After his humiliation at the hands of Gilbert Melendez in Strikeforce, Shinya Aoki needed to make a statement. And he did. The DREAM Lightweight Champion's first successful title defense against challenger Tatsuya Kawajiri at DREAM.15 was a completely dominating and almost flawless performance.
Aoki spoke following his win about the gruesome specifics of the fight ending achilles lock, becoming his "ideal self", his much talked about moodiness and his admiration of Gegard Mousasi.
You were successful in defending DREAM Lightweight Championship, how did you feel about protecting this title?
I wasn't actually concerned about the title. I just didn't want a losing streak, and I didn't want to lose against Kawajiri. I simply did not want to lose. I think people are going to get angry if I say this, but I'm not really obsessed with the belt, and I'm also not obsessed with being a champion. But I just don't want to lose. So in that sense, this fight made me feel cornered and very sensitive, which I haven't felt in awhile. The loss I had in April was that big of a deal for me. It may sound weird, but everyone was my enemy. During the opening ceremony, I felt that all of the fans were my enemy. I felt that everyone was Kawajiri's fans. I felt on edge and I kept to myself. I'd never really been in that kind of state of mind, even though I've been fighting for a long time.
You finished with the Achilles lock, you were very fast in taking the foot.
That was by chance. I didn't decide on any tactics, my body was moving automatically when the fight started. This is what we call "Auto Mode," but it was difficult to finish, Kawajiri endured a lot.
When did you know you had it?
The foot was cracking and making noise, and the joint was already broken, but that was being endured by Kawajiri. I thought to myself, "I can't reposition this and twist it again," but in the end, I was able to reposition and was able to get a tap out of him. It was difficult because he didn't tap until I broke the last remaining part of the joint.
I actually try to think of this last part of the joint as being non-existent. For example, you can't move at all if your neck or your backbone is broken, right? But if I am attacking the elbow or the ankle, my opponent can still move. If I break that last remaining part of the joint in the foot and don't get a tap, my opponent can still move with his other foot then I'd be in a difficult situation. I thought I might have needed to destroy the other foot too.
I was in this situation because it was an achilles lock, I think that if I had more advanced technique, I could have switched to a different submission. But it's not that easy to finish like that unless you're good at it. If this was (Masakazu) Imanari, he probably would have easily finished from that position. I thought to myself that it was good that I've been training with Imanari and learning from him. I never imagined that learning from him would be save me this way.
But for most people who watch you fight, they would consider your grappling extremely advanced.
Oh, no, no, no! My skills are different from (Kazushi) Sakuraba's grappling skills, but how should I say this... Grappling is like, for example, if you talk about doctors, they each have specialties such as respiratory or heart. For grappling, grappling skills are divided into small pieces out of the general skills. For this fight, it was difficult because I'm not a foot specialist. And my technique itself is not yet refined.
It's still not refined?
It's not refined at all. It's not complete. I'm not able to be calm because I'm like "I have to get this! I have to get this!" I think my thought processes and the the thought processes of (Katsunori) Kikuno are quite similar.
We don't allow out opponents to use their own weapons. If I say that that we win "without using power" it sounds like I'm an expert, but we're both able to finish the opponent by using the least amount of power. I think those thought processes are similar for us. Of course though, the method we use is different. But yes, I feel like I can refine more.
I truly think it's very deep. I refine a technique more but if I go too far, I get stuck in the deep end in the middle of the process. Sometimes because I was attempting to refine my technique too much, it affects my condition. That's the difficult part, and I think I was in that condition when I fought JZ Calvin.
MMA is very difficult but it's interesting. For example, for boxing, it's just using your hands. There is depth within the technique of boxing, but MMA has lots of different things. There's wrestling, striking, grappling, and mixture of different things, so it's very deep. I think to myself, when is this going to end? But gradually...gradually, I'm getting closer to my ideal self, I think I want to be a better fighter by trying different things.
What is your ideal self?
Ideally, I would like to be able to fight using all of my weapons. I would like to be able to control the space between me and my opponent and strike the opponent, and moreover, able to grapple and knock him down. My goal is to win against my opponent without being in any dangerous situations.
