On 31 March, the national icon will return home to compete in Tokyo, and there could be no better place for him to go for the gold in the biggest bout of his life.
The 35-year-old will have the weight of a nation on his shoulders when he challenges Eduard “Landslide” Folayang for the ONE Lightweight World Title at ONE: A NEW ERA – an event that signals the return of elite-level competition to his native land.
ONE Championship’s debut in “The Land Of The Rising Sun” will be the biggest event in its history. With 22 World Champions on the bill, it will be the greatest martial arts showcase of all time.
“Tobikan Judan” has been an advocate for ONE to make the trip to his homeland for years. It will finally arrive at the Ryogoku Kokugikan later this month, and he is delighted to be a part of the show.
“It is the first event in Japan, and I feel more responsible for making it a good event,” he explains.
“I have felt strongly about how I want them to come to Japan. Japan is the birthplace of martial arts, and the ancestry of that is still in our blood.
“I strongly feel that we can revive that by getting the most elite fighting group to come to Japan.”
Aoki competed exclusively in Japan for the first 28 bouts of his career – starring in PRIDE, Shooto, and DREAM. He became a fan favorite for his offensive, innovative grappling style, and his immense success.
Since signing with ONE in 2012, he became a three-time World Champion.
He returned to home soil to compete intermittently, but he has not stepped through the ropes in front of a partisan crowd since 2015, and he has never performed in front of his home fans on the global stage for martial arts.
Now, three first-round wins in 2018 earned the Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu black belt a shot at redemption against Folayang in a long-awaited rematch in Tokyo. It is such a huge bout, it was the only choice to be the main event.
He believes he can use the platform to reach even more of his compatriots.
“I was fighting in Japan for so long, but I have recently had my fights outside of Japan,” he explains.
“So I think to bring the fights back and have the support of the people here, and have them see me, will help bring forth the next generation of fighters, and I would like to encourage that.
“I don’t think anyone starts martial arts to become like Shinya Aoki, but if you are someone doing what they love, that may inspire people.
“There could be so many greater martial artists than me yet to come, and many already here.”
Whether he likes to admit it or not, Aoki is an inspiration to hordes of Japanese martial artists, and a legend in the sport of mixed martial arts.
The popularity of martial arts is ready to explode once again as new heroes like Ken Hasegawa, Yuya Wakamatsu, Tatsumitsu Wada, and Hiroki Akimoto emerge, but it may not have been possible without “Tobikan Judan’s” success.
Aoki ensured a representative of Japan maintained a spot at the highest level during some tough years for the country’s athletes and laid the foundations for it to rise again.
However, he is reluctant to accept his status among the greats.
“Many people use the word legend and that makes me happy, but it doesn’t feel right. It is a strange feeling,” he admits.
“I am just focusing every day, working hard so I can have a career that I can be satisfied with. I do not have a dream to go down in history.”
It may not be his goal, but Aoki will be remembered as an all-time great in Japan.
His name will be intrinsically linked with the resurgence of world-class mixed martial arts competition in his homeland.
“Tobikan Judan” has helped to unite outstanding Japanese athletes, the world’s largest martial arts organization, and the diehard fans in “The Land Of The Rising Sun.”
If he can get his hand raised after his match-up on 31 March, the humble grappler’s legend will grow even more.