Shinya Aoki was the DREAM Lightweight Champion and the Japanese mixed martial arts (MMA) promotion's most marketable asset, but it seemed that the relationship was over when he signed an exclusive contract with ONE FC and was asked to return the belt.
With the company that owned DREAM declaring bankruptcy shortly thereafter, it seemed like a token gesture for Aoki to be asked to make; however, much has changed in the intervening months and the "Tobikan Judan" is set to make a surprise return to the Saitama Super Arena in Saitama, Japan, on later tonight on the New Year's Eve mega event.
His fight with Antonio McKee is set to headline the DREAM 18 card with Aoki among several ONE FC fighters -- alongside Melvin Manhoef, Phil Baroni and Bibiano Fernandes -- who will be in action after GLORY signed up with the ONE FC Network last month.
Aoki was just starting to cut weight in preparation for his bout with McKee, but through a translator, he agreed to answer the following questions for MMAmania.com.
Check it out:
How do you feel about getting to fight for DREAM again?
I am pleased to be able to fight in Japan again because this is my home and I have fought in this stadium many times before. And when I signed with ONE FC I did not know when I would get to fight here again. I am happy that ONE FC has allowed me to be a part of this event because all of my career I have fought in Japan and this year is the first that I have not been able to fight in Japan. It will be good to be back and I hope I can fight well and show how much improvement I have made since my last time fighting here.
You are signed exclusively to ONE FC, how happy are you to still be able to still fight for DREAM?
I think it is better for MMA if people can work together and I am appreciative to ONE FC for allowing me to be a part of this big event in Japan. I want to fight as many times as is possible, but this year I did not fight as many times as I would have liked. And being able to fight on other promotions like DREAM, as well as ONE FC, is good for me and my family because it means I can fight more often.
You have spent much of 2012 training in Singapore, why did you decide to leave Japan?
I asked to join Evolve MMA because I was invited there by Chatri Sityodtong to do a seminar and I was very impressed -- there is nowhere like this in Japan. Everything is in one place so I do not need to go to different places to train and it is very modern and expensive, more like expensive hotel than martial arts gym. The Muay Thai champions there have helped me a lot with my stand up and I think that is the biggest change for me this year. I hope to be able to show this at DREAM 18. Heath Sims has also helped with my wrestling and there are many Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belts there as well for me to grapple with. I do not stay in Singapore all the time, when I am in Japan I train with Yuki Nakai at Paraestra who has been my coach for many years.
Both your fights in 2012 have been very quick, are you hoping to fight for a bit longer against Antonio Mckee?
If I win quickly I will be happy. As a fighter it is good for experience to spend time in the cage or the ring, but winning quickly is even better.
McKee is a very experienced wrestler, are you expecting him to try and take you down?
I don't know what his strategy will be, but I have trained hard and I hope to be ready.
Have you been working on submissions off your back to prepare for the possibility of being taken down?
I have been working on all areas of MMA.
Do you have any predictions for this fight?
What are your ambitions for 2013, are you hoping to fight for DREAM again?
My ambition is always to improve as a martial artist, that is why I made a decision to start training at Evolve MMA in Singapore this year and that is my ambition for 2013. I want to improve and I want to show that improvement by performing well and winning fights. This year I want to win the ONE FC belt, I have won belts with Shooto and with DREAM and being ONE FC champion is a big ambition for me. I want to fight Kotetsu Boku for the belt, which he won against my teammate Zoro, I think he was lucky to beat Zoro and I want to get revenge for my Evolve MMA friend.