(“I’m honored that anyone would watch me fight, but my goal isn’t to appeal to people.” Photo via MMAWeekly)
By Elias Cepeda
If it wasn’t for his cauliflower ear and your knowing how a person gets such a proud deformity, Shinya Aoki is the type of fighter you’d never suspect was, in fact, a fighter, just from looking at him or speaking with him outside of training or competition. To the untrained eye, Aoki looks like just another Tokyo hipster or backpack kid — slight in frame, stylish, with thick-framed glasses.
Sure, he’s got a gravely, action-hero voice but it delivers extremely humble words, for the most part. Shinya Aoki always appeared to be a mild-mannered, soft-spoken person from the interviews I’d seen of him over the years.
As he sits in a conference room in a Tokyo high-rise on this rainy late December afternoon, nothing I see on the surface changes that perception. For a half hour, Aoki is warm, engaging, quick with a smile and nervous laughter.
In just over one week’s time, however, Aoki will be in a ring, attempting to snap another man’s arm in half. The only reason he will not is because the opponent will smartly tap out before his limb breaks.
Like many great fighters, Shinya Aoki flips a switch, so to speak, from Clark Kent to a kind of malevolent Superman when it comes time to compete. Not only has the ordinarily calm and friendly Aoki not hesitated to break the bones and tear the ligaments of opponents, throughout his career, he also isn’t above standing over their prone bodies and flipping them the bird, as he did to Mizuto Hirota in 2009.
The submission wizard and MMA veteran of over forty professional fights, knows exactly when he makes that shift from civilian to ruthless warrior.
“From the moment I get in line to make my entrance [to the cage or ring],” he says. “That’s when it switches.”
Aoki’s psychology going into a fight is simple and logical. In fact, it is the mindset one could easily imagine would develop in any other skinny teenager who started doing martial arts. Aoki may have developed into one of the world’s best fighters, but when he steps onto the mat, all that is on his mind is survival.
“When I’m out in normal street clothes, I’m a regular person,” he explains. “When I get in the ring, I’ve got to turn on that animal instinct. I’ve got to become a survivor. That’s what switches in my head.”
That reality, that essence of what martial arts is for, is often forgotten amidst the sportsmanship and high-level skills pro fighters typically demonstrate. But martial arts are for learning to fight, and learning to fight is to learn to survive attack. The physical conditioning, the inner peace, all of those things which one hopefully also gets from martial arts training are there to serve the end purpose — survival.
Aoki, evidentially, has never forgotten that. It doesn’t always make for classy behavior or sportsmanship, but so far, Aoki has survived.
The attitude may be also be partially due to how he first began fighting MMA. In 2003, Aoki was training Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and Judo when his instructor told him that he had a fight coming up.
There wasn’t a discussion. This wasn’t the first step in a well-planned career of a blue-chip athlete. Shinya was thrown into the deep end to see if he could keep his head above water with the sharks.
“I don’t remember a lot of details of my first fight,” he says.
“It was back in 2003. I do remember that I didn’t have a lot of time to prepare, though. They told me, ‘you’re going to fight. Get ready.’”
That was it. Backed into a corner where he would eventually make his career, Aoki thought in black and white terms.
“All I put in my head was, ‘I have a fight. Let’s go.’ I didn’t have time to think ,” he explains.
“From the start I’ve always been able to make that mental switch when it was time to fight.”
Aoki won that fight. He’s won just about all of his fights.
The submission fighter has lost some big ones, though. Losing to top-ten American fighters like Eddie Alvarez (whom Aoki has also beaten) and Gilbert Melendez is certainly nothing to be ashamed of, but losses can still wreak havoc on a professional athlete’s psyche.
Questions about what those losses say about him as a fighter could have easily gotten into Aoki’s head and made him a less-confident, less active and less successful fighter. Instead, Aoki has managed to rebound well after every loss.
His approach to dealing with losses is characteristically simple and, really, genius.
“I think like a baseball pitcher,” Aoki details.
“If a pitcher faces a batter and that batter gets a home run off of him, he lost that one but the pitcher still has to prepare for the next time he faces that guy. That’s how I look at fighting. Each time I face an opponent, if I lose to that opponent that just means I have to train to become better if I face him again.
“That’s how I mentally prepare. Each opponent is a challenge at a specific time. If I lose to them, I just have to be ready to face them the next time.”
