Longtime mixed martial arts (MMA) veteran Shinya Aoki reluctantly returned his DREAM lightweight belt recently as, with the Japanese promotion's future looking bleak, he had elected to sign an exclusive contract with the new force in Asian MMA, ONE FC.
That means the Japanese submission wizard is without a title for the first time since 2008, when there was a brief gap between him giving up his Shooto welterweight belt and winning the DREAM lightweight strap.
It leaves a space in the 29 year old's trophy cabinet which he is in a hurry to fill and he already has a replacement belt in his sights.
"I was proud to to be DREAM champion but that time is over and my thoughts now are only on the future and I want the ONE FC belt. Evolve MMA has taken me to the next level, I am surrounded by the greatest team and coaches in the world and we are like a family, and we push each other extremely hard in training and I want to bring the belt back to Evolve MMA for all my team mates."
Aoki's Evolve MMA team mate Zorobabel Moreira came up just short in his quest to become the inaugural ONE FC lightweight champion last month. He was dominating Kotetsu Boku until the Japanese veteran connected with a huge right hand to secure a spectacular stoppage in the third round.
Vengeance is very much on Aoki's mind and he is hoping to fight Boku for the title at the earliest available opportunity.
"Boku showed a great deal of heart against Zoro. I respect him as an opponent, but I am confident I can beat him because I feel I am a more complete martial artist. I have not yet heard whether or not I will get to fight him for the title, I will let my coaches at Evolve MMA take care of that but I am ready to fight whoever stands between me and the ONE FC belt."
With Eduard Folayang already having been promised a shot at the lightweight belt an intriguing possibility is that Aoki could drop down to 145 lbs and fight for the featherweight title. He says that he has given it a lot of thought and believes he could compete at a lower weight.
"To make weight at 155 lbs is very easy for me, it is not a problem. I have never tried to fight at a lower weight, I think it would be possible but I don't know how it would affect my performance. My priority is to be ONE FC lightweight champion but in the future maybe I could try to fight for the featherweight belt as well. I like to test myself and to try to to win world titles at two different weights would be a good challenge, not many fighters have done that."
After only fighting intermittently in the last 12 months due to DREAM's instability Aoki is enjoying a new lease of life since signing for ONE FC. He is hoping to compete more regularly and particularly enjoyed getting to fight in front of the fans in his adopted home of Singapore.
"It was great! ONE FC put on an amazing show. They are very professional, and I look forward to fighting for them again. I was honored to be able to represent Evolve MMA in front of our home crowd in Singapore. I want to stay very active in 2013, if I am healthy I want to fight as many times as possible. It is what I love to do."
A subscriber to the belief that martial arts is a continuous journey Aoki trains regularly regardless of whether he has a fight booked or not. He is also doing some instructing of his own and is working with one student in particular.
"I have been teaching my son some Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ) but it is only for fun because he is still very young! I will not push him to become a fighter like me, it is up to him."
Aoki was on the verge of becoming a policeman in Japan and spend a couple of months at the academy before deciding to leave in order to focus full time on his fighting career. The decision has been vindicated as he has run up a stellar professional record of 31-6-1 and become for many the face of Asian MMA.
The contract which he signed with ONE FC reportedly makes him the best paid MMA fighter in Asia and he is hoping he will have the opportunity to fight in as many countries as possible.
"I was supposed to fight in Manila and I hope to fight there in the future because Filipino fans seem very enthusiastic about MMA. I am very happy to be able to fight for a big promotion like ONE FC and to train at an amazing place like Evolve MMA where I can learn from people like Namsaknoi and Heath Sims, I just want to learn and improve as a martial artist and to perform well when I fight. That is my life."