Hiroki Akimoto was a skilled karateka from a young age, but it took a competitive rivalry to make him into a world-class martial artist.
As a son of parents who were both karate instructors, it seemed like the man from Toyota, Japan – who will return to ONE Championship against Kenny “The Pitbull” Tse at ONE: MASTERS OF DESTINY – was destined to be a fine athlete.
The multi-time Kyokushin Karate World Champion began his training at the age of 8 and soon showed prodigious talent.
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Posted by ONE Championship on Monday, July 1, 2019
Not long after he first stepped onto the mats, he met Ryuya Kusakabe. By seeing how much better his training partner was, Akimoto was motivated to stay dedicated and never slack off from practice.
“I had a training partner when I was 9-15 years old, and he was always stronger and one step ahead of me,” he admits.
“I became stronger by chasing him as he was a constant reminder to never get complacent and to push myself.”
Unlike the fierce rivalries that have played out on the world stage throughout the history of martial arts, there was no animosity between this pair of young karatekas. In fact, the 26-year-old suggests they were not even close outside the gym.
Instead, it was an ingrained mutual respect that fueled their quiet competitiveness, as they embarked on a martial arts journey together.
Japan's Hiroki Akimoto unleashes his surgical striking in a unanimous decision victory over Josh Tonna! ????????Watch the full event LIVE & FREE on the ONE Super App ???? http://bit.ly/ONESuperApp | TV: Check local listings for global broadcast
Posted by ONE Championship on Friday, January 25, 2019
“He went through tough times with me, we were both suffering together at the same time,” he explains.
“Even though we did not have any verbal interaction, we knew deep down we were motivated by each other. We didn’t talk much at all because he was a rival of mine, our whole relationship was based on competitive rivalry.
“Even though we were rivals when it came to martial arts, we didn’t have any hard feelings for one another on a personal level.”
The pressure to stack up to Kusakabe might have worn on Akimoto, but he did not let the edge his teammate had cause him any anxiety or frustration.
He never lost sight of his goals, so it was a pure motivating factor in his martial arts education as he became the hardest worker in the room with a commitment that few could hope to match.
The Evolve representative’s work ethic paid off when he became a WFKO Kyokushin Karate World Champion, WBC Muay Thai Japan Champion, and Japan Kickboxing Federation Champion.
Kusakabe meanwhile, also made strides in competitive kickboxing, as he competed alongside his training partner at K-1 events around the world, before he called time on his career at the age of 21.
Though Akimoto may have been one step behind for much of his life, he craved success more, and his determination to succeed kept him in the game – and winning matches at the highest level – when his rival no longer had the drive to compete.
He may have hung up his gloves several years ago, but the memory of chasing Kusakabe’s shadow continues to reverberate and shape Akimoto’s warrior spirit to this day.
Even now that he lives in Singapore, trains with many World Champions, and competes among the elite in ONE Super Series, he has never lost sight of his lifetime pursuit of consistent and purposeful practice.
It is also thanks to his old sparring partner that he has developed the mental resilience and belief to overcome his toughest challenges.
“We have not had a relationship since he retired from martial arts, but the memories from that time spur me on and give me the courage to keep going,” Akimoto explains.
“I survived all those years competing against him, I can overcome anything now. Nothing will ever be as hard, so when I am faced with any challenges or difficulties, I know I can conquer them.”
That mindset will drive him as he goes for the knockout against Tse in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia next Friday, 12 July in his third bout on the global stage for martial arts.
If he can manage that against his opponent’s aggressive attack, he will move another step closer toward his goal of becoming a ONE World Champion.