Shinya Aoki has been called a lot of names from eccentric, intense, fearless and even vicious. The 29-year-old Japanese fighter is considered one of the world’s best mixed martial artists. His distinctive style of fighting, in which he pins most of his opponents in submission holds within the first two minutes of a bout, has earned him the moniker of “The Grand Master of Flying Submissions”. Having won 30 of his last 37 fights, it’s no wonder Aoki, the current Dream (a Japanese MMA championship) lightweight title holder, has a reputation for being one of the most feared technical fighters in MMA.
Who Is The Real Aoki?
But the Aoki we meet is entirely antithetical to the public persona that precedes him. Sitting before us is a bespectacled, pint-sized guy who looks more like a student than someone paid to cut off the blood supply to people’s brains.
So who’s the real Aoki? An ambitious, bare-knuckle fighter who’s able to take out an opponent within 120 seconds of a fight? Or the coy, soft-spoken gentleman who, during this interview, consistently peppers his speech with nods of humility?
“The real Shinya is just a regular guy,” Aoki discloses. “People think I’m scary, but I have my own fears. I’m actually scared of all animals, especially snakes,” he jocularly reveals in his Japanese accent, while flashing a schoolboy grin.
But Aoki never lets fear get the better of him. And he prepares for every fight like it’s his last. Before each bout, he completely immerses himself in training, often not seeing his family – which includes his parents, wife and a newborn son – for months on end, never letting the impending bout slip from his mind. “When I prepare for a fight, I need to focus and nothing can distract me. My family understands that and is very supportive, and I’m grateful for that.”
Considered one of the most lethal Brazilian ju-jitsu (BJJ) fighters in several MMA championships around the world, including the Singapore-based One Fighting Championship, Aoki has a black belt in BJJ and judo. But he knows he has yet to reach his full potential.
He is now training with Chatri Sityodtong and the Evolve MMA fight team – whom he considers his family outside of his hometown in Shizuoka, Japan – to reach his peak.
“I don’t think I’m at my best yet. Training with Evolve is hard because there are so many great fighters here. But, to me, every training session is a chance to improve and learn. Even if I improve bit by bit, I know I’ve not wasted my time and energy,” he says.
Understandably, Aoki’s goals are lofty. So what is it that pushes him to want to become the best pound-for-pound mixed martial artist? “MMA is my greatest passion,” emphasises Aoki with an intensive gaze. “I don’t give a damn about titles – and even less about fame. I just want to fight, and I want to win!” he says.
Other than his submission holds, Aoki is also well known for his preference for a flamboyant ring attire. “The ring in Japan is white, and I don’t want to look the same as everyone else,” he says of the kaleidoscopic tights that he wears for his throwdowns. “I want to be original.”
Chasing His MMA Dream
While Aoki was growing up, even though he was a small kid, no one dared to tease him. He started learning martial arts when he was in his teens, and already had black belts in judo and BJJ when he was attending university. He worked as a policeman for three months after graduation but hated every day of it.
“I had to do it because I just started MMA training then and had to pay gym fees,” he says. “But I eventually quit to pursue my dream of becoming a professional fighter.”
The greatest challenge of his life? Making the transition from judo and BJJ to MMA. “Traditional martial arts are locked in customs. When you learn one martial art – judo, for instance – you focus on one and ignore the rest. MMA, jiu-jitsu and muay thai, however, encourage proponents to combine many martial arts fluently. That was tough for me to grapple with in the beginning.”
Although Aoki is now training to improve his striking prowess, there is no question that his fighting style will not change. His strengths are in grappling and submissions, and he will stick to them. His mantra going into every fight: To ground and submit the opposition within the opening seconds, Aoki reveals.
He also demonstrates dedication to his craft. In the months preparing for the US Bellator Fighting Championships in April, Aoki, whose wife recently gave birth to a son, has been away from his family and staying in Singapore to concentrate on preparing for his bout. “I miss my family, of course. But that’s the sacrifice I have to make. My wife is always very supportive, so I’m very grateful,” says Aoki. And what is this MMA champion’s biggest dream? “I really hope to have a big family some day, and hope they will all share the same passion as I have for MMA,” he says.