Shinya Aoki: "One Dream - to Evolve"

New Years Eve.  Over twenty thousand people sharing a single room.  Yet there is dead silence.  DREAM Lightweight Champion Shinya Aoki is facing challenger Satoru Kitaoka and the tension is palpable.  A five-round championship battle is beginning, yet the wind-up video before the fight is more a testament to the bond these brothers of the ring share, rather than a brandishing of weapons.  It is a very emotional few moments.  But, this is a battle.  It is their job, their livelihood, and their choice.  Thousands of people now sit on the edge of their seat, waiting and holding their breath as the bell rings.

Two completely different attitudes clash: at the touch gloves, Kitaoka slaps and Aoki tries a handshake that is definitely not returned.  Shinya assumes a... a Muay Thai boxing stance?  And a head kick?!  To the delight of a crowd eagerly expecting him to back up his recent comments about his new training accomplishments, he clinches and throws a knee, which leads to a takedown.  Kitaoka is able to sink a guillotine, but Aoki powers out and tries for several different submissions.  When Kitoaka escapes to standing, Aoki uses the corner like a cage to clinch and try TDs - a nice little preview of possible future cage matches!  Ref resets them in the center.  After a few moments of gauging distance, Aoki shoots in for a TD and eats a right hook on the way. Shinya's in half guard and controlling the Koala with - yes - his face, and landing a few hammerfists.  At the end Kitaoka opens; Aoki stands and drops bombs.  This was definitely Shinya's round.

At the bell, Kitaoka expects a standing battle, but Aoki slams him back into the corner with another TD.  To further Kitaoka's confusion, Aoki alternates between grappling and standing.  But Aoki can't pass Kitaoka's guard which the Koala uses to land some strikes from the bottom, and eventually Shinya returns the favor with palms to his head.  At the final minute, the ref stands them back up, Shinya finishes with some brutal kicks and it even looks like Kitaoka eats a knee as Shinya gets the final TD at the end of the round.  Definitely 2-0.

Courtesy The Fight Bulletin
Round three sees newly-minted Thai boxer Shinya Aoki come out of the corner with what looks like a training drill: 1 - gut kick (doubles over Kitaoka); 2 - clinch (gets him back in the dreaded corner); 3 - knee (Kitaoka can't defend); 4 - TD; 5 - backmount and secure a body triangle.  Twenty thousand-plus fans have just knocked the decibel recorder off the chart!  For almost two minutes, Aoki looks for a submission: twister, choke, then triangle.  It's at that point which Kitaoka escapes and now Aoki's the one on his back throwing the upkicks.  The ref stands him up.  Again Aoki sets up a double leg TD with a strong kick, but the ropes stop Kitaoka's descent.  When they reset, Aoki throws a head kick that connects with a thwap that resounds through the whole quiet arena.  Yes, a HEAD kick!  He follows it up with a clinch and more knees in the corner.  A scramble on the ground ends the third.  3-0

Round four.  Aoki has the look of a man convinced he cannot lose.  The Muay Thai kicking he has been using to set up takedowns in previous rounds now turns into an all-out Thai style assault on the hapless Kitaoka.  Brutal kicks damage Kitaoka and he can't return because of his reach.  Aoki gets the clinch and blasts Kitaoka back into a corner with knees, smashing his nose and almost knocking him out.  Aoki version 2.0 is a BEAST!  As Kitaoka slumps, the grappler in Aoki comes back out and mounts him with some gnp that forces Kitaoka to give up his back. Aoki attempts chokes for two long minutes, but a gasping Kitaoka - who might just be saved by his own slippery blood - defends every single one.  4-0

The warriors come out for the final round. Shinya puts out his glove, and KITAOKA DOESN'T TOUCH!  Instead he tries to catch Aoki off guard by throwing some bombs of his own.  Doesn't seem to phase Aoki too much, and the tiring fighters end up on the ground with Aoki in the dominant position, securing a body triangle from behind yet again.  After several minutes with neither fighter gaining ground, Kitaoka finally finds a hole and escapes back to standing, and in a stunning reversal takes Aoki from behind.  But the fully dominant Aoki reverses and gets yet another TD at will.  Against the ropes again, the match is reset, and Kitaoka is forced to chase after a light-footed Aoki.  In the final 30 seconds, Kitaoka turns the tide!  He stuffs Shinya's final TD attempt and lands over ten knees to his skull.  Aoki doesn't even block them, as if in reconciliation to his long-time friend for shoveling him such an overwhelming match to this point.

After being handed back his Lightweight Championship belt, Shinya Aoki delivers his speech in an extraordinarily exuberant and gracious demeanor.  His final moment is bromantically calling out his corner and giving a hands-in "3-2-1 EVOLVE!" cheer.

