INTERVIEW: ONE Championship star Shinya Aoki

Alex Rea 4/11/2016
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Master on the floor: Shinya Aoki.

Shinya Aoki has the ability to snap a limb in seconds – he’s proven that in the past. You wouldn’t think so to look at him, though. Indeed, the bespectacled Japanese MMA star is quite an unassuming figure. He doesn’t possess the ominous muscularity of fellow fighters and he doesn’t hide behind the veil of hyperbole or bravado either.

No, the idiosyncratic 33-year-old is quite unique. He’s honest, sometimes brutally so, and he cuts straight to the point with the same sharpness he displays in the cage or on the mat. It is there, though, that the Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu wizard is both feared and revered.

It’s no secret that the ONE Championship lightweight king is one of the division’s most dangerous – period, be it UFC or Bellator. Armed with black belts in Judo and BJJ and an imperious catch wrestling background, ‘Tobikan Judan’ – translation: ‘The Grand Master of Flying Submissions’ – boasts an impressive CV which includes a victory over the current UFC lightweight champ Eddie Alvarez while the DREAM lightweight strap sits alongside the ONE crown he claimed three years ago.

While aesthetically Aoki may not strike fear, his ground game is the stuff of nightmares. Go through his back catalogue of submission victories and you dare not go to the mat with him. And for that matter, upset him, too, because quite simply he’s ruthless, just ask Mizuto Hirota, the man who was left with a brutally broken arm after their 2009 superfight.

Aoki was infamously slammed for his post-fight celebrations, which included wildly waving the middle finger at his opponent before running round the ring excitedly, after he broke Hirota’s arm when his adversary refused to tap.

It wasn’t the first time Aoki has received criticism with other examples of controversy punctuating his career. But for a man so formidable in MMA, it’s unnerving to hear Aoki discuss his constant inner-fight with fear.

The ONE lightweight champ is set for his 46th professional MMA fight next Friday as he defends his belt against SEA Games Wushu gold medallist Eduard Folayang. The main event clash of ONE:

Defending Honour in Singapore will be his first outing since December 2015 when he extended his win streak to eight with victory over Kazushi Sakuraba in the inaugural Rizin card. But while many would actively play down the fear of stepping back into the cage, Aoki is not only happy to confront it, but also to shoulder and embrace it.

“I have been training so I don’t believe in cage rust,” he tells Sport360 through a translator. “It is just a state of mind but the only thing I want to feel right now is the fear. If you have fear, you will work harder and improve.

“He has good striking and recently he has picked up MMA. So yes, I will be careful not to get punched. I have been fighting since 2003 and I have experienced losses and fought in unstable environments. So I know the fear and how to survive. I have the experience to push through which will help me a lot this time. But I’m not confident at all, not just in stand-up, but in the entire fight itself. I’m very scared so I would like to fight the fear from today.

“I will go in prepared, but with fear in my mind. Someone who has fought before is scared of every single moment. It’s ichigoichie, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, live for the moment.”

Filipino Folayang is a skillful striker with tremendous dexterity. The stand-up game has been an obvious area of weakness for Aoki with four of his six losses coming by knockout or TKO. It’s something he works on relentlessly with the many kickboxing and Muay Thai champions who inhabit Singapore’s Evolve MMA team. And that’s the beauty of the sport, there is always an area to improve.

While Aoki is still relatively young in combat sports terms, his long and decorated 13-year career has no doubt eroded him. Yet, there will be no talk of retirement, not for a long time anyway.

“Right now, I want to fight,” he says. “I strongly feel that I want to still keep on fighting. Seeing other fighters, it might be something that comes welling up after retiring. But now, I just want to fight.

“I’m 33 now but I want to continue until 45, 50. If I retire at 45, I want to die when I’m 46. If I retire in 50, I want to die when I’m 51. That’s all I think about now. I want to fight as much as possible and after retiring if there’s nothing I want to do, I just want to die.”

As Aoki reflects on what type of legacy he will leave behind, when he does eventually call it a day, talk invariably switches to his moments of controversy. But he doesn’t care much for the criticism.

“They can have their own perception,” he says. “It is up to them what they think but I won’t change my actions just because they judge me. Whatever anyone thinks of me, this is their opinion. They can think whatever they want.

