This Friday, 22 January, former ONE Lightweight World Champion Shinya “Tobikan Judan” Aoki will make his long-awaited return to action at ONE: UNBREAKABLE, and if fans are lucky, the submission legend will give them a taste of his vintage form.
However, it won’t be easy against James Nakashima, an American wrestling superstar who challenged for the ONE Welterweight World Title in November.
“There are a certain number of people who are saying, ‘Aoki, you’re fighting, I’m happy for you.’ So I’m really grateful for that,” the Japanese legend says.
“I think the definition of a good match is different depending on the person, but I hope I can show something convincing.”
Like many athletes, Aoki was forced to the sidelines for an extended period due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But unlike many others, the veteran fighter was able to continue training while also working as a published author.
“I have been fine. Nothing has changed [during the pandemic],” he says. “I practiced, came home, did what I had to do, and wrote articles. Nothing really changed from what I normally do.”
Aoki maintained his form and even had the opportunity to compete once in 2020, earning a dominant victory over ONE Warrior Series alum and rising lightweight star Kimihiro Eto at ROAD TO ONE in Tokyo, Japan, last September.
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But that wasn’t enough to quench “Tobikan Judan’s” thirst for action. The Japanese icon lives to compete and was hungry to continue testing his skills against the best athletes out there.
After a few months passed, Aoki received the call to face Nakashima – a call that made him emotional.
“I didn’t think I would get an offer at that moment, so I was like, ‘Oh, here it comes. Lucky!” Aoki recalls. “I felt as if my body temperature shot up when I received the bout offer.”
For his part, Nakashima previously enjoyed a flawless run in mixed martial arts. He began his career with 12 straight victories, including three against ONE’s top-tier welterweights: rising star Raimond Magomedaliev, former ONE World Title challenger Luis “Sapo” Santos, and Japanese mixed martial arts legend Yushin “Thunder” Okami.
However, the American finally tasted his first and only defeat when he challenged reigning welterweight king Kiamrian “Brazen” Abbasov for the gold last November. The MMA Lab representative got the better of his Kyrgyz rival for much of that fight, but Abbasov stunned Nakashima with a head-rattling knee that soon led to a TKO.
Now, Nakashima is moving down to the lightweight division with the hope of taking out a legend and stepping closer to a date with ONE Lightweight World Champion Christian “The Warrior” Lee.
His first test against Aoki will be an intriguing battle between world-class grapplers. The American won the NJCAA National Wrestling Championship in his home nation, while Aoki is a decorated black belt in both judo and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.
But while most fans expect their fight to become a full-fledged grappling affair, “Tobikan Judan” has another viewpoint.
“The complicated thing about mixed martial arts is that, for example, when a person who is not good at striking faces an opponent who is good at striking. If the person has strong grappling skills, the opponent will have pressure from the grappling,” he explains.
“By doing so, you can negate your opponent’s striking ability. So, when people say this is a matchup between grapplers, my reaction is like, ‘Well, that’s certainly one of its aspects.’”
On that note, Nakashima has been polishing his striking game with ONE Featherweight Kickboxing World Grand Prix Champion Giorgio “The Doctor” Petrosyan, giving himself a more well-rounded attack.
But even with Nakashima’s championship-winning wrestling pedigree and refined stand-up arsenal, Aoki doesn’t believe his rival possesses an extraordinary trait.
“All of his skills are high on average. He doesn’t have any particular field that stands out and excels, but the balance of his skills are good. He does everything well,” the Japanese star says.
“I don’t think he has many weaknesses, but the fact that you are not outstanding in any field means, on the other hand, you cannot make a bold attempt in the bout. It means you can’t gamble or you can’t take risks.
“Martial arts doesn’t work like an admission exam for universities. Even if your average score is not great [in a fight], there’s a possibility that you can be successful just by excelling in one subject. I think that is his weakness.”
Though Aoki is confident and quick to break down his opponent, he prefers not to predict how this lightweight clash will finish.
Still, “Tobikan Judan” is willing to make one prediction – that the co-main event showdown will be captivating from beginning to end.
“I’ve been doing this [mixed martial arts] for 16 or 17 years, so I’m confident I can make something good,” the veteran says.
“I can make it worth watching. I can make it like a story of good novels with great structure, quick getaway, build-up, climax, and a great ending.
“I want to make something that people can enjoy and talk about for a month or two after the bout. Hopefully, something the fans can savor for a longer time.”