Itsuki “Strong Heart Fighter” Hirata was cruelly denied the chance to pursue her judo dreams, but the Olympics’ loss is ONE Championship’s game.
The unbeaten Japanese athlete is ready to show the world what she is capable of on 13 October, when she takes her place on the biggest event in martial arts history at ONE: CENTURY PART I.
Though the 20-year-old has only practiced mixed martial arts for little more than a year, she already looks like she could be a superstar that has success at the highest level for years to come, and a win against Rika “Tiny Doll” Ishige would accelerate her rise to the top.
Ahead of this match in her hometown of Tokyo, the K-Clann representative reveals how she rebounded from heartbreaking setbacks to become one of the brightest rising stars in mixed martial arts.
Hirata was born and bred in Tokyo. She began watching martial arts with her father and older brother and was captivated.
She started judo with her brother when she was 6, and she practiced six days a week until junior high school as she trained to emulate her heroes and indulged her competitive spirit.
“Ever since I was a child, I always said I wanted to be an Olympic judoka,” she says.
“What I love about judo is ne waza (ground techniques). It feels great when you land a clean throw.”
Along with the techniques of the Japanese discipline, she learned the values that are embedded in Japanese martial arts.
Discipline was a huge part of her growth, as her coaches and father were very strict. She had to keep her hair short, and competing was a very serious business. “If you don’t win, there’s no point” was a mantra that was often repeated to her.
A New Path
Such severe training and expectations came at a price for the young Hirata – she was plagued with knee injuries.
In her first year of junior high, she snapped the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in one of her knees. The following year, she suffered the same damage in the other knee. Athletic careers can be ended by these injuries, so they both required surgery and lengthy rehabilitation.
Two years later, she had to go under the knife for the third time to repair the meniscus in her right knee. She had not yet finished high school, but her Olympic dreams were already over.
She thought about abandoning martial arts altogether, but support from her family and her own willpower helped her to make a full recovery and return to the training.
When she was healed, she joined the K-Clann gym in the summer of 2018 – simply because it was less than 15 minutes by bicycle from her home – where she met Japanese mixed martial arts veteran, Kazunori Yokota.
“He was a ONE athlete, and he’s taught me a lot about professional martial arts. Not just training – he studies martial arts carefully and puts together my game plans. From training to competing, he’s really great.”
Training To Build A Champion
Yokota quickly noticed Hirata’s potential, and submitted her name to join Fighting Agent War, an amateur mixed martial arts reality show tournament broadcast on AbemaTV.
“The timing was great,” she explains. “At first, I just attended regular practice, but Mr. Yokota suggested I join [the TV show], so I stepped up my training.”
Aged just 19, and only a few months into life as a mixed martial artist, Hirata blew through the competition — she earned a pair of first-round submissions and a second-round armbar
Her incredible success garnered international industry attention, and she was brought over to Evolve to refine her skills to be ready for The Home Of Martial Arts.
Ahead of her professional debut in June, she spent time at the Singapore gym in February and May, where her all-around skills leveled up thanks to practice with elite coaches and training partners.
That set “Strong Heart Fighter” up for a debut on the global stage for martial arts that could hardly have been better. Her first-round submission of Angelie Sabanal in June was clinical, and she left the ring without a scratch.
The Global Stage
That set her up for a highly sought-after spot on the card at the biggest mixed martial arts event in history at the Ryogoku Kokugikan, and she can barely contain her excitement.
“I’d been saying I wanted a bout on the next Japan show for ages, so when I got the chance I was so happy,“ she says. “I’m finally getting the opportunity to prove myself on the big stage – I’m really pumped.
”My match is early in the morning, so I hope to see all the fans there. I’ve already adjusted my training times to get used to it. I’m not a morning person, but I’ll be ready.”
Though the 20-year-old is just one bout into her professional career, she has seen what can be achieved at a young age, and she is not shy about revealing her ambitious plans for the coming years.
“I’m looking for a solid win at ONE: CENTURY, then I’m aiming for a World Title match in 2020 or 2021. For now, I’m going to be watching the atomweight World Title match between Angela Lee and Xiong Jing Nan very closely.
“I really want to face Angela Lee at some point. She became World Champion at 19 years old, and I think she’s really cool and I look up to her, but at the same time, I want to test myself against her.
“I want to be a new breed of female athlete – one that has never been until now.”
- Watch PART I in USA on 12 October at 8pm EST and PART II on 13 October at 4am EST
- Watch PART I in India on 13 October at 5:30am IST and PART II at 1:30pm IST
- Watch PART I in Indonesia on 13 October at 7am WIB and PART II at 3pm WIB
- Watch PART I in Singapore on 13 October at 8am SGT and PART II at 4pm SGT
- Watch PART I in the Philippines on 13 October at 8am PHT and PART II at 4pm PHT
- Watch PART I in Japan on 13 October at 9am JST and PART II at 5pm JST
ONE: CENTURY is the biggest World Championship martial arts event in history with 28 World Champions featured across various martial arts. No organization has ever promoted two full-scale World Championship events on the same day.
The Home Of Martial Arts will break new ground as it brings multiple World Title bouts, a trio of World Grand Prix Championship Finals, and several World Champion versus World Champion matches to the famous Ryogoku Kokugikan in Tokyo, Japan on 13 October.