Shinya Aoki: The Shootor's Soul

The Shootor's Soul

By Jordan Breen Jun 22, 2006
With the microphone trembling in his hand, Shinya Aoki (Pictures) addressed the packed house at Korakuen Hall. Just minutes earlier he had captivated the audience with a spectacular display of grappling — old hat for the 23-year-old ground wizard.

"I want to thank Tsuruya for taking this match with me,” Aoki said. “In April, I will no longer be a student, but a full-fledged member of society. My environment will change; I can't promise that I will be able to return to Shooto."

Watching Aoki square off against Shooto veteran Hiroshi Tsuruya (Pictures) in a grappling-rules match, it seemed hard to tell which man was the more experienced grappler, the twice grappling King of Paraestra, the leader of his own gym.

Less than a minute into the second round, Aoki had mounted Tsuruya again. Aoki calmly and methodically twisted his right leg over the throat of Tsuruya, wrestled his neck forward and choked him. Just 64 seconds into round two of their bout, Shinya Aoki (Pictures) submitted Paraestra Matsudo leader Hiroshi Tsuruya (Pictures) with a mounted foot choke; another dazzling submission victory for Shooto's middleweight champion.

And yet, Aoki stood in the middle of the ring with tears in his eyes.

The Tobikan Judan

Seldom do young fighters emerge in a fashion that steals the breath from the mixed martial arts world. It is a magic that was first discovered nearly a decade ago, with the rise of Vitor Belfort (Pictures). At only 19 years old, Belfort tore through his first four mixed martial arts bouts in a combined 3:04, culminated by a 52-second destruction of UFC anti-hero Tank Abbott. Though barely even an adult, Belfort's furious fists and guaranteed excitement captivated fans like they'd never been before.

Shinya Aoki (Pictures) was no different. Aoki had all the tools one would expect from an elite grappler. An outstanding judoka from elementary school and on into university, Aoki transitioned to Brazilian jiu-jitsu under Paraestra founder and Shooto legend Yuki Nakai (Pictures). Moreover, Aoki had an unorthodox and aggressive grappling style which sought to throw and submit his opponents from every position, every minute.

At just 20 years old Aoki dove into MMA in November of 2003, by armbarring his way through the 82-kilogram DEEP “Future King” tournament. Making his professional debut in July of 2004, Aoki stole the show at DEEP's 15th Impact with a picture perfect armbar submission over long time Shooto fighter Seichi Ikemoto (Pictures), who had almost five years of MMA experience on Aoki. In only his second professional fight Aoki was competing for DEEP's welterweight championship, against former Shooto title challenger Jutaro Nakao (Pictures).

While Aoki was able to press the action and take Nakao to the ground early, his zealousness was his downfall, as he chased Nakao on the feet and was caught with a hard counter hook from the Osaka native that sent him crashing to the canvas. The defeat showed that Nakao was too much, too soon for Aoki — but it was clear that Aoki was a quick study and success would not be far off.

Transitioning into Shooto in 2005, Aoki found immediate success by scoring a highlight reel submission victory over Keith Wisniewski (Pictures). An early flying armbar attempt by Aoki startled Wisniewski, and served as a premonition of what was to come. Out of the body clinch, Aoki attempted a sudden wakigatame throw on Wisniewski, and in doing so, snapped Wisniewski's arm at the elbow.

In August, after returning from the Abu Dhabi Combat Club world submission wrestling championships, Aoki faced former Shooto middleweight champion and PRIDE Bushido star Hayato Sakurai (Pictures) in what proved to be a controversial affair.

Only a minute into the bout, Aoki secured a deep brabo choke on Sakurai, which under Shooto rules should have been declared a catch, earning Aoki a 10-8 round for his applied submission. No catch was called, Sakurai escaped, and for the next 14 minutes both men neutralized one another en route to a close decision which favored Sakurai by one point on two of the judges’ scorecards and two points on the other. The missed catch call arguably lost Aoki the bout.

Unfazed by his misfortune, Aoki returned to the ring in November on short notice to meet grappling nemesis Kuniyoshi Hironaka (Pictures). A year prior in a Brazilian jiu-jitsu rules match, Aoki broke Hironaka's arm with a flying armbar, sidelining him for nearly a year. Hironaka was set to meet Finland's Sauli Heilimo, but when illness forced Heilimo from the bout Aoki stepped in looking to redeem himself after the loss to Sakurai.

In a duel between two men who now boast Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belts, it took Aoki only a minute to apply a triangle on Hironaka. Hironaka stood up, balancing Aoki on the ropes, trying to escape. As Aoki hung off of Hironaka, Hironaka lost his footing and Aoki swept him with a mounted triangle. A flurry of uncontested punches opened a deep gash on the face of Hironaka that stopped the fight.

Yet, despite his great performance, Aoki was dismissed by many critics heading into his title match with KILLER BEE member Akira Kikuchi (Pictures) this past February. Kikuchi, a top five welterweight in the world, came from a family of elite judokas and had out-grappled ADCC stand out Jake Shields (Pictures) in their title match in December of 2004, taking his back and nearly submitting him.

Many suggested that Kikuchi was too big and too strong for Aoki and that Kikuchi's grappling would negate his, allowing Kikuchi to dominate with strikes on the feet, and from top position.

Aoki was unfazed by the punditry. After two hotly competitive rounds in their title showdown, the fight would belong to whomever wanted the third round more, Kikuchi or Aoki. However, Kikuchi was able to mount very little offense as Aoki climbed on his back and began a relentless attack of choke attempts and punches to the head that went on for minutes.

Kikuchi's attempts to pry Aoki from his back failed and Aoki continued to pound away on Kikuchi spurred on by the cheers from the bleachers of Yoyogi's second gymnasium.

In the dying seconds, Kikuchi desperately flipped forward to the mat, hoping to slam Aoki off of his back, but Aoki stuck to him like glue, riding his back until the final bell rang.

That night, tears of joy ran down Aoki's face as he was crowned the eighth world middleweight champion of professional Shooto. Yet, on March 24 there was little joy to be found in the eyes of the champion.

"If I can get things sorted out, I will definitely fight in Shooto," Aoki said that night. "Shooto will continue to produce great fights. Please support Shooto.”

The characteristically taciturn, yet gracious audience gently applauded as Aoki bowed and left the ring with his teacher and mentor Yuki Nakai (Pictures).

That March evening in Tokyo may have been the last time we would Shinya Aoki (Pictures), as his ambitions ran beyond sports, into the world of law enforcement.
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