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There was a time when you couldn’t have a conversation about the best lightweights in MMA without at least mentioning Shinya Aoki.
Back when he hit a gogoplata on Joachim Hansen at PRIDE Shockwave in 2006, or when he heel hooked Eddie Alvarez at the Fields Dynamite!! New Year’s Eve event in 2008, the skinny Japanese guy with the colorful tights and killer ground game seemed like something special.
In those days, the question was whether he’d ever leave the rings of Japan long enough to get a real test in the cages of the North American MMA scene. Then he did, going 1-1 in Strikeforce before losing via first-round TKO in a 2012 Bellator rematch with Alvarez, and with that some important questions got some seemingly very clear answers.
But Aoki (40-8) didn’t disappear, even if he hasn’t fought on this side of the Pacific since that night. He went on a nine-fight winning streak mostly in Japan and Singapore, and he briefly held the ONE Championship lightweight title before dropping the belt to Eduard Folayang in 2016 and getting steamrolled by Ben Askren in a bid for the welterweight title the following year.
Now he’s 35, a veteran of nearly 50 pro fights, with the next one scheduled for ONE Championship 78 on Friday in Pasay, Philippines, where he’ll take on Shannon Wiratchai (9-2) in a bout that’s pretty typical of what Aoki’s been up to in recent years.
Is a win or a loss going to shake the foundations of the MMA world? Not likely. Will fans outside of the Asian MMA scene even notice when it happens? Probably only the hardest of hardcores. Will Aoki be more or less the same guy he was when it’s all over? Probably.
But who is that, exactly?
In an interview conducted over email this week, Aoki himself took a rather unsentimental view of his legacy in MMA.
“I want to be remembered as a fighter who never backed down from a challenge,” Aoki wrote in an email translated by Evolve MMA’s public relations team. “Someone who always fought hard and continued to give it his all and progress as a martial artist.”
It’s tough to argue with that self-assessment. Aoki went up in weight on multiple occasions, even when it proved, over and over again, to be a bad idea. He fought every name opponent he could get his hands on, even though those proved to be few and far between for a guy intent on maintaining some contract flexibility and loyalty to the MMA scene back home.
In a lot of ways, Aoki is a fighter who’s really living his own credo. If you ask him about various career moves or missed opportunities, if you ask about losses and regrets, what you get in response are a lot of answers about the “continuous journey” of a martial artist.
He’s had his ups and downs, but mostly Aoki just seems glad he can still do it, still get paid, and still enjoy the process.
That’s very different than what you hear from a lot of his peers who are still angling for money fights and title shots, though maybe that shouldn’t be so surprising. Back when MMA fans chided him for not showing more UFC-specific ambition, Aoki was the guy trying in vain to explain to us why he didn’t feel he needed the validation of any specific brand.
Now that he’s still plugging along as many of his contemporaries begin to fade away, Aoki doesn’t seem to have changed his mind. He still regards himself more as a martial artist on a journey of self-discovery than as a professional fighter out for blood and riches. He’s still just happy to be here, doing his thing and working his stubbornly effective submissions game from all angles.
Even if it probably won’t take him anywhere he hasn’t already been in his nearly 15-year career, he doesn’t seem to mind. And as frustrating as that might have seemed a decade ago, these days it’s almost refreshing.
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