"Get in here guys!"

"3-2-1 EVOLVE!"

Now, I don't have first-hand experience with Evolve Singapore; I've only heard people's accounts of the facilities and I know of the numerous champions on the roster there.  It would be justifiable on my behalf to chalk up all of Shinya's Evolve cheerleading as preconceived hype...  if I hadn't been fortunate enough to spend time with his new coach and founder of Evolve, the sharp, enthusiastic and motivating Yodchatri Sityodtong... and if I hadn't met two of his champion Thai trainers Orono and Namsaknoi... and if I hadn't heard Matt Hume's positive comments on the gym's success...

And, most importantly, if I hadn't just witnessed the proof of Aoki's self-proclaimed new Thai skills.  He said he was going to show the world a new Aoki and he did.  Yodchatri said they had a game plan for Aoki going into the match.  After listening to his corner at ringside and witnessing Aoki's responses to them, it seemed he followed it quite successfully.  Given Shinya's new positive attitude and markedly improved game, I wanted a closer insight as to what has transpired prior to and during this bout to make him so vehemently extol Evolve every time there's a mic in his face.  My deep appreciation goes to the multilingual Yodchatri for making this interview possibile.

First, congratulations on a stunning win!  On Twitter, before your opponent was announced, you wrote that you "picked the toughest opponent they presented".  I never got a translated version of the press conference, so can you tell me how this match was made and if you felt different because he has been a close training partner?

Kitaoka was the number one contender.  He is the best fighter after me in my weight class in Japan.  He has been my friend and training partner for around 10 years.  DREAM wanted this fight and asked me to do it. It was difficult to accept it, but I did accept because I'm a fighter.  It is my job.  I will fight anyone, anywhere.  I want to fight against the best in the world.

Since you know him so well, what were the challenges you expected in fighting him? 

Kitaoka is a world-class grappler and friend. The challenge is fighting a friend.

You came out of your corner looking like a stand-up fighter.  When your first kick hit your opponent, and then when you almost KOed him with knees, did you feel a sense of success from your training efforts? 

My weakness is my striking.  I have improved a lot under Evolve MMA.  Yes, my coaches told me to go for head kicks and knees with possibility for KO.  I did not believe in myself at first.  But Chatri, Namsaknoi, and Orono gave me strong encouragement.  So when I attacked, I simply tried to do what we did in training together.   At the very least, my striking would allow me to set up my takedowns more easily.   And that is exactly what happened.  Evolve gave me the victory.

Your new game plan definitely paid off for you. Did you expect that your stand up would be the most damaging part of your performance?

My game has changed completely since I joined the Evolve Fight Team. My striking is better, my ground game is better, and my takedowns are better. I am a more complete mixed martial artist today than I was a year ago. I learn new things every day from everyone at Evolve because they are the best in the world. I am a true MMA fighter now.

Coach Orono: In training, Shinya is excellent. But he did not perform to his potential in his fight. Shinya can fight much better than what he showed. 

Talk about best in the world, after your bout with Rich Clementi, you said "I am not a striker." Do you feel any differently now?

My thinking has changed.  Chatri says that I must study every day; I can never stop learning or growing.  I want to improve in every area of my game: striking, takedowns, ground - everything.  I want to be a complete mixed martial artist.  You will see a new Shinya Aoki in the future.

Coach Chatri:  Shinya is an excellent athlete with cardio, balance, and speed.  He's really skyrocketed and grown at Evolve MMA under our world champions and the sky is the limit for him.

Coach Namsaknoi:  Shinya has the talent and potential to become a world-class striker.  His body type is long and lean for his weight class.  His balance is exceptional.  Shinya has improved tremendously since he joined Evolve. 

Coach Orono:  Shinya has more power, speed, and technique, but he needs to develop confidence and a striker's instinct.

Okay, so you've taken on high-level stand up training, what about wrestling?  In a "Grappling Dummy" interview, they asked if you feel a need to train wrestling to fight American fighters. You said you already have a little wrestling in your style, and "I don't think I will change." With Heath Simms now at Evolve, will you take on another training challenge to add to your arsenal? 

The best wrestlers and coaches are coming to live in Singapore.  I learn and train from the best so that I may become the best.

Coach Chatri: As Shinya's coach, I want him to become more well-rounded as a fighter. I want him to use every tool possible with the same degree of comfort and confidence. 

You have spoken about your "ideal self" before. At that point, you said you worked at achieving it by training every day.  Do you feel closer to "ideal self" since your new camp change? 

I am already a completely different fighter than I was a year ago.  I am already a better version of myself.  I learn every day at Evolve.

