Shinya Aoki has returned, and he has his sights set on world title glory once more.
“Tobikan Judan” spent most of the last 18 months chasing different challenges in the world of martial arts, but now he’s back on the championship trail as he looks to recapture the ONE Lightweight World Title he held until November 2016.
Aoki returns to action against Russian grappling ace Rasul Yakhyaev at ONE: UNSTOPPABLE DREAMS in Singapore on Friday, 18 May knowing an impressive victory will push him right back into title contention once more.
“My goal is to work back towards the lightweight title. This weight class is my natural weight, so it is good for me,” says the 35-year-old Japanese icon.
“[Yakhyaev] is the first step to getting back to the title. I will do my best.”
Since losing his belt to Eduard “Landslide” Folayang, Aoki has faced off against a host of martial arts stars under varying rulesets.
He competed in the first-ever Grappling Super-Matches in ONE Championship history, losing out to multiple EBI Champion Garry Tonon last May, then submitting former ONE Featherweight World Champion Marat Gafurov in January.
“I wanted to test myself in the Grappling Super-Matches, because I have been grappling for a long time, and I really love it,” he says.
Despite not preparing for bouts under full mixed martial arts rules, Aoki said that his grappling-only bouts have helped to improve his overall game inside the cage.
“Martial arts is about studying and learning,” he explains.
“When you are training for a competition and focus on something, you will definitely improve. I continued to develop my game, learn new techniques, and refine my current ones.”
With Aoki now refocused on mixed martial arts competition, he is ready to showcase his abilities under the all-encompassing ONE Global Ruleset.
“I always want to fight. I love mixed martial arts and love competing,” he says.
“I am constantly working on all aspects of my game. My striking is improving.”
His most recent mixed martial arts bout saw him lose to Ben “Funky” Askren in his bid to win the ONE Welterweight World Title.
But now he returns to his natural weight class of lightweight – where he will not face a huge size and strength disadvantage – in a bid to win back the belt he once possessed.
His opponent Yakhyaev will offer a stern test of his skills. A jiu-jitsu and combat sambo champion, the Russian produced an excellent performance to defeat Thai superstar Shannon “OneShin” Wiratchai in Bangkok last December.
Victory for Aoki will give him the chance to rise the ranks again and position himself for a shot against the current ONE Lightweight World champion, Martin “The Situ-Asian” Nguyen, who Aoki hails as “a wonderful athlete”.
If Aoki can produce a sufficiently impressive display and defeat Yakhyaev, he may jump to the front of the line to challenge Nguyen for the title.
As ONE makes further moves into the Japanese market, the chance to do that on home soil would be an irresistible opportunity.
“It is great that ONE Championship is going to Japan,” Aoki says. “I am excited about that. I want to fight in Japan.”
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