Sitting on the subway, at a noodle stand or even training in the gym, you wouldn't give Shinya Aoki, the Japanese lightweight once considered by many the single best fighter in his weight class, a second look.
Nothing screams "tough guy." There's not even the hint of a whisper.
Slim, bird-chested and wearing glasses—this man just doesn't look like the most dangerous fighter in the world. But, as Royce Gracie proved nearly 20 years ago now, looks can be deceiving. And make no mistake, Aoki remains a terrifying potential foe for anyone at 155 pounds.
That's a statement that probably deserves—nay, demands—an explanation. And it boils down to attitude. There are many athletes who truly consider this a sport. Fighters who, in their core, hate the idea of hurting someone else, of taking away their livelihood.
That's called empathy. They, of course, are fighters themselves. They understand what it would mean to the man across the cage to have his physicality, his very identity, stripped away by a devastating injury.
Shinya Aoki is not that kind of man.
The case in point is a 2009 fight against Mizuto Hirota. To set the stage, it was an inter-promotional bout—Hirota repped Sengoku, Aoki was with Dream. Picture a Japanese version of the Sharks and the Jets and you wouldn't be far off.
As you might imagine, the pre-fight press, all designed to promote this blood feud between companies, amped up a fighter who already lives at a decibel of 10. Aoki was a terror before the bout, telling fighters at the press conference to "shut up" when their answers went long and promising Dream president Keiichi Sasahara that he would take Hirota out.
And then the fight. The details are unimportant. At least until the end. That's when Aoki captured Hirota in a hammerlock and yanked until his skinny arms almost fell off. Hirota was too proud to tap; the referee too slow to intervene. So, in a moment replayed millions of times by sickos the world over, Hirota's arm went snap.
It was immediately obvious he was seriously injured. There was no doubt in anyone's mind. But Shinya Aoki didn't care about that. He stood over Hirota. Screamed. And then shot him the bird, proceeding to run around the ring like he was doing his best Jim Valvano impression. Thoughts of Hirota, or at least his well being, never crossed Aoki's mind.
Here's the scary part for opponents—he'd do it again. In a heartbeat.
"He was very disrespectful to me before the fight. When I had his arm, he had a chance to tap and he chose not to. I'm not going to give up the submission just because my opponent is too arrogant to not tap. So I broke his arm," Aoki told Bleacher Report in an series of exclusive interviews. It's a scene he believes has the potential to be repeated in any one of his fights.
"Of course it is dangerous to fight me. I'm going to try to break every one of your limbs if that is what it takes to defeat you."
The win over Hirota, however, is not the only lasting image of Shinya Aoki. For American fans there is also the disastrous tour of this country. Aoki was controlled by Strikeforce champion Gilbert Melendez and knocked out by then Bellator kingpin Eddie Alvarez two years later. To many, it was a dismissal. Aoki, in the eyes of some fans, simply couldn't cut it against the best in the world.
He's not so sure.
"The traveling is the worst part," he said about his experiences in America. "Traveling across so many time zones for a fight affects your physical and mental state."
It's not presented as an excuse, not exactly. More a statement of fact. And if you think the losses have humbled Aoki, you'd be dead wrong.
Back in his comfort zone in Asia, Aoki is committed to continue to grow as a fighter. And, despite media perception, at least in the English speaking world, he doesn't feel like he's already peaked. In fact, he believes in his heart he's a threat to any lightweight in the world—even the UFC's best.
"I believe that I am among the best. On any given day, I am capable of finishing anyone in the world...A fighter is a fighter. It doesn't matter what country he is from," Aoki said." One FC has so many top fighters that just have not been acknowledged by the media yet. Many of my Evolve teammates for example, are already at the level to win at the highest levels in the world."
It's with the Evolve team in Singapore that Aoki has committed to improving his skill set. Always known as a dangerous grappler, he's been working hard to branch out, realizing that MMA is no place for a specialist these days. He has access to first-rate wrestling coach Heath Sims, a man who worked closely with Randy Couture and Dan Henderson for years, as well as some top-level Thai boxing instructors.
It's his developments in the striking game that Aoki is most proud of.
"I never thought that I would ever be able to knock someone out. It was a very strange feeling, indeed," Aoki said, referring to his Dec. 31, 2012, dismantling of American Antonio McKee. "I am nowhere near my peak yet, especially in striking. I believe that if I train harder in striking, I will improve a lot more."
Fans will watch those improvements in One FC, the rising promotional powerhouse that signed him last year and continues to stand out among what has become a crowded Asian scene. Aoki, who made his name in Pride and then Dream, believes One FC is the heir to those promotions, the company that can help MMA thrive once again in Asia.
"I am thrilled beyond words. One FC is the new Pride. Actually, it is already bigger than Pride ever was. It is the biggest MMA event in Asia and the second-largest in the world," Aoki said. "I think the future of Asian MMA is in One FC. One FC already has so many of the best fighters from Japan and the rest of Asia in its roster. One FC also brings the best fighters from all the different countries to compete against each other and that makes it even more exciting."
On April 5, Aoki will headline One FC's return to the Singapore Indoor Stadium for a title fight with champion Kotetsu Boku. For One FC, April 5 will be the culmination of a long journey. For the first time, the event will be broadcast live on Star Sports across Asia, rather than broadcast on tape delay or as highlights. The event is also available to fans worldwide as a pay-per-view livestream at www.onefc.livesport.tv.
For Aoki, it's more than that. It's the chance to remind the world he's still around and, most scarily, it's also a grudge match of sorts as Boku dispatched with Aoki's teammate Zorobabel Moreira last October.
"I want to bring the belt back to Evolve MMA for my teammates, for my trainers and for me," Aoki said. "I know how dejected Zoro was after that loss and I want to do this for him as well. I'm bringing the title back with me."
If facing down an angry and motivated Shinya Aoki has him rattled, Boku isn't showing it. A decade-plus veteran of the sport, the former Shooto standout understands exactly what Aoki is, and the knockout over McKee notwithstanding, exactly what he isn't as well.
"Aoki is a Brazilian jiu-jitsu artist and has submitted many opponents. I must be careful not to let him dictate the fight. I want to keep the fight standing, where I feel like I'm better than Aoki. I'm confident that I can beat Aoki. I don't intend to give up my lightweight title belt to Aoki or anybody else. I want to be lightweight champion until I retire," Boku told Bleacher Report through a translator.
"On April 5th, I'm going to put on a show for the Singapore fans. This is the largest event in One FC history and we are going live! I'm very excited. Shinya Aoki might be getting more media attention now, but after I defeat him, the entire MMA world will remember the name Kotetsu Boku."