Shinya Aoki and the Evolution of Asian MMA

Fightland Blog

By James Goyder


To Western fight fans Shinya Aoki encapsulates the appeal of Asian MMA. He doesn’t have much to say for himself, he definitely doesn’t play the pre fight promotional game but once the bell sounds he is a stone cold killer.

His 23 submission wins have come at the expense of some of the top lightweights of the time like Eddie Alvarez, Tatsuya Kawajiri and JZ Cavalcante and there are few fighters in the sport today who have amassed such an impressive collection of belts.

He’s held titles with Shooto, WAMMA, Dream and, most recently, ONE FC but for many the defining image of Aoki is of him taunting Mizuto Hirota after he had snapped the reigning Sengoku champion’s arm with a hammerlock.

Aoki came in for some criticism afterwards but he feels the blame for the incident, which occurred at a Dynamite card in 2009, lies solely with Hirota,

“I don’t know why he didn’t tap, if he had have done I would have released the submission immediately and he would not have been injured,” Aoki told Fightland.

That incident has contributed towards Aoki’s mythology and many see him as a ruthless fighter who has no compunction about hurting opponents. However according to his Evolve MMA trainer Heath Sims this is not the impression that the Japanese lightweight’s teammates have of him.

“Shinya is completely dedicated to his MMA career and takes it very seriously, he trains hard and is always hungry to learn but he is a good guy to have around the gym and is popular with all the students and fighters here.”

According to Sims one of the things which surprised him when he first met Aoki was how humble and willing to learn the Japanese fighter was.

“He’s had around 40 fights and been on the scene for a long time but Shinya is always looking to learn new things and loves picking up striking tips from the Muay Thai world champions at Evolve MMA. He’s one of the best fighters in the world today but he is also a dedicated student.”

Aoki turned 31 earlier this year but there are no signs that he is slowing down and the 35-6-1 lightweight feels he still has plenty of room to improve.

“I first came to Evolve MMA because I was invited to do a seminar. Before that I had always trained in Japan but I realized that I can improve as a fighter by training in Singapore. I feel I am getting better every day.”

He has fought three times in Singapore and is popular with the fans there but next up for Aoki is a bout in Dubai. He will be defending his ONE FC 155 lbs title against Kamal Shalorus on August 29th and is preparing for the possibility of five hard fought rounds with the Iranian.

“His wrestling is very good, he’s strong and I have been training very hard at Evolve MMA to ensure I am ready for this fight. I am looking forwards to travelling to Dubai for the first time and defending my title there.”

Aoki has beaten some good wrestlers in the past so he will not exactly be entering unfamiliar territory but taking Shalorus down will be no easy task. With the fight scheduled for five round that means we could get a glimpse at his striking and the Japanese submission specialist says he is confident in this aspect of my game.

“In the past I was very reliant on my submissions but in MMA you cannot only be good at one thing, you have to be good at everything. I work every day with Nontachai who is a famous Muay Thai champion and he is helping me with my striking, if I could win this fight by KO it would make him very happy!”

Aoki fought three times for Pride just prior to its demise and when Dream was formed in the aftermath of the Zuffa buyout he quickly became the face of the promotion. He’s been on the Japanese MMA scene for a long time but rarely fights in his homeland nowadays and doesn’t expect this situation to change.

“Everyone knows Japanese MMA is not as big as it once was but everywhere else in Asia it is becoming more popular. I like fighting in Singapore because it is where I train but I am happy fighting in different countries, I don’t know when I will fight in Japan again.”

While his team mates and training partners will testify that Aoki is more affable than he appears there is no question that once fight week comes around the intensity of his focus becomes almost intimidating.

He is a family man who doesn’t drink and dedicates his life to MMA, but while Aoki says he’s not quite as serious away from the cage as people like to believe, training and competing remains a serious business.

“When I am not training for a fight I like to spend time with my wife and my children and have fun but this is my career and when it is time to fight I am a different person because all that I think about is winning.”

Winning is something which Aoki has been doing a lot of lately, he’s won 12 of his last 13 fights. It’s a streak which he is determined to extend in Dubai next month on a night when he will be looking to showcase some of the new skills he is picking up in Singapore.



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Jack Slack: Shinya Aoki's Submission Masterclass