Yoshihiro Akiyama picked up a dazzling, first-round knockout win over Egypt’s Sherif Mohamed at ONE: ‘King of the Jungle’ in February. It was easily one of the best knockouts of 2020 thus far, and just the kind of spectacle we’ve come to expect from the man nicknamed ‘Sexyama’.
Today, most fight fans know Akiyama as a UFC veteran and ONE Championship welterweight contender. Long before his stints with these organizations the judo specialist was competing for the FEG owned K-1 and Hero’s promotions building a reputation as one of the sport’s most exciting fighters.
Akiyama made his MMA debut with Hero’s way back in 2004. His opponent in that first fight was one Francois Botha, who was switching codes after a boxing career that had already seen him fight the likes of Mike Tyson, Shannon Briggs, and Wladimir Klitschko.
At the time, Akiyama didn’t think twice about this matchup with the hyper-experienced heavyweight boxer but in hindsight he admits it was a was a pretty wild booking. In fact, it stands out as one of his favorite memories from the FEG days,
“It was soon after I made a transition from Judo to MMA,” Akiyama told Asian MMA.
“My opponent was set to Francois Botha. He had already fought against Mike Tyson, and the venue (the Osaka Dome) was so big.
“I never thought the match was crazy or anything,” he added.
Akiyama accepted the matchup without a second thought. But looking back he sees that taking on an opponent who outweighed him by more than 70lbs was a crazy way to start his MMA career,
“Everything was okay back then. I grew up doing judo so I always had this motto in my mind of ‘soft and fair goes far’ or ‘mind over muscle.’ So I felt nothing when I was told I would fight against this big guy. When I look back, I think ‘that fight was crazy! The matchmaker must be a devil!'”
Fights against larger fighters, such as heavyweight kickboxing legend Jerome Le Banner, ended up becoming a recurring theme during the 44-year-old’s run with Hero’s and K-1. While the other Japanese stars on the roster were competing in tournaments he was given the wild matchups.
Genki Sudo and the late, great Norifumi ‘Kid’ Yamamoto were regularly used in tournaments. They met in the final of the Hero’s Lightweight Grand Prix in 2005 while the latter was in the K-1 Max 2003 and the former entered K-1 Max 2009.
Akiyama says he accepted these unconventional fights without question,
“All the fight offers I received from the matchmaker were crazy,” Akiyama recounted.
“I needed to adjust to those crazy offers. Genki Sudo and Kid Yamamoto took charge of being in the tournament and I thought I was in charge of flashy, interesting big fights.”
Akiyama’s stint as one of K-1’s resident giant-killers was not easy, but he credits his time with the promotion as the foundation for his extremely successful MMA career. Of course, there were other benefits to his time under the K-1 banner, too.
As a K-1 fighter, Akiyama earned a lot of public attention, particularly from the opposite sex, and he also cemented his place in Japanese MMA history.
“No doubt this experience created my foundation,” Akiyama said.
“But I was so cocky back then, girls loved me,” he added with a laugh.
“I got to fight on the New Year’s Eve mega event, you know? The venue was packed and the (television) rating was high. As high as National TV’s New Year’s Eve special. It was that kind of era and I was chosen to be in that position. Kid (Yamamoto), Masato, (Shinya) Aoki… We made history. All of us together. I’m proud that I am one of them.”
Akiyama fought for K-1 until 2007, going 10-1-0-1 in the promotion. After a two-fight stint in Dream he signed with the UFC in 2009, where he battled the likes of Alan Belcher, Chris Leben, Michael Bisping, Vitor Belfort and Jake Shields.
That UFC run was eventually followed by his move over to ONE Championship, the promotion he currently calls home. He never expected to enjoy such longevity, or compete in so many world-class promotions but is happy with the way things have unfolded,
“I never thought my journey would be this long,” he said.
“I was thinking about quitting after my UFC career was over, but when I watched ONE or UFC shows, I felt like ‘I can do little bit more.’ Then I got an opportunity to make an appearance on a reality TV show on Abema and I met Mr. (Yuji) Kitano and Mr. Chatri (Sityodtong). My life made another turn.”
Akiyama’s win in February was his first since 2014. He should be coming towards the end of his career but says his love of the sport has been rekindled by ONE Championship,
“I will be 45 soon,” Akiyama said.
“My motivation is my love for this organization. I love ONE. A love for the organization is very important for me to keep myself motivated. And of course, guaranteed payoff is another big motivation. I always want enough money to live as I like.”
In fact Akiyama thinks he could have another five years in him,
“I have a thought that I can fight until I turn 50. It’s up to Chatri and the fans, but if people keep having expectations of me, I feel like I can be active for five more years.”
In terms of how the final years of his career are spent, Akiyama has some ideas. He’s hoping to help bring ONE Championship to South Korea, his ancestral home,
“I believe my mission is to tell Korean people how great ONE Championship is,” he said.
“There are lots of Korean fighters who are currently under contract with ONE. It would be nice if they could fight in their motherland.”
He also has a couple of rematches in mind for that card,
“I don’t have a thought that ‘my fight must be the main event’ or anything,” he continued.
“I want the fight that fans wish to see. Maybe we can ask fans to vote for my opponent. Then maybe some people wish me to fight against (Kazuo) Misaki or (Kazushi) Sakuraba.”
Suffice to say that Akiyama still has some fight left in him. Despite everything he’s accomplished from K-1 to Dream, from the UFC to ONE Championship, he’s still not quite satisfied.
“I can score myself 60 out of 100 points,” he said, rating his career thus far.
Akiyama has a reputation for being one of the best looking fighters in the sport and it is an image he has deliberately cultivated. While he still has goals in his MMA career the 44 year old is happy to still be in shape midway despite entering the midway point in his fifth decade,
“I can continue my career because I’m not 100% satisfied. If I gave myself a compliment, it would be ‘you’re doing great at the age of 40’. You know, all of my friends in 40s are bald and fat!”