Most fighters can’t disassociate themselves from past selves effectively enough to work past the demons of loss, improve and do better the next time out. It was one of former two-division UFC champion Randy Couture’s biggest strengths as a competitor.
One of the most significant losses of Aoki’s career wasn’t even a fight of his, however. When the Pride Fighting Championships folded, it shocked the young fighter and changed his world.
To Aoki, being a Pride fighter was the definition of being a professional fighter. When asked how, why and when he decided he would make fighting his full-time career, Aoki time and again simply cites the moment he was offered a contract with Pride eight years ago.
“Eight years ago, I was a police officer,” he remembers.
“Here in Japan, it was hard to make a living as a fighter so I needed another career. I became a police officer to support myself and because I thought it would be a good job for keeping myself in shape anyway.”
Aoki didn’t see much action as a cop, however, because he only stayed on for a few months before Pride – then the largest MMA organization in the world – came calling. That’s when he decided to give up everything else and train and fight full-time.
When Pride closed down and was sold to the UFC, Aoki’s whole profession was turned upside down. To this day, he has never gone to fight in the UFC like many of his fellow ex-Pride stars, despite even recently being offered a contract with the American company.
“More than anything, I was surprised. I had worked so hard to get there and so I was more surprised than anything,” Aoki remembers of when Pride closed its doors.
Aoki has been a true international fighter since that time, fighting in many different organizations, all over the world. Now, he finds himself in ONE FC, where he is the reigning lightweight champion.
The fighter says that though he loves fan support, he isn’t concerned with not being very well known by Western MMA fans because he’s mostly fought in Asia.
“I’m honored that anyone would watch me fight, but my goal isn’t to appeal to people,” Aoki says.
What Aoki is trying to do is improve on his weaknesses — notably the stand-up striking component of his game. Aoki is the rare breed of Jiu Jitsu fighter that is good enough to be able to do normally suicidal things like pull guard in an MMA fight and still win.
He isn’t content to rest on his strengths anymore, though. That’s why Aoki says he decided to begin training at the Evolve MMA gym in Singapore.
Aoki wanted to learn Muay Thai and so went to the MMA gym most renowned for its Muay Thai training in all of Asia.
“I’ve always been interested in Muay Thai. I’ve known people from Singapore that were very good Muay Thai instructors so I felt like it was the smart choice. I went to the place where people are known for it,” he says.
As for his improvement in striking thus far, Aoki is characteristically humble.
“I feel I’m getting better but there’s always room to improve. I’m never the best. I’ve always got to improve and then I’ve got to show it in each fight,” the fighter maintains.
If Shinya Aoki has any more grand plans or goals for his MMA career, he is keeping those cards close to his chest. If he doesn’t have a desire to go to the UFC and become a recognized world champion, what are his goals, I ask.
“As long as I’m doing what I’m doing, I don’t really have any other goals,” Aoki explains.
As long as he can train and fight, he’s happy, it seems. Aoki’s perspective on life and his career hasn’t even changed with fatherhood, if he can be believed.
The new father says that he keeps his career and his family life separate. So, don’t expect Aoki to spout any of the touchy-feely poem-like statements about how fatherhood has changed his mindset as a fighter that many of his peers have given after having children.
And although his decision to thus far stay out of the UFC and stay fighting in Asia could be construed from the outside as Aoki not willing to consistently fight the best of the best, he certainly isn’t running from any rule-set or regulations. In fact, if Aoki had his way, he says he’d choose to fight in a cage and with just about no holds barred.
Of course, even though Aoki carries an old-world warrior mentality into this century, the rules he fights under are very modern and restrictive. Still, he says he wants to continue to fight under them often and for as long as he can.
The closest career goal Aoki divulges is basically a wish that he be able to ride it ‘till the wheels fall off. Aoki’s goal is the fight.
If he fights, he is happy. How long can he do it for, though? Aoki says he isn’t even beginning to plan for retirement.
“If I take a lot of damage and I feel my body can’t take it anymore, then I’ll quit. Otherwise, I have no time I think of stopping,” he says.
When that time does come, Aoki doesn’t yet know what he’ll do with his life.
“Right now I don’t have any plans for what I’d do after retiring from fighting,” he says.
“But I’ll know when I see it.”
There’s a game still going on. Shinya Aoki is still on the mound, throwing heat and he can’t be bothered with thoughts of what may happen after the 9th inning. For now, all this pitcher is thinking about is the next guy up to bat.