Shinya Aoki leans heavily on his submission game. | Photo: Taro Irei/Sherdog.com
Firmly entrenched as one of the most dangerous submission fighters in mixed martial arts, Shinya Aoki will look to add another trophy to his long list of combat sports accomplishments when he challenges Kotetsu Boku for his One Fighting Championship lightweight crown at OFC 8 “Kings and Champions” on April 5 in Singapore. The undercard will stream live and free on Sherdog.com
Aoki’s martial arts roots grow deep, from his youth to his time as a police officer.
“Even while I was serving as a police officer,” he said, “I was still training in judo and BJJ.”
Now 29, Aoki owns black belts in both Brazilian jiu-jitsu and judo, along with countless grappling awards. His attention was naturally drawn to MMA.
“I started watching mixed martial arts, and I decided to try my hand at it,” Aoki said. “I submitted my opponents in amateur bouts pretty easily, and that was when I started thinking I could actually make this my career, so I quit my job and started training full-time.”
The decision proved fruitful for Aoki, as he went on to win the Dream lightweight championship, the Shooto welterweight title and the World Association of Mixed Martial Arts lightweight crown. He has plied his trade inside some of the sport’s top promotions: K-1, Deep, Shooto, Dream, Strikeforce and Bellator MMA. It should come as a surprise to no one that Aoki’s greatest idols are his Brazilian jiu-jitsu instructor, Yuki Nakai, and Ultimate Fighting Championship hall of famer Royce Gracie.
“Watching [Gracie] submit men double his size is truly amazing,” Aoki said.
Following in the footsteps of his role models, Aoki has earned his moniker, “Tobikan Judan,” which translates to “Grand Master of Flying Submissions.” He has delivered 21 of his 32 wins by submission, all while using a variety of methods: neck crank, knee lock, Achilles’ lock, heel hook, hammer lock, armbar, rear-naked choke, standing arm lock, gogoplata and triangle choke. Two of his submissions are of particular note: the gogoplata he used to finish Joachim Hansen on Dec. 31, 2006 and the hammer lock that broke the upper arm of Mizuto Hirota on New Year’s Eve in 2009.
However, Aoki has had well-documented issues with strikers, as four of his six defeats have resulted in knockouts or technical knockouts. He suffered his most recent setback in April in a rematch with former Bellator champion Eddie Alvarez -- a man he submitted in 92 seconds on New Year’s Eve in 2008. In an attempt to close the holes in his standup, Aoki went to work with the muay Thai coaches at Evolve MMA in Singapore some 18 months ago.
“I definitely feel my standup has improved by leaps and bounds,” Aoki said.
The 29-year-old put his improvements on display at Dream 18 in December, when he punched UFC alum Antonio McKee into submission at the Saitama Super Arena in Saitama, Japan. It was Aoki’s first strike-induced victory since November 2005.
“I’m very proud of my win over McKee,” he said. “I’ve constantly said that my striking is evolving and getting better. Beating McKee by striking validates what I’ve been saying. I think if my future opponents watch that fight, they will know that I can strike with them, as well. I’m still confident in my submission skills, and I have no problem going back to that when I have to. Mixing my striking with my submissions more will keep my opponent guessing.”
Aoki feels his work at Evolve has prepared him for Boku, who captured the OFC lightweight crown with a third-round technical knockout against Zorobabel Moreira in October. The “Tobikan Judan” also addressed the question regarding his inexperience competing in a cage.
“I train with top muay Thai legends in Evolve MMA,” Aoki said. “We also train in a cage instead of a ring, so I have extensive preparation for fighting in a cage. If I can impose my will and grapple with Boku, I don’t think it will matter if it is a cage or a ring.”
Aoki still works out regularly at his home gym, Paraestra Tokyo, in Japan. However, now that he has signed with OFC, he moves to Singapore to train at Evolve MMA full-time as his fights draw closer. Aoki made his promotional debut at OFC 6 in October, when he submitted Arnaud Lepont with a first-round triangle choke. Now, he has designs on claiming OFC gold.
“I want to face every lightweight in the One FC roster,” Aoki said. “I’m not afraid of anybody and whoever wants a title shot can come get it, but, first, I [have] got to get the job done on April 5. I have to first get through Boku. I do not want to look past him, as he’s a very tough fighter.”
Aoki wants to help spread One Fighting Championship’s reach into his native Japan, where interest in MMA has waned with the demise of Pride Fighting Championships, Dream and Sengoku.
“One FC is already the largest promotion in Asia, and it will expand across all of Asia,” he said. “I hope that, in the future, One FC will host an event in Japan. I want to be champion when One FC goes to Japan. The MMA scene in Japan now is no longer as exciting as it was seven years ago, and I want to fill out the Saitama Super Arena for a One FC event.”
Married three years ago, Aoki has since become a father. His life and perspective has changed.
“I’ve been so consumed now with being a husband and a father,” he said. “It’s what keeps me going during intensive workouts, and it’s the first thing I think of after each fight. My family is more important to me than anything else in the world, and everything I do is for them. I don’t get to see them much when I move to Singapore to train.
“Thankfully, my wife is very supportive and I’m grateful,” Aoki added. “When I’m home, I just want to enjoy the time I have with them.”