“I am just going in the cage to test myself. I like to fight the best opponents. I just want a challenge and the thrill of competition.”

Aoki submits Koji Ando in his last ONE bout.

Aoki submits Koji Ando in his last ONE bout.

Aoki has a legitimate claim to arguably being one of the best lightweight fighters of all time. Alvarez, who was the last man to beat him, possibly heads the list as the sole man to hold belts in Bellator and the UFC.

To lend more credence to the Japanese’s claim, many would contend the need to fight in the UFC – the world’s premier MMA promotion. But that’s not a view point Aoki necessarily agrees with.

“I don’t know the standard of who is the best fighter, or how to measure whether I’m the greatest,” he explains. “ONE Championship has some of the best international fighters and being the lightweight champion in ONE is proof enough but truth is I don’t need anyone to rubber stamp the claim.

“I didn’t win (early in my career) like how I am winning now. I think I’m more than Asia’s number one, but also the best in the world. That’s how proud I am of my career and how proud I am of what I have achieved until now.

“I’m not saying this to someone or anything, I’m saying it to myself. So back to the question, to me, I am the greatest Asian fighter and the greatest in the world. But that’s just A master of his art: Aoki submits Koji Ando in his last ONE bout. what I think of myself.”

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Fight Club: Will Manny Pacquiao still be the man?

Alex Rea 31/10/2016
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Balancing act: Manny Pacquiao has had to juggle his responsibilities as a senator and training for this weekend’s fight.

Politics and sport have always been intrinsically linked but it’s an uneasy relationship. Clearly nobody told Manny Pacquiao that, though.

The Filipino slugger returns to the ring this weekend after a sevenmonth stay in retirement – if you can call it that because the timeline is business as usual really – to take on Jessie Vargas for the Mexican-American’s WBO welterweight title at the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas.

While his retirement was shortlived, it was anything but sweet as the eight-division world title holder took up his seat in the Philippines Senate rather than that of a private jet a la Floyd Mayweather. Indeed, the 37-year-old has had plenty to keep him occupied since stepping away from the ring following his masterful victory over Timothy Bradley in April.

At the time, no one really bought into the idea Pacquaio’s divorce from boxing was final, especially given the nature of his farewell performance, but the prospect of juggling his senatorial responsibilities with the rigours of prizefighting meant it was hard to see how it could be done. In reality, it’s been with great difficulty.

Time has become a precious commodity for the ‘Pacman’ with his schedule crammed with committee meetings and Senate sessions as boxing takes something of a back seat. It’s only natural then that we question just what version of the diminutive southpaw we’re going to see come Sunday morning.

The talk from his camp is that training has been toilsome with a regular routine difficult to nail down. It’s a concern because with all due respect to Vargas, who give him credit has improved steadily since he was dominated by Bradley last year, it’s not the type of training camp he’d have undertaken if he was fighting Mayweather.

There’s a sense that Pacquiao will have to lean on his natural gifts for this one but against stiffer opposition, it’s going to be more of an issue, especially when you consider he’s creeping towards 38 and politics has a habit of expediting the aging process.

Will he become old overnight? It remains to be seen but Vargas is a good styles-match up for him. Pacquiao’s last two fights have come against two of the most elusive fighters in the sport – Mayweather and Bradley – but Vargas represents the complete antithesis. He’s an aggressive front-foot fighter and he doesn’t possess the dexterity to really worry an elite operator like Pacquiao. And make no mistake, he still belongs in that bracket.

The real question is whether or not he is still a pay-per-view draw. There’s no doubt he is still a star and boxing needs a transcendent personality now more than ever with Saul ‘Canelo’ Alvarez hardly doing the best job of filling Mayweather’s shoes. There are excellent fighters, of course, but none who get the fans tuning in quite like a Mayweather or a Pacquiao.

Just how many for this fight will be of intrigue, though, as the numbers hold the key as to whether the link between politics and pugilism is broken again.

“I don’t know yet,” Pacquiao told RingTV when asked if he was fighting on. “My focus is November 5. My focus is to my job and I’m only thinking about November 5. I don’t know yet. One at a time. We can’t say yet right now.”

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