Eduard Folayang had originally been booked to face Yoshihiro Akiyama at ONE on TNT Part IV. The UFC veteran withdrew and was replaced by compatriot Shinya Aoki.

On paper, at least, it is a tougher fight. Aoki is significantly younger and unlike Akiyama he is currently ranked in the top five. But Folayang sees this as an opportunity to break into the rankings and move closer to a lightweight title shot,

“When they said Akiyama was out (and) Aoki stepped in of course I got excited. This is a very important fight for my career, knowing where Aoki is right now in the division. If I could beat him, not only will I win the trilogy, but it could catapult me to another run for the title.”

Difficult adjustment

Akiyama is a very different type of opponent to Aoki and Folayang said it has been difficult to adjust,

“To be honest, the adjustment is tough. For the longest time, we had our eyes set on Akiyama, and all of a sudden, we had to focus on Aoki’s expertise, which is very different from what Akiyama brings to the table,” Folayang shares.

His fight with Akiyama was originally schedule for April 7th so Folayang has had a limited window of opportunity in which to prepare for Aoki,

“In Akiyama, we were expecting someone with a judo base who is willing to stand and trade with you. That all changes with Aoki, who’s a pure grappler in every sense of the word. It’s a really big shift for us, but we’re doing well so far.”

Lessons learned

In the rematch at ONE: ‘A New Era’ he was submitted by Aoki in the opening round. Folayang did not lay a glove on the Japanese veteran and admits he was guilty of complacency,

“Before that match, I saw that he won via arm triangle against Ev Ting but I became too confident that I could defend that,” he said.

Having already beaten the submission specialist once Folayang was overconfident heading into the rematch,

“I overlooked just how good Shinya is when he gets the opportunity. The moment he gets his hands locked together, you’re done. That’s one thing I truly overlooked.”

Folayang knows how dangerous Aoki is on the ground and thinks it is vital he doesn’t leave any openings that could allow the former champion to take him down,

“I also got too casual with my kicks, and that’s what Shinya capitalized on to get me to the ground. Against him, you don’t want to be on the mat, but that’s what happened and that’s what we want to avoid.”

Trilogy fight

The series is currently tied at 1-1 with both men having won one fight. The trilogy bout only came about because both Sage Northcutt and Akiyama pulled out but Folayang says he knew they would meet for a third time eventually,

“I did expect a trilogy, but I didn’t expect it to happen this early. Aoki has been on a roll as of late while I admit that I am in the middle of a skid, so while I hoped for this to happen, I didn’t expect it to happen this early,” he said.

Having stopped the Japanese fighter with a perfectly timed knee in the first fight Folayang knows it will be absolutely vital he keeps the bout standing. His strategy is to avoid getting taken down, avoid getting submitted if he does end up on the ground and make the most of any striking exchanges,

“We’re preparing for what Shinya plans to do, and knowing him, he plans to get the fight to the ground as early as possible. We’re working to prevent a battle on the ground and we’re also working on what to do just in case we’re there. We’re also looking for ways to strike Shinya when the match remains standing.”

Title dream

Given Aoki’s grappling credentials it is safe to assume he will win by submission if the fight goes to the ground for prolonged periods. Folayang has proved he has what it takes to finish the former champion with strikes so don’t expect him to take a patient approach in the stand up exchanges,

“As much as possible, if there’s an opening for the finish, make no mistake that we’re going for that. That’s the result that we’re hoping to get, but of course, we’re always looking to prepare for different situations because this is a very unpredictable sport.”

Having lost four of his last five fights the 36 year old has come in for a bit of criticism. There have even been some suggestions that he has reached retirement age and Folayang feels a win over Aoki would be the perfect way to silence the critics,

“This means a lot. Winning a trilogy against a legend of the sport, someone who’s adored by many people will be a big thing for my legacy.”

He still dreams of winning the lightweight title for a second time and Folayang sees the #5 ranked Aoki as the perfect stepping stone,

“Aside from that, given that Shinya is still in the top five of the division, it will also silence the critics and hopefully push me to another run for the title.”