By Mark Pickering
Following an enforced 15-month sabbatical from the competition in his long-time home of ONE Championship, which was spent living out his fantasies in the pro wrestling ring, all-time great mixed martial artist Shinya Aoki returns to MMA competition on 22 January for his 56th pro fight.
ONE Championship and ABEMA, the Japanese broadcast partner of ONE Championship, rubber-stamped Aoki’s return in early January with an official announcement much to the joy of all parties involved and especially the fight-starved fighter himself.
Aoki, 37, will face once-beaten James Nakashima, 32 – who holds a notable win over former UFC title challenger and now ONE fighter Yushin Okami – in a lightweight bout.
Judo and BJJ black belt Aoki has become a popular attraction for DDT Pro Wrestling, one of the country’s leading wrestling promotions and there’s a natural tie-in as the company are owned by ABEMA’s parent company CyberAgent.
The two-time ONE lightweight champion and former DREAM champion has captured gold in the squared circle, like every other sporting arena he’s graced, and, for the first time, offered some insight into his foray into pro wrestling.
“Pro wrestling is my hobby, I do it because I enjoy it,” said the two-time DDT Extreme Division champion and former DDT Ironman Heavy Metal champion.
“Pro wrestling is more about the way you think about it and what you want to convey to the audience, it doesn’t have one answer or another.”
Aoki looks at his profession with a fascinating degree of detail. It’s a joy to listen to the Japanese legend break down pro wrestling and MMA, in his own words, as art forms that have not only a cross-over in terms of participants and fans but also, ultimately, their goals.
When quizzed about the feeling of being in a pro wrestling ring compared to being locked in a cage for an MMA fight, Aoki, offered an interesting assessment, one which he typically gave some thought.
“In my opinion, it’s largely the same thing, both pro wrestling and MMA has a goal, it’s just a different goal, for MMA it’s how to finish, a KO or a submission ideally, for pro wrestling it’s about how you get to that finish.”
A free-thinker and a man who has been at the forefront of Asian MMA for 15 years, having claimed the Shooto middleweight crown as far back as 2006, the Tobikan Jūdan (The Grand Master of Flying Submissions) told me about his pre-fight approach as he prepares to return to ONE for the first time since a 54-second submission win (d’arce choke) over Honorio Banario in 2019.
“There are people who watch videos in preparation for their fights but MMA isn’t something that you can prepare for that easily, it’s something that you engage with once you stand in front of your opponent, and depending on the circumstances of the competition, the surroundings, and the event itself and how the audience reacts, it’s similar to pro wrestling in that regard. You have to prepare at a moment’s notice when you’re in the cage.”
Aoki clearly reads the fight game differently from others. It feels like he has a higher understanding than his contemporaries and that he’s a traditional martial artist from a bygone era.
There’s not an exact science to what he does in terms of training, there’s no reliance on the state of the art sports treatments to prepare him and no multi-man team of renowned trainers preparing him for battle.
There’s no flash, no ego, just hard work, and a deep love for martial arts. He rides a bike to training and appreciates a straight forward and simple lifestyle.
Aoki has played a waiting game in the face of the pandemic to return to the cage and he’s itching to complete one of the most desired returns to MMA competition of the year.
“I wish I was able to compete earlier and get the information out earlier and be able to announce earlier in general but I understand the circumstances, at the end of the day, it’s something I do for myself for my own enjoyment.”
Easy-going Aoki admitted that his usual training routine has not been adversely affected by the pandemic.
“I’m kind of known to do things on my own anyway, when I go to train I commute by bike, since high school I’ve never even had a cold, I’m not the type to go out with people anyway, at the end of the day not much has changed for me, the only time I join with other people is in training.”
Noting his unique persona and style for such a successful sportsman, and following his daily adventures on his entertaining Instagram stories, I wanted to hear Aoki’s training strategy for his return in his own words.
“This is an interesting question for me, my style is to train in different places, as opposed to having one set location, I don’t have a set coach, I make my own plans, my own strategy, if you depend on one coach you no longer have to think for yourself, I enjoy the aspect of MMA of thinking for myself and using my own brain to make my own plans.”
Aoki has done it all. He’s racked up titles in every promotion during an illustrious MMA career that is fast approaching 20 years in the sport.
Yet the 37-year-old is still hungry for more.
“People have different motivations, they want to become a champion, there is Karl Gotch, I want to be an athlete like he was, to take matters into my own hands.”
Belgian-born Gotch was a standout amateur wrestler who rose to fame in Japan, in particular, after crossing to the pro ranks and earned the nickname ‘God of Wrestling’.
There is an MMA connection as Gotch went on to train some of Japan’s most famous fighters such as Minoru Suzuki and Masakatsu Funaki and inspired the early success of shoot wrestling style promotion, the UWF, in the 80s.
Aoki knows his history and the roots of pro wrestling and MMA and where they unite. He invests time in what he believes in.
Often a showman in MMA, drawing inspiration from pro wrestling having grown as a big fan in the 90s, the Japanese juggernaut has paired his charisma with an out-of-this-world skillset that has made him one of the most dangerous and popular fighters in the history of JMMA and beyond.
Aoki’s return to action for ONE Championship will be his 56th pro fight and could yield his 46th win.
Having read this far, you can imagine what Yuki Nakai’s star protege thinks of bidding for 50 wins in the sport in the coming years.
“I don’t really care about numbers, I don’t really think in terms of numbers, it’s not something I focus on. I just enjoy fighting for what it is and strategizing on how to beat an opponent in the moment.”
Aoki has been sorely missed on the MMA circuit by his legions of fans and, appreciating that, provided his vision for his anticipated return on Friday.
“I started fighting because I was enamored with pro wrestling in the 90s, and that’s why I fight to this day, people throw around the term JMMA quite lightly, but I want to be able to show the audience a story aspect, the cultures of Japan, pro wrestling and MMA and how they’re so closely related.”
For a man who even has professional compatriots looking to him with reverence, Aoki remains nonchalant and will switch to fight mode when he steps foot in the Singapore Indoor Stadium.
“Because of the situation we’re in, you don’t know if you’re going to be able to fight until you step in the cage and the cage is locked. I consider myself lucky that I can compete in the cage and if and when that happens, my style is to tell a story and show to the audience and to surprise them with something but my primary goal is to go for a finish at the end of the day.”
Watch #ONEUnbreakable live and free on the ONE Super App with English commentary or on YouTube. If you’re in Japan you can watch live on ABEMA with Japanese commentary.