Former ONE Lightweight World Champion Shinya “Tobikan Judan” Aoki (39-7, 1 NC) is looking to make history.
On Friday, 24 November, the 34-year-old Tokyo, Japan native has the opportunity to become the first man to defeat ONE Welterweight World Champion Ben “Funky” Askren, ruin the American’s flawless record in his retirement match, and become a rare two-division world champion.
The two global martial arts icons are scheduled to clash for Askren’s prestigious belt in the co-main event of ONE: IMMORTAL PURSUIT, live from the Singapore Indoor Stadium.
When the tilt was announced a few weeks ago, it was well received, given the elite level of both decorated combatants. However, the match certainly was not expected.
After all, Aoki is moving back up to welterweight to face the 33-year-old American Olympic wrestler, and the pair have been training partners at Evolve MMA for several years, meaning they have shared the mats on many occasions.
After the Japanese grappler was pressed on the latter point, he dismissed the concerns in his usual, succinct manner. “I never turn down a match,” he stated.
It is rare when members from the same team meet inside the cage, because of the bonds that are formed during exhausting training sessions, and also the logistical and emotional issues it can cause for all parties.
Admittedly, both Aoki and Askren return home to their respective nations between camps, so maybe that is how they can separate themselves from any attachment.
When asked if Askren was his friend, Aoki simply replied: “He is a teammate.” That is how the former lightweight titleholder draws the line.
“A lot of martial artists do not like to compete against their friends,” he offered. “My opinion, however, is that as a martial artist, when you have an opponent, regardless if it is your son or your father, you must compete.
“That is what kind of job I believe this is. I have no reservations competing against someone on my team.”
For “Tobikan Judan,” it is all business. As a feared submission master equipped with black belts in both judo and Brazilian jiu-jitsu, many opponents have fallen to his incredible finishing ability. Of his 39 victories, 25 have come via tap-out.
One of the most intriguing aspects of the bout is that both men know each other well, understand the other’s strengths and weaknesses, and have worked on those together while training at Evolve MMA in Singapore.
Also, their styles reflect one another’s. Askren goes for the takedown and effectively works from the top, while Aoki possesses one of the most effective guard games in all of martial arts.
What is abundantly clear is that the Japanese man has a great deal of reverence for the skills of his teammate-turned-adversary. Having gone unbeaten in 18 bouts, the ONE Welterweight World Champion commands that type of high regard.
“I think he is a spectacular martial artist, and he inspires me,” Aoki offers. “I was taught by him as well, even though he is younger than me, and he is an athlete I really respect.”
However, that does not equate to a complete deference from the title challenger. Aoki makes sure to note that there will not be high-fives and hugs when they stand across the cage from one another.
Despite any previous association, this is an extremely high stakes contest, where the world’s best welterweight is taking on the former ONE Lightweight World Champion, and a man considered to be the absolute best in Asian martial arts.
Both men are leaders in their respective fields, but in reality, the pressure bears down on the American, who will be aiming to end his career unbeaten in his final battle. What’s more, Aoki is determined to have ONE gold around his waist once again.
Aoki’s lack of emotional attachment to Askren means he has no qualms about spoiling that party. He is not there to merely provide fanfare for a great athlete. With his experience, he will also not be daunted by the task at hand.
All he promises is one of the biggest contests in martial arts history.
“It is the most intense bout to happen in 10 years,” Aoki says. “I think people understand that. It will be a historic match. You will miss out if you do not see it.”