Itsuki “Android 18” Hirata is one victory away from entering the ONE Women’s Atomweight World Grand Prix Championship Final – but to get there, she’ll need to get past a global wrestling superstar.
Hirata, a 22-year-old black belt judoka who is undefeated in her mixed martial arts career, beat American standout Alyse “Lil’ Savage” Anderson via unanimous decision in the ONE Women’s Atomweight World Grand Prix quarterfinals to earn her spot in the semis.
Now, the Tokyo native returns to the Singapore Indoor Stadium to face a world-class grappler. And a victory means she’ll be just one win away from getting the tournament’s prestigious silver belt, as well as a spot in the rankings and an automatic shot at ONE Women’s Atomweight World Champion “Unstoppable” Angela Lee.
Ahead of the semifinal clash, Hirata talks about her recent match with Anderson, breaks down Phogat’s skill set, explains why “The Indian Tigress” will not be able to knock her out, and much more.
ONE Championship: You beat Alyse Anderson in a Grand Prix quarterfinals matchup at ONE: EMPOWER. She’s considered one of America’s best atomweights. That said, how did you feel about your performance?
Itsuki Hirata: It was a fight that I had to win, so I assumed that I would win. I wanted to show more of my strengths. The fact that I was able to throw so much, even though my opponent had countered [some of] my throws, gave me the confidence that I could throw against any opponent.
ONE: You also fought through some adversity, as you were dropped by an overhand right late in the fight. What do you feel is the most valuable thing you learned from that match with Alyse?
IH: My opponent had more experience than me, so to have [been knocked] down in the third round showed my lack of concentration. I think I let my guard down a bit. I thought I could do it, but I hadn’t imagined spinning strikes or punches like that, so I thought my opponent was more versatile than me. I’m glad that this was all part of my experience.
ONE: What was the reaction from your family members and the Japanese fans?
IH: As soon as the match was over, I got in my car and called my family. First, they congratulated me for winning. Right after that, they asked me how I felt about that punch. Rather than being worried, they were kind of teasing me. My mother worries when the same thing happens to my brother, but in my case, she doesn’t (laughs).
I got a lot of comments from fans like, “I was nervous,” but I had no problem with that. I thought that showing the fans an uneasy match might have made them feel anxious about the next match as well. I’ll do my best to make sure that doesn’t happen next time.
ONE: Let’s talk about Ritu Phogat. What do you think are her strengths and weaknesses, and in what areas of the game are your skills better than hers?
IH: I believe that her strength is her superb wrestling ability. Also, she can hold her position on the ground.
She’s not quite there yet in terms of striking. I’m not good enough yet [either], but I think she’s not even as good as me just based on her fights so far. I won’t know until I fight her in a match. She’s good at feinting, though. I’m looking forward to seeing how much research she will do in this short period of time.
ONE: Ritu is currently the #4-ranked contender in the women’s atomweight division. Does it bother you that she is ranked in the top five, and you aren’t?
IH: I care about that. I wonder why she’s in there. If I win here, I’ll be [in the rankings], right? If so, I think it’s good.
Ham Seo Hee is also in the rankings, isn’t she? I was wondering why she’s on the list, even though she’s only had one match [in ONE]. Well, whatever. I think it’s good if I win and [make it] on the list. I really want to be in the rankings.
IH: I thought that she was the same as usual in her fights. She is strong in the third round of every fight, and I think that comes out in her usual fights. By usual, I mean she tackles [her opponents], keeps them on the ground, and wins by points. That’s all she does. As I watched, I wondered why Meng Bo didn’t take this precaution.
Meng Bo has strong striking, so I wondered why she hadn’t taken any measures for it. [Meng Bo] had so many chances to win. I thought since Meng Bo has good striking, she didn’t need to close the distance so much.
For example, even if your opponent is a judo fighter, you can win if you don’t get grappled. I think Meng Bo had better ways to deal with it. I want to use my head to decide whether I want to fight on the ground or just with strikes.
ONE: Ritu recently said, “I think my wrestling will prevail over her judo skills.” What are your thoughts about that?
IH: Tell her not to say such scary things. I’ll beat you up.
ONE: Do you think you can counter her wrestling?
IH: I think I can do it. I’ve been practicing a lot on the ground since my last fight. I have also trained with [Shinya] Aoki and practiced various things in the gym.
There are a lot of strong wrestlers at Krazy Bee, so I’ve been practicing wrestling and developing my strengths. What I mean by “my strengths” is to improve my finishing rate. I’ve been able to finish my fights, but the last time, I won by decision. That was a boring fight, so I want to finish [my opponent] next time. So, I’m trying to master my techniques.
ONE: Ritu also said that she’d like to end this fight with a knockout. How do you respond to that?
IH: She’ll never be able to do it. She has never had that happen in a fight before, and I don’t think the kid can do it in this short amount of time.
ONE: So, how do you think this fight will end? Better yet, what would be the perfect way to win this fight?
IH: By ippon. Winning on the ground against a ground fighter is good for my confidence, so I want to win on the ground. I think she is an idiot [by saying she will win by KO].
ONE: Do you have a final message for Ritu?
IH: Nothing in particular, but I’ll show that judo is stronger.