“I will cherish that experience forever” - Shinya Aoki recalls his matchup against Kazushi Sakuraba

Shinya Aoki and Kazushi Sakuraba | Image courtesy of ONE
Shinya Aoki and Kazushi Sakuraba | Image courtesy of ONE

Former ONE lightweight world champion and Japanese MMA icon Shinya Aoki has been fighting professionally for nearly two decades now. There was a point in time when Aoki's name was synonymous with Japanese MMA itself.

However, his legendary career, together with many other Japanese fighters, was predated by the greatness of one man: Kazushi Sakuraba.

Sakuraba is considered to be one of the greatest mixed martial artists of all time and the first true Japanese MMA star. Before fighters like Yoshihiro Akiyama, Shinya Aoki and Yushin Okami found success outside Japan, 'Saku' transcended the sport and became famous around the world.

His no-nonsense approach to grappling, unbelievable heart, and gritty catch wrestling style helped him defeat some of the finest fighters of the late 90's and early 2000's, including members of the legendary Gracie family.

Sakuraba's victories over Royler Gracie, Renzo Gracie, Ryan Gracie and the family's champion at the time, Royce Gracie, earned him the monicker 'The Gracie Hunter'.

At a time when the Gracies ruled cagefighting, an unasuming-looking Japanese man came out of nowhere and showed everyone what Asian MMA can do. Simply put, without Sakuraba, there would be no Aoki. There might not even be ONE Championship.

In 2015, the two legends collided in what became Sakuraba's last MMA fight to date. Shinya Aoki defeated his idol via TKO in the first round after taking the aging legend down and blasting him with ground-and-pound.

In an interview with ONE Championship, Aoki reminisced about his match with the icon:

"The most important thing for me was being able to fight him. Two of the greatest Japanese fighters in history, testing themselves against each other. That’s more important than winning. I will cherish that experience forever."
Japanese MMA Legends Shinya Aoki and Kazushi Sakuraba

For any MMA fighter, just being in the ring with a legend like Sakuraba is an achievement in and of itself. Beating him, however, is a feather in anyone's cap that can never be taken away.

Shinya Aoki will face young up-and-comer Saygid Izagakhmaev at ONE 163

At ONE 163 on November 19, ONE lightweight sensation Saygid Izagakhmaev will look to do to Shinya Aoki what Aoki seemingly did to Sakuraba: retire him.

In an interview with ONE Championship, the proud protege of Khabib Nurmagomedov said:

“I am happy to fight Shinya Aoki. Aoki is a legend in our sport. Back when I was in high school, I used to watch him fight. But with all due respect, I will retire him.”

During ONE's press conference for ONE 163, Shinya Aoki was made aware of Izagakhmaev's comments. He replied:

"I know I’m facing so tough opponent. But I know this is something I have to do. That is my position right now. I will do my best. He [Izagakhmaev] will send me retirement? It’s not your business actually."

'Tobikan Judan' finished his statement with:

"I’m 39 years old now and six months to become 40 years old. When I see the number of my age, I’m in the final countdown. I understand that I hear about this countdown. But I’m the one who decides [when to retire]. When I quit, I will make my own decisions. When I fight, I will fight. Do or retire, I will decide. I believe I deserve to decide these kinds of things. So, I will decide when I need to."

In professional fighting, not all fighters have the luxury of having the choice on when to hang up the gloves. There are a lot of fighters in history who kept fighting despite their expiration date having gone past.

From his powerful words, however, it seems that Aoki is firm in his belief that when his time comes, the decision to leave will be solely up to him.

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Edited by Harvey Leonard
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