Coach Chatri:  In my mind, he is already the best pound-for-pound MMA fighter in Asia, but he has a great chance of becoming one of the best in history.  He can be the best in the world if he continues to improve, grow, and evolve as a fighter.

Coach Orono:  Everyone at Evolve will continue to push him to make him the best.

Back in 2010 after your Strikeforce debut, you said you wanted to train at Cesar Gracie.  How did you meet Yodchatri, and begin training at Evolve? 

Chatri-san and I met through mutual friends.  Muangfalek Kiatvichian at Evolve - a Muay Thai world champion - has been a good friend of mine for the last several years.  Initially I went there to give a seminar.  Before going, I was very skeptical and did not believe what I read on the website.  But to my surprise, when I arrived, every world champion listed was really there, training and teaching full-time.  After training at Evolve MMA for one week, I asked to join.  I have never seen a higher level of training in the world in every area of MMA.  I learn so much from everyone.  Evolve is my family.

You once said BJ Penn was your favorite fighter. Is he still your favorite?


I read an un-referenced interview in which you said the UFC offered you a match with BJ when you were in university. Can you tell me about that?

It was very early in my career. I chose to go to PRIDE instead of UFC at that time. I have no regrets.

Your other favorite fighters are UFC lightweights who look to finish fights: Gilbert Melendez, Joe Stevenson, Nate Diaz, Frankie Edgar.  But you have criticized the overall UFC fight strategy of a little bit of stand up, a TD attempt, and some wrestling as "a style of fighting that is not exciting," unlike JMMAs.  As your all-around game improves, you will definitely meet these kinds of fighters.  What specific training will your new camp give you for this? 

As everyone knows, my style is to finish fights.  I am always looking for the finish and this is what I love about Evolve MMA and Chatri-san, we all share that same philosophy.  You won't see my teammates  stalling or laying and praying.  You won't see my coaches telling me to win by decision.  We train to finish fights.

Coach Chatri: Yes, at Evolve, we try to finish fights.  That's our mindset.  In fact, I asked Shinya to try KO Kitaoka with a head-kick in the fifth round even though Shinya was winning the fight.  Shinya tried to finish him with kicks, knees, and chokes, but Kitaoka has a big heart.

At a pre-Strikeforce press conference, you were translated as saying that the UFC will not be successful in Japan. Can you explain?

That is not what I said.  That was taken out of context.  The UFC is a great organization and number one in the world.  I just meant that Japan is a complicated market and economy.

You always spoke highly of PRIDE, and since that time, nothing has rivaled it.  With recent developments like DREAM's new sponsors, the UFC coming back to Japan, and lots of cross-promotion agreements, do you see a resurgence of the MMA scene? 

I was worried about Japanese MMA, but now I can see that MMA in Asia will have a bright future.

From what I observed on New Years Eve, I have to ask: cage or ring?

I like the cage more nowadays!   I also want to be able to use my elbows (DREAM rules prohibit elbows). There are so many interesting things that you can do in a cage that cannot be done in a ring.  I like both and I can fight in either.  It does not matter to me.

You have been an extremely prolific fighter with totals of over 6 fights in a few years of your career, settling into 4 most recently.  With a stronger stand up game, and playing more of it, do you expect to fight just as often? 

I want to fight a minimum of four times a year.  I train six days a week all year around.  I never take a break, except for one week after a fight.

Coach Orono:  I would like to see Shinya fight some professional Muay Thai fights in Thailand.  He's now at that level where he needs to get serious, high level ring experience to boost his confidence as a striker.

Tell me when and where!  What are your personal goals for 2012? 

I want to fight the best in the world. I want to continue to improve my game in every area.

Coach Namsaknoi:  My plan is to turn him into one of the best strikers in MMA over the next few years.

It seems like you have a legitimate love for the whole Evolve Fight Team, is there anything you'd like to add?  

Evolve is the best MMA camp in Asia.   It has everything that a champion like myself needs: many great coaches, many world champions, many great training partners, incredible facilities.  Evolve is my family.  It will allow me to fulfill my potential as a martial artist.

Coach Chatri:  I have trained with and/or coached many world champion fighters and Shinya is different.  He's a good guy who truly loves martial arts and MMA.  He is very humble with an incredible work ethic and a warrior heart.  He loves learning and he has no ego.  Equally important, he is always trying to help his teammates on the Evolve Fight Team by sharing his technique, experience, and knowledge.  People don't realize that he's a very giving and generous person.  Shinya is a special human being. 

Is there anything else you want to share?

Thank you to all my fans.  I am just a normal guy.  I love martial arts!

Congratulations on your successful title defence, and Happy New Year!


  1. Great article and interview! I like the inside perspective that you give into Aoki. Very refreshing indeed!

  2. Thank you very much, Anonymous!