep with his own bevy of Evolve MMA stars at ONE FC: Kings and Champions as a total of four stablemates will join him on the card: Eddie Ng, Alex Silva, Leandro Issa, and Jake Butler.
Aoki’s next challenge pits the submission spider against a warhorse boxer. Aoki’s first time KO of Antonio McKee at DREAM 18 has shown the light on what could be a new facet of his abilities, and a level up of his game which certainly brings an added air of uncertainty to the championship bout. Aside from the names involved, the fact that two very well-known Japanese fighters from very respected camps are meeting each other outside of Japan heralds in a new age of global MMA, and it is focused in Asia. There is no better proponent of Asian MMA than Aoki to be a part of this. Shinya Aoki is one of the best there’s ever been, and at only 29 years old, possibly one of the best ever to be.
While in the final stages of his training camp for ONE FC 8 on April 5, 2013 in Singapore, MMA-in-ASIA had the chance to ask Aoki a few questions about his last fight, his time in Singapore, and his next opponent.
How is life in Singapore?
I love Singapore! Good team, good training, good food, good people.
You brought your family with you earlier. Are they staying in Singapore?
No, for training camp, I never see my family for two months. I only see them after the fight. This is normal for me.
Will you be staying at Evolve MMA for the entire period of time leading up to your next fight at ONE FC 8? It seems like a longer camp than normal.
Before a fight, my training camp is at Evolve for two to three months.
Please let me ask you a few questions about your last fight at DREAM 18. During the first round, Antonio McKee was able to withstand your takedown and submission attempts. Then he got a take down of his own and ended the round in control of your head. What were your thoughts about his style when you went back into the corner, and what did your corner say?
He is strong and a good wrestler. My team believed that my striking and submissions were better than McKee’s. Ryo Chonan, Chatri Sityodtong, and Yuki Nakai told me to take my time and to strike a lot before taking him down.
At any point, did you feel he was able to get the better of you?
I never felt any danger in the fight.
When you realized that you’d TKOed McKee, you seemed personally overjoyed, rather than celebratory. It was a different Aoki than in previous fights. Can you explain why?
I never knew that I could knock someone out. It was a strange feeling. It was the first time in my career to end a fight with my striking.
How do you feel about working on Muay Thai, stand up in general?
I am still learning. I am a beginner compared to the Muay Thai world champions at Evolve. I learn so much every day. I need to train harder.
Did your last fight motivate you in your stand up game?
I love Muay Thai. I am a big fan of Muay Thai fighters in Thailand.
How much of your training do you dedicate to it?
At Evolve, the Fighters Program is structured. We train six days a week two times a day. We train in Muay Thai, BJJ, Boxing, Wrestling, and MMA.
How much do you think you’ve improved in your stand up – and how – since you’ve moved to Evolve MMA?
Evolve is my life now. Since I moved to Evolve, I have become a better martial artist. My teachers tell me that I am improving. World champions in every discipline of MMA help me.
Can you please clear something up? Are you still the DREAM Lightweight Champion, or has it been vacated?
It depends on who you ask.
Please let’s talk about your next fight. You are fighting Kotetsu Boku for the ONE FC Championship belt. You’ve told me in our last interview that you don’t go into a fight with emotion. Has that changed? You’ve been staying you want to avenge your teammate, Zorobabel Moreira.
Yes, I have the feeling of revenge in my heart for this fight. It was painful for me to see my teammate get knocked out.
Have you and Zoro talked about his fight, and has he given you any advice?
No, we have not talked about Boku.
What is your opinion of Boku as a person and as a fighter?
He is a dangerous fighter with KO power in his hands.
Boku’s stand up is his strength, and yours is known to be submissions. Do you see this fight as a traditional grappler-versus-striker match, or are you eager to showcase more of a complete game?
I listen to my coaches, Heath Sims and Chatri Sityodtong. They give me the game plan and strategy.
What do you think of Krazy Bee?
How do you see this fight ending?
I will finish Boku.
What is the importance of the ONE FC Lightweight Championship belt to you?
This fight is the most important of my career. The ONE FC belt is the most important of my career.
Please let me ask you a few more questions about your training at Evolve MMA. I believe there are many more people around during your training, or any time you are at the gym. What is the atmosphere like?
I love it. Everyone is a world champion at Evolve. Many, many world champions teach me. My game has improved a lot – Muay Thai, BJJ, Wrestling, even my MMA.
How do you feel about seeing more fans around when you are there? Does it affect your confidence or concentration?
No. I am a professional fighter. I have many fights.
Do you have a particular stand up trainer who is your personal favorite?
I love all my Thai teachers. Every camp is a different teacher. It depends on who Chatri selects based on the opponent. For this camp, Chatri gave me Attachai Fairtex. Attachai has been teaching me for the last two months.
How are the grappling sessions different from Japan?
The level at Evolve is higher than Japan. In Japan, no one can submit me. It is a different story here at Evolve. The Brazilians are more aggressive with submission mentality. Japanese are more gentle with a sweep or reversal mentality.
Are there any training partners in Japan whom you miss, and that you’d bring to Evolve if you could?
In Japan, I train with Ryo Chonan at his gym, Tribe MMA. They all want to come here to train at Evolve to learn. I love Evolve!
You’ll be fighting in Singapore again for your next fight. How do you feel about the MMA culture in Singapore?
I love Singapore! MMA is growing everywhere in Asia. I want to fight everywhere.
Do you feel you have a fanbase there like you do in Japan?
I love Singapore!
Are there other countries in Asia you’d like to fight in front of?
I will fight anywhere.