Flashback Friday: Akimoto Returns To Kickboxing For ONE Debut
After building a 19-0 professional kickboxing record in his native Japan, Hiroki Akimoto retired from the sport at just 20 years old in the spring of 2013.
But six years later, he made his highly-anticipated return to kickboxing at ONE: HERO’S ASCENT against Josh “Timebomb” Tonna in Manila, Philippines.
For this edition of #FlashbackFriday, we look back at that exciting event in January 2019 and the winding path Akimoto took to get there.
The Early Days
Akimoto made his pro kickboxing debut at 15 years old and quickly earned the nickname “Japanese Buakaw Banchamek” based on his similarities to the legendary competitor.
But even after capturing multiple belts, including the WBC Muay Thai Japan Featherweight Championship, he switched over to karate in 2014.
The Japanese athlete had actually started his martial arts journey in karate as an 8-year-old, so it should have been no surprise that he found plenty of success after making the switch from kickboxing, even becoming a WFKO Kyokushin Karate World Champion.
At that point, Akimoto’s goal was to win gold at the 2020 Karate World Championships and then retire from the sport. It seemed like the perfect blueprint. But then he began to have doubts.
“I was wondering if there was a bigger stage for me,” he says. “The passion for the bigger challenge was growing inside of me.”
More specifically, he was thinking about a return to kickboxing to chase glory on the global stage.
A New Direction
Akimoto kept thinking about the possibilities, and following an international karate competition in August 2018, he tried out for the Evolve Fight Team in Singapore.
By that October, he had moved there to train full time in kickboxing, aiming to recapture his form and become a member of the ONE Super Series roster.
“It was mentally challenging,” Akimoto recalls of getting back into the sport in a foreign country.
That new environment also meant being separated from his family, including his baby daughter, who had been born earlier that year.
“I moved apart from her when she was about 6 months old. It made me heartbroken,” he adds.
While the move was difficult, Akimoto’s transition to kickboxing in Singapore was eased by the fantastic training environment at Evolve, which is home to many World Champions.
Then, two months later, he received an offer from ONE Championship – one he was thrilled to accept.
Akimoto had been “training hard” since the move and felt physically prepared to compete. However, it was not easy to adapt to kickboxing rules after six years in karate, where head-level attacks are not permitted and other aspects are different.
“My body itself was ready for the bout, but I was not perfectly ready for kickboxing,” he says.
“It makes a difference when it comes to the distance whether there’s a head-level attack or not. My sense of the offense was not as sharp as it used to be. Also, in the defense, my arms went down unconsciously. In karate, we place our arms lower than our chest because punches in the face were not allowed.”
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The ONE Debut
As Akimoto continued to train in kickboxing, ONE Championship booked him for the match-up with Tonna in Manila.
“I was nervous. All the gym trainers and my friends told me I would be okay, but I was not sure. I just tried to prepare myself [the best I could],” he admits.
“Even when I was in Japan, when I was competing in karate and kickboxing, everyone around me would casually say, ‘You will be okay,’ but I didn’t believe in that. Never. I train until I feel I am perfectly ready. This is my style.”
Despite those nerves, Akimoto focused his mind and continued to work hard. Finally, he felt prepared for the long-awaited return.
On 25 January 2019, it was time for all the hard work to pay off. Akimoto entered the Mall Of Asia Arena for his first kickboxing bout in six years while his mother, wife, and daughter sat in the crowd.
Soon after the opening bell rang, he scored with a slew of left kicks to Tonny’s body, which forced the Aussie to turn away and the referee to administer a standing eight-count. But just one minute later, “Timebomb” caught the Japanese star’s face with a right hook and sent him to the canvas.
It was the first time Akimoto had ever been knocked down in his kickboxing career.
“I was in a bad place. It evoked a feeling of fear,” he recalls.
“There were some bad elements. I was not fully dealing with the distance, and how I started was not good … I started too relaxed, and then I was not able to perform well from the start.”
Despite that moment of truth, Akimoto found himself and turned the bout around in the second and third stanzas.
“In the second round, I checked the distance, offense, and defense as I fought. I knew it was not the last chance and the bout had just started,” he says. “In the final round, I thought I needed to go all out, so I tried to be aggressive.”
When the final bell rang, Akimoto had bounced back and dominated the rest of the contest. In all, he sent Tonna down to the mat three times, earning a unanimous decision for the 20th victory of his kickboxing career.
In the wake of his triumphant debut on the global stage, Akimoto knew the difficulties he had faced – being separated from his family and readapting to kickboxing in a new country – had been worth it.
But more importantly, the ambitious athlete was not satisfied.
“I only found out what I needed to work on in the first bout,” he says. “I was not able to do what I wanted to do, although I thought I was perfectly ready. I won, but I was not happy.”
So, Akimoto continued to train at Evolve with the goal of climbing the ONE Super Series ranks.
His winning streak was snapped in March 2019 at ONE: A NEW ERA, but that loss also provided him with ways to get better.
“Since then, I have focused more on the defense, and I have improved a lot,” he says.
Akimoto then showed his improvement by earning another win in July 2019 at ONE: MASTERS OF DESTINY against K1 South Pacific Champion Kenny “The Pitbull” Tse.
Ready For More
Now 27 years old and fully dedicated to his career at ONE Championship, Akimoto hopes to further display his rich karate background during his battles on the global stage.
“I have trained in karate intensively, so I want to showcase the strength of the sport,” he says.
“The unique thing about karate is low kicks. In kickboxing, Muay Thai, and mixed martial arts, there are low kicks too. But in karate, the variety is richer. If I show many types of low kicks, I think the audience will enjoy it even more.
“I want to keep growing as an athlete to show the asset of karate and bring more exciting bouts to ONE. So, please root for me.”
Read more: Flashback Friday: Yosuke Saruta’s Risk Pays Off In ONE Debut