For Shinya Aoki, that comes in the form of adding the first loss to the pro MMA record of Ben Askren. Shinya is motivated to win another ONE championship title and also to redeem himself on the heels of losing the promotion’s 155 lb. belt. For someone who has competed as low as Featherweight, Aoki revels in the challenge of beating Askren, the dominant Welterweight titlist. Though Shinya hasn’t competed in over a year, he is a lifelong martial artist who sharpens his weapons every day. Shinya is thrilled at the chance to test his hybrid, one of a kind grappling style against someone in Askren who very much has his own effective approach to grappling that is unique to himself.
Aoki said, “I am open for any grappling competition. It’s my bread-and-butter. My style is original. My approach in competing is very unique because I want to stand out and present something that my opponent has never seen yet. Facing me inside the cage or on the mat has always been a thrill for my opponents.”
There is no manufactured drama among the two. Just two training partners who have a pure desire to compete at a high level in martial arts. The Japanese legend said, “I am just for the challenge. I respect Ben as an athlete. I think he is a spectacular martial artist, and he inspires me. I was taught by him as well, even though he is younger than me, and he is an athlete I really respect. He has his own goal for his career. I have mine as well. I am here to win another belt in ONE Championship.”
I said to Aoki, “You feel like this Askren bout is the most intense to happen in ten years and it has high stakes. What would it mean to you to carve your place in ONE Championship history as a two division champion?” Shinya responded, “The goal is to be the best out there. I am not satisfied. I guess that it’s human nature. I have already cemented my legacy, but I want more.”
For Ben Askren, his immortality comes from another iteration of dominance over another elite martial artist. The Olympian and NCAA Division I All American has a spotless record in mixed-martial arts competition. “Funky” has collected and defended championships in both Bellator as well as ONE. The goal for Askren is to best Aoki, a world class championship caliber fighter, so that he can retire unbeaten and on top. Askren stated,“Shinya is a really good final opponent. Obviously, he is a legend of the sport, and he is a really big challenge on the ground, which is where I like to compete, personally. I am excited for this bout.” Few prize fighters know when the right time to leave is but Ben seems acutely self-aware and sees this upcoming bout as a fitting swan song for his fighting journey.
I was curious about Ben’s post-competition plans and asked “Do your retirement plans consist of focusing more on coaching up and coming amateur wrestlers?” Ben responded by saying, “It’s part of it. Even as an active competitor, I am already coaching at my own school, teaching wrestling. But I seek to explore other avenues like working for ONE Championship to look for up-and-coming talents.”
The ONE Welterweight champion has a great appreciation for his tenure in ONE Championship for a multitude of reasons. Askren stated, “I just found my golden opportunity in Asia. My trips to Asia have been a pleasure for me. I always enjoy seeing new cultures and learning new things. I’ve stepped in the cage 17 times, and I’ve never taken a loss. I think I am one of the best in the world, and I think it also says a lot about the consistency I bring. I bring a great performance every single time I step in the cage.”
Ben also added, “When you talk about martial arts, Asia is the home of martial arts. It has been the home of martial arts for the last 5,000 years. There are homegrown martial arts in every single country in Asia: Japan has Karate, Aikido and Judo. Meanwhile, Korea has Taekwondo. On the other hand, Thailand has Muay Thai. China has Kung Fu, while Russia has Sambo. It’s really very rich in history, but nobody has ever attempted to unify the continent this way. ONE Championship made it happen to celebrate the beauty of martial arts. Being part of the organization’s growth is such an honor.”
As a parting thought before his final bout “Funky” said, “I’ve always believed in hard work. You can have all the talent in the world, but if you don’t have work ethic behind it there will never be long-term success. I know what I’m capable of and know how hard I work, which is why I’m confident of my abilities. I know I can push further and harder than anyone in this game, because I’ve been in the training room or cage with nearly everybody who is considered elite at my weight. Of course anything can happen in a fight, but let’s just say I like my chances.”
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