(“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.”