Born to be different

Mixed martial arts exponent Shinya Aoki will hope to overcome his fear of fighting in front of crowds when defending his One Championship lightweight title against Eduard Folayang on Friday.
Mixed martial arts exponent Shinya Aoki will hope to overcome his fear of fighting in front of crowds when defending his One Championship lightweight title against Eduard Folayang on Friday.PHOTO: DIOS VINCOY JR FOR THE SUNDAY TIMES

Japanese One C'ship lightweight defending champion thrives on being the odd one out

Shinya Aoki is a mixed martial arts (MMA) professional with 13 years of experience in the ring, winner of 39 bouts, holder of multiple titles and master of innumerable submission moves.

But the 33-year-old, hailed by many as one of the world's best MMA exponents, can think of only one word to describe himself.

Different.

And Aoki, who will defend his One Championship lightweight title against the Philippines' Eduard Folayang in Friday's One: Defending Honour event, is certainly living up to his word.

The Japanese stands out not only because, wearing thick-rimmed glasses, clutching an iPad in a pink cover and speaking in a soft but scruffy voice, he hardly looks like the master grappler who breaks down grown men with effortless ease in the ring.

He stupefies because he is equal parts MMA wizard and enigma.

ONE OF A KIND

I realised I was different. I cannot hold a regular job. I didn't want to do something I wasn't passionate about.

SHINYA AOKI, MMA fighter, on ditching his crime-fighting days at a police academy.

Asked to comment on arguably the fight that will define his career, when he broke the arm of Mizuto Hirota before celebrating by showing the cameras a rude gesture, Aoki admitted there were regrets from that night in 2009.

But he mused: "Maybe it's a good thing, because until now people are still talking about me and the fight."

His thoughts on retirement are even more peculiar.

"I take longer to recover now, but I don't want to stop fighting. I love MMA. If I retire at 40, I hope I die at 41. If I retire at 50, I hope I die at 51," said the father of three sons with scarcely a hint of sarcasm.

Asked about the fate of his wife and children then, he shrugged.

Yet being different was what set Aoki on his path to MMA stardom.

After graduating with a sports science degree from Waseda University in Tokyo, Aoki, by then an accomplished judoka, returned to his birthplace of Shizuoka to become a policeman.

Taking down baddies was the last thing on his mind. "I just wanted a stable job," said Aoki, who holds black belts in judo and Brazilian jiu jitsu.

But, two months into police academy training, he dropped out. "I realised I was different. I cannot hold a regular job. I didn't want to do something I wasn't passionate about," he said.

He joined a local MMA promoter soon after dropping out. The rest, as they say, is history.

Aoki's adroitness at forcing opponents into submission saw him grind out an impressive 39-6 win-loss record over a decade, and earned him the nickname "Tobikan Judan" or "The Grand Master of Flying Submissions".

He has a 1-1 head-to-head record against current Ultimate Fighting Championship lightweight champion Eddie Alvarez, who is defending his own title against featherweight champion Conor McGregor a day after Aoki's bout.

One would think the immensely experienced Aoki would fancy his chances against wushu exponent Folayang, who has a 16-5 record.

But he befuddled once more, saying: "I'm quite scared of fighting in front of an audience, and of getting hit. It doesn't matter how many fights I've been in or whether it's a title fight or not.

"I'm always scared."

But, with his last defeat coming 10 fights ago in 2012, chances are Friday's result at the Singapore Indoor Stadium will be anything but different from the majority of Aoki's fights.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on November 06, 2016, with the headline 'Born to be different'. Print Edition | Subscribe