After fifteen months away from the global stage, Karate World Champion Hiroki Akimoto is ready for his first fight in the ONE Super Series kickboxing bantamweight division.
His first test will be a tough one, as Akimoto will face the division’s #3-ranked contender, “Muay Thai Boy” Zhang Chenglong, on Friday, 16 October at ONE: REIGN OF DYNASTIES II, which was previously recorded in Singapore.
If Akimoto wins, he might become the first Japanese ONE Super Series competitor to earn a spot in ONE’s Athlete Rankings. And doing so would get him closer to the ultimate goal: challenging for a ONE World Title.
“I want to win, earn a spot in the rankings, and be a top-level contender to challenge for the World Title,” the 28-year-old says.
The Japanese athlete made his pro kickboxing debut in 2007 at 15 years old and quickly built a spotless 19-0 record in his homeland.
But in 2014, he returned to his roots in Kyokushin karate and captured a WFKO Karate World Championship. Then in 2018, he moved to Singapore to chase a bigger dream in kickboxing as part of the ONE Super Series roster.
Including that match, Akimoto fought in ONE’s flyweight ranks three times before deciding to move up to the bantamweight division, which is his more natural weight class.
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To prepare himself for the larger division, the Japanese karate star began transforming his body after defeating Kenny “The Pitbull” Tse in July 2019.
“I broke my left fist in the bout [against Tse],” Akimoto says. “I felt like I couldn’t compete for about a year, so I was hoping that I could build my body and move up a weight class during that time.”
After working on his core and lower-body strength for more than a year now, Akimoto is confident.
“I think I am prepared well,” he continues. “My coaches say my kicks and punches have become heavier.”
Now, the Japanese fighter will test the new version of himself against Zhang, who is known for an aggressive style with heavy punches. That style has made the 22-year-old southpaw a Top King Muay Thai World Champion with a record of 49-13-1 across Muay Thai and kickboxing.
Because of Zhang’s incredible track record and skill set, Akimoto was initially concerned about the matchup.
“I thought he was a powerful athlete, so I was not sure how it was going to be,” he admits. “I had the impression that he was a tough athlete with strong punches. He has a strong chin and stamina.”
Zhang’s success has continued in ONE Championship. He earned three impressive victories after debuting in 2019 and then finished the year with a fight against Alaverdi “Babyface Killer” Ramazanov for the inaugural ONE Bantamweight Kickboxing World Title.
While “Muay Thai Boy” ultimately lost to the Russian after five grueling rounds, his performance caught Akimoto’s attention.
“In the World Title match, his way of fighting was different from normal athletes,” the Japanese striker explains.
“He was knocked down, and I think he got some damage. Some athletes try to buy time in that kind of situation, but he kept going forward. Besides, I saw that he was even aiming for a counter-attack. With those characteristics, I think he is a difficult one.”
Despite his respect for Zhang, Akimoto also believes in himself. His increased confidence comes from spending almost two years at Singapore’s famous mega gym, Evolve MMA, where he’s gained incredible versatility.
“Since I moved to Singapore, I have trained kickboxing while learning Muay Thai,” he says.
“Recently [due to the COVID-19 restrictions], I’ve also had more chances to train with mixed martial arts athletes, and I learned some moves which don’t exist in kickboxing, karate, or Muay Thai.
“I think [kicks in mixed martial arts] are completely different in the way of moving the legs and the way they connect with other tricks. I understand the mechanism and try to take what I can use.”
At Evolve, the talented Japanese athlete also has been fortunate to find a legendary training partner in two-sport ONE World Champion Sam-A Gaiyanghadao.
“He is in a lighter weight class, but I spar with Sam-A frequently. He has a quick reaction and high fight IQ. I can learn a lot from him,” Akimoto says.
After all of his hard work, Akimoto has put together a game plan for the battle with Zhang.
“I think his punches are strong, but I think I have advantages in kicks and at long range. I think he will close the distance of my kicks, but when it happens, I will counter with punches and kicks,” the Japanese star says.
“I think in the opening stanza, as far as I saw from his past bouts, he looks like he aims to knock out while checking out how the opponent goes. At that moment, I will strike a lot here and there and look for a good weapon that works for him. From the second round, I think he will close the distance, so I want to aim for a counter-attack to defeat him.”
Although Akimoto is a kicking specialist, he also expressed a willingness to step outside of his comfort zone and fight in Zhang’s area of expertise.
“I mainly used kicks in matches in ONE, but this time, I am thinking I am going to use punches against the punching specialist. This is something I want audiences to pay attention to,” he says.
“I built up my body firmly and gained power. So, of course, I have my sights set on knocking him down to win by KO.”
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Akimoto’s precise game plan, training, and physical strength are all key factors in his positive mindset for this bout.
“Getting used to life here [in Singapore], my body and my technics are evolved, just like the name of the gym,” he says.
“I was not able to compete [during COVID-19 restrictions], and I think there are audiences who were waiting for me. So, I hope to showcase an improved version of myself.”
And perhaps that improved version can one day claim the ONE Bantamweight Kickboxing World Title.
“To aim to be a World Champion means I have someone to look up to,” the Japanese athlete says. “I want to be a ONE World Champion, defend the belt, and be a person who is looked up to.”
The first step in that journey begins against Zhang. Come Friday, fans around the globe will find out if Akimoto can get closer to achieving his big dream.