The announcement of a title fight between Christian Lee and Shinya Aoki came as something of a surprise. The two have been competing in different divisions and they also trained together at Evolve MMA.

But at ONE: ‘Enter the Dragon’ the two men will meet and Aoki says the 20 year old represents a real threat,

“He’s the most promising athlete within Asia, and within ONE. I’ve trained with him and seen him develop, and I think right now he’s the strongest and most accomplished he’s been. He’s ready for a fight, and I think he’s stronger than me.”

Lee has spent his entire career at featherweight but has been talking about moving up for a while. It was a question of when, not if, he outgrew his old division but it raised a few eyebrows when he he was handed an immediate title shot.

It is fair to say that Aoki has no doubts about the credentials of the challenger. He foresees a tough test against an opponent 16 years his junior,

“I want to test myself against him. Being able to face such a young opponent, at the age of 36 years old, I get to put everything I’ve done up until now to the test by facing him.”

Changing of the guard

Reading between the lines it sounds like Aoki was able to tap out Lee a few times when they first started training together at Evolve MMA. But the Japanese veteran recalls that, as time went in, these moments because fewer and further between,

“I’ve trained with him since he joined Evolve, but he’s just getting better and better. I was only able to consistently beat him for the first year. Ever since, he’s been able to beat me, and I have trouble beating him. He’s constantly evolving.”

There are numerous examples of MMA fighters continuing to compete at the elite level well into their 30s. But Aoki wants to challenge himself and feels that facing younger opponents is an important par of this process,

“Defending my title and career by going against other veterans is easy. Anyone can play it safe in their career, but I think playing it safe like that is pointless.  That’s why I want to challenge myself, and continue to test myself against up and coming athletes.”

Great grappler

Aoki will go down as one of the greatest grapplers in MMA history. He has finished his last four opponents by either submission or ground and pound and refuses to apologize for having very specific strengths,

“When it comes to mixed martial arts, it doesn’t matter whether you (do) striking or grappling. What matters is finishing the bout. It just so happens that in my case, that happens by grappling.”

His last win was particularly satisfactory because it saw Aoki reclaim the  lightweight title. That bout with Eduard Folayang headlined ONE: ‘A New Era’, the promotion’s first ever event in Tokyo and the Japanese veteran says his overriding emotion was relief,

“Putting aside the fact that I won a belt, the fact that the event was a success and that people left saying ‘that was fun’ was the best thing for me. Honestly, I felt relieved. I was relieved the event was a success, and the audience was roaring with excitement.”

Lifestyle choice

Next up for Aoki is a headline slot at the Singapore Indoor Stadium. It represents a very quick turnaround, two main events in the space of three months, but the two time ONE lightweight champion wouldn’t have it any other way,

“I’m thankful that I don’t have to get on a crowded train each morning, work a nine-to-five, and complain about co-workers I don’t like.  I never thought at 36 years old I would be having fun grappling and fighting opponents so I think it (being a fighter) made my life fun.”

Aoki doesn’t always give the impression he is enjoying life. When it comes to competition the 36 year old is deadly serious and you won’t catch him smiling during fight week.

But the veteran knows he is in a privileged position, albeit a potentially tenuous one. Eventually a young fighter will come to claim his mantle but Aoki is determined to delay that day for a good few years yet.