Shinya Aoki Talks New Year’s Eve Catchweight Contest With Kazushi Sakuraba

Fightland Blog

By James Goyder

Shinya Aoki did not look particularly excited at the Rizin Fighting Federation press conference. The 32-year-old appeared completely indifferent towards his December 31st opponent Kazushi Sakuraba as the two men faced off in front of the cameras.

Anyone who has observed Aoki over the years will tell you that the Japanese lightweight can be extremely emotional in the aftermath of fights. But in the buildup, he is all business. He is almost completely imperceptible at weigh ins and press conferences and it’s impossible to read what he might be thinking.

However this absence of emotion should not be confused for a lack of enthusiasm. Aoki will be fighting at Saitama Super Arena for the first time in four years thanks to Nobuyuki Sakakibara and his new promotion and he’s looking forwards to it,

“It is special to make fight in Saitama. It will be very happy time for me and I look forward to being able to fight in front of the Japanese fans and my family.”

Over the course of his career Aoki has fought at the Saitama Super Arena no fewer than 14 times and his record in the venue is 13-0-0-1. The only slight blemish being a 2008 ‘no contest’ against Gesias Cavalcante who he would go on to defeat by decision in the same arena the following month.

So it’s no surprise to hear he enjoys fighting at Saitama, the arena on the outskirts of Tokyo that for several years served as the epicenter of Japanese MMA. On December 31st he’s going up against an opponent who is very familiar to the crowd there and is a bona fide legend of the sport with a big fan following.

Sakuraba hasn’t fought since 2011 and hasn’t won a fight since 2009 but still retains superstar status. He was at his peak during the glory days of Japanese MMA and fought on some of the biggest cards the country has ever seen, combining the shtick of a professional wrestler with the skills of a legitimate fighter.

There’s a lot of love for Sakuraba in Japan and a fight between him and Aoki has been talked about on and off for several years. Perhaps that’s why Aoki says he wasn’t particularly shocked when it finally came to fruition,

“It was not a surprise for me but I was happy that this fight can happen at last.”

Sakuraba hasn’t been as successful as Aoki in terms of titles won. The former’s most significant silverware came at the end of a UFC tournament in which he fought the same opponent twice whereas the latter has held belts with Shooto, WAMMA, Dream and ONE Championship.

However Sakuraba’s claim to fame is that he participated in some of the most significant fights of the era at the start of the century, beating Royler, Royce and Renzo Gracie. He also frequently fought far bigger men like Antônio Rogério Nogueira, Kevin Randleman, Wanderlei Silva, Mirko Filipovic and Quinton Jackson.

You could argue that Aoki has simply been better managed. He’s faced some of the best fighters in the division at his weight but has never been on the receiving end of the sort of career threatening beatings Sakuraba used to regularly take. However he knows the crowd at Saitama this December is likely to be firmly behind his opponent and isn’t worried about this at all,

“Yes, he is very popular in Japan. But it does not matter in a fight.”

Sakuraba is renowned for seldom stepping foot outside of Japan, a 2014 grappling match with Renzo Gracie in the US being a notable exception. Aoki, by contrast recognized the need to broaden his horizons by training overseas and has been conducting all his fight camps at Evolve MMA in Singapore since 2012.

He will be heading there next month to prepare for Rizin. Aoki will probably be looking to put on some additional muscle as the fight is likely to take place at around the welterweight limit,

“I think that it will be the catch weight of 77-78 kg. I do not know exactly when I will be coming to Singapore but I will do the training camp of 6-7 weeks with my Muay Thai trainer Peneak (Sitnumnoi) and me training partner Eddie (Ng).”

Aoki is currently riding an eight fight winning streak, stretching all the way back to 2012. He’s added some striking skills to his grappling game and says that while Sakuraba has been away from MMA he has continued to evolve and improve,

“In the last three years I have grown very much as a fighter. Training in Singapore has helped me and I think I am better now than I was during the time when me and Sakuraba-san were fighting for Dream.”

It is a fight which will pit two stars from slightly different eras of Japanese MMA together. Both men have been on the same card numerous times in the past but whereas Sakuraba was the consummate showman Aoki is simply a very successful athlete who has reached the top of the sport on ability alone.

That’s not to suggest that Sakuraba is lacking in skill. Submitting both Renzo and Royler Gracie is an accomplishment that speaks for itself and his style is unconventional but strangely effective. However after so long away from the sport this fight feels like a changing of the guard.

The era of hype men like Sakuraba who wear wrestling masks to press conferences and will take any matchup regardless of suitability is coming to an end. In their place come consummate professionals who travel all over the region to train and do their talking exclusively inside the cage. Like Shinya Aoki.


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