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Leading lightweight Shinya Aoki eyes ONE FC title belt

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Shinya Aoki performs a successful triangle choke submission on Arnaud Lepont during their ONE FC bout in SIngapore. Photograph: ONEFC.COM

Shinya Aoki is for many the face of Asian MMA. Since making his debut in 2003 the Japanese submission specialist has dominated the lightweight division, and after a decade at the top he shows no signs of slowing down.

The 29-year-old recorded one of the most impressive wins of his career a week ago when he stopped American veteran Antonio McKee with an overhand right in the second round of their fight at DREAM 18 in Tokyo.

Aoki has a 32-6-1 record and is the former Shooto welterweight and DREAM lightweight champion, a belt he relinquished in order to join the ONE Fighting Championship (ONE FC) last year. He has spent the vast majority of his career fighting in Japan but, after signing with the Singapore-based promotion, he hopes to fight all over the continent in 2013.

“I train in Singapore now and was very proud and happy to fight there for ONE FC [last year]. I hope to fight in some more new countries this year and to win the ONE FC title,” said Aoki.

ONE FC was only formed in 2011 but is already emerging as Asia’s answer to America’s multi-billion dollar Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC). The title in the 155lbs (70kg) division in which Aoki competes is currently held by his compatriot Kotetsu Boku, a situation he wants to redress as soon as possible,

“I have already won belts with Shooto and with DREAM, and next I want to win a belt with ONE FC,” Aoki said. “I saw Boku’s fight in Singapore when he beat my team-mate Zorobabel Moreira, and I think he was lucky to win. Zoro is my friend and I want to get revenge for him.”

Aoki and Moreira train together at Evolve MMA in Singapore, the team the Japanese fighter joined in April 2011. He decided to move after being impressed by the facilities and trainers while taking a seminar there, and holds no regrets about leaving Japan.

“At Evolve MMA there are world champions in boxing, BJJ [Brazilian jiu-jitsu], muay thai and wrestling, and joining the fight team has helped me to improve in all areas.

“I believe it is the best gym in Asia. I do not think it would be possible for me to get this level of training in Japan, and I have become a much better fighter since joining Evolve MMA.”

The move seems to have paid dividends for Aoki, who holds a black belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu but had previously been regarded primarily as a grappler. The win over McKee defied expectations because it came with a punch from a standing position rather than a submission, and demonstrated that the Japanese lightweight is now a much more well-rounded mixed martial artist.

Aoki submitted French fighter Arnaud Lepont in the opening round at ONE FC: Rise of Kings in Singapore last October before being loaned back to DREAM to take on McKee on New Year’s Eve. It was Aoki’s first fight in Japan for exactly a year and he enjoyed being back in front of home fans.

“I did not think I would ever be fighting for DREAM again but I was happy to have this opportunity to show how much I have improved since I last fought here. I do not think people were expecting me to win this fight with a punch and I hope they enjoyed my victory,” he said after the bout.

He was available to fight at DREAM 18 because of a fighter-sharing agreement between multiple promotions in the ONE FC Network, which also saw top-ranked Brazilian bantamweight Bibiano Fernandes feature on the same card.

Despite being contracted to ONE FC, Aoki is free to compete for other organisations in the groundbreaking network that also includes Road FC in Korea and CFC in Australia. DREAM was resurrected in Japan for the December 31 show despite the parent company having declared bankruptcy earlier in the year.

Aoki is not on the card for ONE FC’s next event at Kuala Lumpur’s Stadium Putra on February 2 but is likely to be back in action soon after with Boku’s belt very much in his sights. After finishing the year with wins over Lepont and McKee, he is going to take a well-earned break but wants to come back even stronger.

“Last year was my first full year training with Evolve MMA and I improved a lot as a result. I believe I have the skills to beat Boku and anyone else in the ONE FC lightweight division, and I want to win the belt and to keep it for a long time.”

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