Itsuki “Strong Heart Fighter” Hirata’s nickname gives her a lot to live up to, but she earned it by showing her spirit through great adversity before she even graduated high school.
From the age of 6, the Japanese athlete – who will face Nyrene “Neutron Bomb” Crowley at ONE: WARRIOR’S CODE – lived and breathed judo. When she was not in class, she spent almost all her free time in training and dreamed of representing her country at the Olympics one day.
Tragically, a combination of her determination to push her body to the limit in an unforgiving world of elite-level training took its toll early in her teenage years.
When she was 15 and in junior high school, Hirata injured her left knee when she was practicing throws with a partner. The joint ballooned up, so she had to strap it up and wait for the swelling to subside before she could get an MRI scan and assess the damage.
After two weeks, doctors took a look and confirmed the worst – she had snapped her anterior cruciate ligament (ACL). She knew immediately it would require surgery and months of rehabilitation.
Two months later, she went under the knife, then spent three weeks in the hospital. Rehab and a long and hard road to recovery began a week after her operation, while she was denied the opportunity to participate in her lifelong passion.
“It was painful and I did the rehab, but it was hard because it was always sore,” Hirata recalls.
“I really didn’t want to do it at first. I wanted to do judo but couldn’t, so all I could do was watch judo matches.”
As a teenager, her long break from judo seemed like an eternity, but “Strong Heart Fighter” pushed through the physical therapy. She returned to light training after eight months, and finally made a complete comeback the following year.
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However, when she finally got back on the mats, she was disappointed to discover how rusty she was.
“I lost power and the feel of my judo. With no training for a year, going back to it and getting back the feel of judo was hard,” she admits.
“Practicing throws and ground skills, I felt I’d forgotten everything. It felt like starting from scratch again.”
That did not discourage Hirata too much, and she worked hard to recapture the ability that put her on course to achieve great things.
Unfortunately, injury struck again when her right knee gave out. This time, she decided to soldier on without surgery in fear of losing another year of training. Eventually, however, the Tokyo native had no choice.
“It wasn’t really that sore at first. I went to the hospital and it was the ACL,” she explains.
“[The knee] was loose. It would pop out of place during training, and I would miss practice. So, in my third grade of junior high school, I had surgery on the right knee.”
After yet another year of rehab that took its toll physically and mentally, Hirata entered high school, returned to her dojo and started to chase her dream again.
Tragically, the young martial artist noticed problems with the right knee by the second year of high school and another scan revealed damage to her meniscus. Though the surgery for this was simpler and she was only in the hospital for a week, rehab still took about six months.
Finally, all the setbacks took their toll and as “Strong Heart Fighter” saw her peers continue to work toward the highest level of judo, she gave up on her dream.
“With all the injuries and being away from judo and unable to train, I stopped thinking about the Olympics,” the 20-year-old remembers.
“I stopped liking judo – I had a lot of fear.”
However, Hirata had not lost her competitive fire and wanted to use her skills for something new. She soon discovered a new sport and before she even began to practice it, she wanted to compete.
“At that time I started watching mixed martial arts and wanted to do it, so I made the change,” she adds.
“I thought it looked like fun – the walkout and the matches. It seemed you could fight freely. In judo, it’s much stricter, and you can’t celebrate winning the same way. I thought mixed martial arts was cool.”
She lived close to K-Clann gym, so she started attending classes there straight after high school. Her powerful judo skills helped her to reinvent herself and thrive in a new environment.
“Strong Heart Fighter” was eager to test herself as soon as possible, and when she jumped into competition, she built a perfect record that saw her win every bout via submission and earn a spot in ONE Championship.
The spirit and mindset that got her through adversity many times as a judoka has helped to make her a force to be reckoned with, even when she made the step up to the grandest stage in all of martial arts, and all the pressure that comes with it.
However, she is quick to credit much of her success to her parents and older brother, who supported her through the hard times and continue to help her now.
They always tended to her while she was in the hospital, and now they cook meals for her after training and help her stay on weight for an event night. Whatever she has done, they encouraged her to do what she liked and always believed she would succeed.
“My family was the biggest support,” she says.
“My advice is don’t forget those who support you, don’t forget gratitude for your family. Whatever happens, don’t forget them.”