The worst thing is that fights usually end up with there being big danger or big chance. Those kind of fights are exciting for people who are watching it, but it makes the quality of MMA lower. My ideal fight is minimal danger and big chance, but if I were to fight like that casual fans may not understand it. I think that casual fans are more impressed when fighters finish by punches rather than submission. It's not easy to show how great it is to defeat someone by submission. It's difficult. You want to go to the extreme, but if you go to the extreme, it's more dangerous.
But you are following a path that you believe in.
Yes. If you are too sensitive about what others say it becomes ridiculous. For example, where one person says "You should kick" another person will say "You should punch". If I listened too much I would get confused and think, "So what should I be doing!?"
This is like a religion I believe in, and I use the word "religion" on purpose. I think it's important to believe in your own religion until the end. If you use the word "religion," that is the answer or key to everything. I think one should believe in whatever one thinks until the end.
For you, do you feel like (the Kawajiri title defense) was a milestone for you?
Yes. I felt like I had stalled for a long time. I had to get this win. I felt relieved. The only unfortunate thing is, I wanted (Katsunori) Kikuno to win. If Kikuno had won, the story after that would have been created. If Kikuno won, I wanted to fight him in September. He is a very appealing fighter, and that it would have been an appealing story.
What is so appealing about Katsunori Kikuno as a fighter?
As I mentioned earlier, I think my thought process for fighting is close to his, and I also think that he is one of the current fighters who has mystique. The mystique I'm referring to is karate or his front kick. What would happen if this mystique and my mystique of submissions go against each other? He's saying that he wants to fight me, I also feel the same way. That's why I wanted him to completely finish JZ Calvin (Gesias Cavalcante). But, when I saw Calvin win for the first time in years, I thought, "He won after going through so many obstacles. That's great." Now, my feelings are complicated, as I'm thinking, "I wanted both to win...".
You watch the earlier fights on the card before you fight?
I'm able to relax if I see other fights. I was thinking, "I envy (Mitsuhiro) Ishida." By the way, I would like to give the best bout of DREAM.15 to Ishida. Ishida-san lost two times in a row last year, and during that tough time, he went down to featherweight. He has been working really hard and he's very strong, but he wasn't being fairly evaluated. I thought to myself, "It's great that he won".
I was happy that Ishida-san won, Calvin won, but it was unfortunate that Kikuno lost. That I'm pleased JZ won yet feel sad that Kikuno lost is contradictory, but I felt that way.
What did you think of Tatsuya Mizuno's fight against Melvin Manhoef?
I thought it was great. I was really moved by his fight. I think he is great for just facing up to Melvin Manhoef.
Just facing him?
Yes, don't you think it's impossible? For a regular Japanese person who was raised in a regular Japanese family, it's impossible. This macho guy with a fancy consume, coming down jumping up and down and you have to fight against him? It's impossible.
Nearly any fighter in the world would be brought down by Melvin's punches. But Mizuno survived them even though he was dropped at one point. His spirit was great, it didn't matter whether he won or lost. I mentioned this earlier, it may or may not be good to have a fight with big dangers and big chances, but that fight went beyond that, it was great. It was really a great fight.
That's quite the compliment for Mizuno. To change the topic in a different direction, you recently had fights that made you feel mentally overwhelmed. How are you feeling about that now?
One's mental condition is quite a serious matter and yes, I have felt like that recently. When that stress passes though the old problems seem boring.
So you're not looking to change your mental position before fights and you will not be lenient on yourself?
That will definitely not be the case. I felt strongly about this match with Kawajiri, I survived through it, and I feel relieved that I did not get injured. I would like to move on to the next step.
I found out in April (against Gilbert Melendez in Strikeforce) when I lose, things would do get any easier for me mentally; it gets more difficult. But it's also difficult when I win. I cant allow myself to get complacent and lose.
As long as I am a fighter, and especially because I fight in the front line, I am always going to feel like "What if I lose?" or "This might end of my career if I lose." That's why I want to be like Gegard Mousasi. I think he understands his own heart, and I would like to be like him. He has no ups and downs, and he is able to do anything, and he is strong. He's very straightforward in a good way. He's 25, so he is two years younger than me, but he's very stable. He's close to how Mirko CroCop was when he was in good shape, and very close to Fedor Emelianenko.
This time around, he wasn't able to make weight, but Mousasi's opponent Jake O'Brien isn't a weak fighter. In their fight O'Brien looked like a fish out of water, but normally he's not like that at all. It's just that his opponent was Mousasi. I think he's great. I want to be like him.