Former ONE Championship lightweight world champion Shinya 'Tobikan Judan' Aoki had a really good 2021. His two outings of the year were both submission finishes, upping his win streak to four. Finishing two former world champions and one former title challenger in his last four fights, Aoki is in prime form even at 38.
The Japanese MMA icon is set to return to the cage at ONE Championship's 10-year anniversary show, ONE: X. It's fitting for Asia's top fight organization to include one of its most famous Asian fighters on the card. As it stands, Aoki is not just one of the more famous fighters in ONE, he's one of the best grapplers in the sport, period.
Aoki has been fighting in MMA for almost two decades now, tallying 47 wins with 30 submissions. His submission wins in PRIDE, Strikeforce, DREAM, Shooto and ONE Championship have earned him the moniker 'Master of Flying Submissions'. On top of that, Aoki has won numerous grappling championships both in his home country and abroad.
Aoki is one of the few 'pure' grappling specialists in the game. He relies heavily on his submissions, often at the expense of other aspects of MMA. However, once the fight hits the ground then tangling with Aoki would be detrimental to your health.
Although Aoki's March 26 opponent is yet to be determined, people are already getting excited by his inclusion in the card. With ONE's lightweight division stacked with killers, anybody from the top 10 would be an exciting fight for Aoki. Today, we look at the rankings and list down five viable fight options for Shinya Aoki at ONE: X.
#5. ONE Championship grappling superfight with Gordon Ryan
Let's start with a jiu-jitsu fan's dream. Gordon 'The King' Ryan, widely considered the greatest no-gi jiu-jitsu world champion ever, recently signed with ONE. The landmark signing had grappling fans salivating at the thought of Ryan conquering the Asian organization and finally dabbling in MMA.
Ryan's contract says he'll fight under ONE's submission grappling leg but will eventually transition to MMA. As early as May of last year, a superfight between him and Aoki had been announced:
The fight has since fallen through due to Ryan's decision to temporarily retire to focus on his long-standing battle with gastroparesis. However, the renowned grappler has been active in training ever since and has been hinting at a return. If he decides to make his comeback two months from now, it makes sense to re-book the fight with Aoki for the biggest event in ONE Championship history.
Imagine if Aoki somehow subs Ryan. The entire MMA and jiu-jtisu world will collectively lose their minds.
#4. ONE Championship lightweight bout against Sage Northcutt
ONE Championship originally booked this fight for ONE on TNT 4 back in April 2021. The fight was ultimately scrapped due to Sage Northcutt pulling out after feeling the adverse effects of contracting COVID-19.
Now that they're both well and healthy, it's time to finally lock horns. Northcutt was also announced to fight at ONE Championship: X, though his opponent is not yet determined. So, how about Aoki? Even though it's been more than two years since we last saw Northcutt in the cage, facing the streaking Japanese still makes sense. For one, the star power and marketability of this fight makes it absolute gold.
There's been some friction between the two on social media in the past after Northcutt's pull out. Revisiting this budding rivalry might be the best route for Aoki if he wants to get back in the title picture. Beating a highly recognizable former UFC fighter in ONE's biggest event would certainly make a good case for him.
Add an 'old versus new' narrative to the rivalry and this bout would generate a lot of hype for ONE: X.
#3. ONE Championship lightweight bout against Dagi Arslanaliev
Ranking-wise, this one makes the most sense. ONE Championship lightweight powerhouse Saygid Guseyn 'Dagi' Arslanaliev is no. 2 while Aoki is no. 3. With former champ Christian Lee still having unfinished business with current king Ok Rae Yoon, the next two fighters on the ladder should battle for the next challenger's spot.
Dagi's last performance was a Fight of the Year bout against the Russian berzerker Timofey Nastyukhin. The Dagestani former Brazilian jiu-jitsu world champion exemplified heart, determination and killer instinct like no other. The back-and-forth brawl saw near-fight ending blows that pushed both fighters to the brink, before Dagi stopped the Russian early in the third round.
Coming off a knockout win in the best fight of the year definitely makes Dagi a prime candidate for the next title shot. Aoki could face Dagi and steal his thunder and fight the winner of the possible Christian Lee vs. Ok Rae Yoon rematch.
#2. ONE Championship lightweight bout against Saygid Izagakhmaev
After his impactful ONE Championship debut at ONE: Heavy Hitters, Saygid Izagakhmaev called out the entire lightweight division. The highly touted protege of the great Khabib Nurmagomedov then mentioned two fighters he'd like to fight – Eddie Alvarez and Shinya Aoki.
With his dominance of James Nakashima, added to the fandom he's already garnering due to his association with Khabib, Izagakhmaev might get what he wants. Just imagine the grappling exchanges that will happen in this one.
It would be a clash of two warriors from different backgrounds but cut from the same cloth. Izagakhmaev is a grappler of the wrestling variety, while Aoki is a grappler best known for his slick jiu-jitsu submissions.
It would be interesting to see the veteran Aoki deal with the steamrolling kind of wrestling Izagakhmaev utilizes like his mentor Khabib. The Japanese MMA icon has always had problems with strikers who refuse to tangle with him on the ground. This time, he'll face a fighter who will deliberately bring him to the ground to fight him there.
Beating a young phenom like Izagakhmaev will further cement Aoki's legacy as one of the all-time greats. It will not be an easy fight, but the rewards greatly outweigh the risks on this one.
#1. ONE Championship lightweight rematch against Christian Lee
There's nothing like a good old redemption story. Back in 2019, Aoki lost his lightweight belt in the most devastating fashion against Christian 'The Warrior' Lee. The then 20-year-old Lee was seen as a sacrificial lamb to the dominant champion Aoki.
Pundits were predicting an early sub for the Japanese. They opined that if Aoki got the fight to the ground, a submission was not just a possibility but an eventuality.
For the most part, Aoki was doing good on what everyone predicted. The Japanese submission master put his challenger on his back and almost submitted him with an armbar. Somehow, the determined Lee survived to win the fight via a second-round knockout.
It was one of the most memorable underdog wins in ONE Championship history. Having the two run it back weaves a narrative of redemption for both fighters. Aoki needs to redeem himself from the embarrassing 2019 loss, while Lee needs to find a way to get back on the road to championship gold.
As far as matchups go, this one has the most compelling story and that's why it tops our list.