Shinya Aoki long ago eliminated the in-between, as most mixed martial arts fans either love him or hate him. No matter the perception, he has carved out his place as one of the most accomplished and influential fighters of all-time.
Aoki has compiled a stellar 47-9 record during his 18-year career, his run highlighted by title reigns in the Shooto, Dream and One Championship organizations. The 38-year-old judo and Brazilian jiu-jitsu black boasts 34 finishes—30 of them submissions—among his 47 career victories, having victimized a long list of contemporaries, from Kuniyoshi Hironaka and Mizuto Hirota to Tatsuya Kawajiri, Jason Black and “Razor” Rob McCullough. Aoki currently finds himself on a four-fight winning streak that spans more than two years.
As Aoki awaits his next assignment from One Championship matchmakers, a look at several of the rivalries upon which his reputation was built:
Just 22 years of age at the time, Aoki laid claim to the first of his many mixed martial arts championships when he took home the Shooto 170-pound title with a three-round unanimous decision over the judoka in “The Victory of the Truth” co-main event on Feb. 17, 2006 at Yoyogi National Stadium in Tokyo. Controversy overshadowed the outcome. Afterward, Kikuchi stablemate Norifumi Yamamoto allegedly struck and berated a Shooto official, resulting in the entire Krazy Bee team being suspended by the organization. Kikuchi returned from the suspension the following October and submitted Ronald Jhun to set up an inevitable rematch with Aoki. Exactly one year to the day after they first met, “Tobikan Judan” and Kikuchi locked horns once more at Shooto “Back to Our Roots 1.” Aoki eked out a split decision to retain his title, only to vacate the throne soon after.
Their first encounter provided some suspense and intrigue, as Sakurai outpointed Aoki across three rounds at Shooto “Alive Road” in August 2005. Three-plus years later at Dream 8, the rematch ended in a burst of unadulterated violence. Sakurai blew up his countryman with knees and punches just 27 seconds into the first round of their Dream welterweight grand prix quarterfinal on April 5, 2009 at Nippon Gaishi Hall in Nagoya, Japan. “Mach” conceded a takedown almost immediately, reversed position and battered the grounded Aoki unconscious with a volley of knee strikes and follow-up punches as a crowd of 9,129 roared its approval with thunderous applause. It remains one of only two sub-minute setbacks in Aoki’s remarkable 57-fight career.
It took the former Bellator MMA lightweight titleholder a little more than two minutes to erase the memories of his previous clash with Aoki, as he stopped the Japanese superstar with punches in the first round of their Bellator 66 headliner on April 20, 2012 at the I-X Center in Cleveland. Alvarez—who had submitted to a heel hook from “Tobikan Judan” at a K-1 event on New Year’s Eve in 2008—drew the curtain 2:14 into Round 1. Aoki invited the American into his spidery guard early in the first round, but Alvarez refused and forced his opponent to stand. From there, it was no contest. The Philadelphia native backed Aoki into the cage and answered an ill-advised standing elbow with a pair of right uppercuts that drove the retreating grappler to the ground. Alvarez then connected on a wicked standing-to-ground punch, compromising his counterpart’s defenses. Aoki covered up in an attempt to shield himself from further punishment, as “The Underground King” unleashed his fists until referee Jerry Krzys had seen enough.
Aoki fired the definitive shot in his longstanding rivalry with the Norwegian henchman in the Dream 11 co-main event on Oct. 6, 2009 at Yokohama Arena in Yokohama, Japan. There, the Japanese submission savant captured the Dream lightweight championship when he dismissed Hansen with an armbar 4:56 into the second round, forcing “Hellboy” to surrender a title he had held for nearly 500 days. Aoki lulled the Pride Fighting Championships veteran into a false sense of security with a conservative approach; in fact, both men were issued yellow cards for passivity. Everything changed in the second round, where Aoki completed a double-leg takedown and climbed to full mount. After bailing on a guillotine, he continued the process of corralling Hansen on the floor. The Oslo, Norway, native then made the ill-advised decision to try to explode out of danger. Aoki bit down on the armbar almost immediately and prompted a quick tapout. Neither of their two prior encounters went the distance. Aoki submitted “Hellboy” with a gogoplata at Pride Shockwave 2006, while Hansen put away “Tobikan Judan” with punches in the fourth round of their Dream 5 battle in 2008.
Still going strong in his late 30s, Aoki submitted “Landslide” with an armbar in the first round of their One Championship on TNT 4 showcase on April 28, 2021 at Singapore Indoor Stadium in Kallang, Singapore. Folayang conceded defeat 4:20 into Round 1, falling to 1-2 in his head-to-head series with the all-time great. Aoki tripped the Filipino standout the floor, calmly progressed to full mount and proceeded to drop elbow-laced ground-and-pound. From there, he transitioned to the armbar, broke Folayang’s grip and extended his hips to prompt the tapout. The two men had split their two previous meetings. Folayang cut down the Japanese ace with punches at One Championship “Defending Honor” in November 2016 before Aoki evened their score by submitting the Lakay MMA export with an arm-triangle choke at One Championship “A New Era” in March 2019.
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