First came the right hook, a wide, looping shot that barreled into the left eye socket of Antonio McKee, crumbling the veteran at the knees. Shinya Aoki surprised even himself with its precision. Then came the frantic taps on the ropes. A 43-year-old man trying to call it quits.
Record books list it as a submission finish, just one more amongst many, but Aoki knows better. Since leaving the comforts of home for Singapore's premiere fight camp, Evolve MMA, Aoki has dedicated countless hours to perfecting his game, grinding out the days with Muay Thai champions to raise his striking to a level complimentary of his world-class grapping skills.
But it was only at that moment, when McKee tasted his power and decided he wanted out, that Aoki could understand just how he far he had come.
"I didn't know I had it, and I still don't know I have it," Aoki deadpans through a translator. "I'm not 100-percent confident that I'm a knockout artist yet."
Certainly no one would argue. One punch, no matter how well thrown, does not make a knockout artist. Aoki knows he can do better; he does it in training everyday. But the fact that the DREAM lightweight champion found it within himself to stand in the pocket, taste the sweltering heat of the flames, grit his teeth and fire back, is already a marked improvement over the diminutive, one-dimensional grappler who showed up at the Evolve doors two years ago.
"When Shinya first came to Evolve, his striking was very, very low level," recollects Aoki's head trainer, Chatri Sityodtong.
"I'm very proud of Shinya, and I'm sure he is very proud of himself as well. He works very hard. He's the hardest worker on Evolve Fight Team. He's committed to his training. He doesn't smoke, he doesn't drink, he doesn't party. He's really a complete martial artist every single day of the year. Literally one of the [most dedicated] guys I've ever met. He does martial arts, and only martial arts. That's all."
Aoki has always been a unique figure, his brash, occasionally explosive nature often ruffling feathers of the humble establishment around him. Within the Asian MMA scene, Aoki is among the most well known fighters -- a "big superstar," says Sityodtong -- this despite Aoki's notorious bristling at the local media that seeks him out.
Yet in the west, his myriad of accomplishments are known only to the hardcore minority, while manhandlings courtesy of Gilbert Melendez and Eddie Alvarez have become hard memories for the casual crowd to forget. But Aoki is still only 29 years old, a fact which is often forgotten. And his decade long tenure has afforded him a rare perspective on both the physical and mental stresses that come with the territory of such violent pursuits.
From that experience has sprung a certain ruthlessness, one that Aoki is hesitant to discuss, but blooms on full display when the time is right.
"I'm very scared, always, before the fight," Aoki admits. "But once I step into the cage or the ring, I feel nothing. Empty. No anger. Nothing.
"I want to kill my opponent. I know that my opponent is going to have that exact same mentality, want to kill me. That's why I have a lot of fear before the fight. But once I step into the cage, once I step into the ring, all those feelings of fear or anger just dissipate and I feel nothing."
It's a jarring statement to hear, but one not altogether surprising considering the source.
"Kind of like Mike Tyson," Sityodtong chimes in. "Mike Tyson used to say that. In the locker room he cried, he punched the wall. He was so scared. Once he got into the ring, he just a wrecking machine.
"I've been in Shinya's corner now for the last few years. I also say the same thing. I see that when Shinya's walking from the locker room to the cage, the transformation happens and he becomes a warrior once he steps into the cage or the ring.
"He has no problems breaking bones and ripping arms off in a fight," Sityodtong continues. "He is very careful in training with his teammates, but all gloves are off during a fight. He has a kill or be killed mentality and he will do whatever it takes to win the fight -- within the rules, of course -- even if it means breaking bones. He's unemotional about it."
For years Aoki has been considered one of the top lightweights outside of Zuffa's behemoth umbrella. But only since he and Sityodtong forged their partnership has Aoki seemingly put everything together. Now Aoki has a sense of family, loyalty to his Evolve teammates. In particular Aoki has grown close with fellow ONE FC lightweight contender Zorobabel Moreira. Sityodtong calls them the "best of friends."
The bond extends so deep that Aoki was hesitant to challenge for the lightweight title after signing with ONE FC, as Moreira, fresh off a gruesome soccer kick knockout of Roger Huerta, was the favorite to defeat Kotetsu Boku and claim the inaugural strap in late-2012. But the best laid plans in mixed martial arts hardly ever end as expected, and Boku soundly finished the Brazilian early in the third round.
The loss was so devastating, Aoki says Moreira still hasn't spoken about it.
"They're the best friends on Evolve Fight Team," Sityodtong explains. "So the fact that they haven't spoken about that fight really just shows you how much Zoro is still heartbroken over that fight. Definitely revenge, the revenge factor if you will, Shinya definitely has that element. He's very patriotic for Evolve Fight Team. So there is definitely a true storyline. He's not only going to fight Kotetsu Boku for himself, but he's training [to win] for one of his teammates on Evolve Fight Team."
Aoki now meets Boku on April 5, 2013, at the Singapore Indoor Stadium in Kallang, Singapore, in the main event of ONE FC 8: Kings and Champions, where he'll finally get a chance to exact his vengeance.
For some, winning the ONE FC title would be the crowning moment of a career. But for Aoki, it would simply mark another step towards his ultimate goal -- becoming the greatest fighter on the planet.
"I'm inspired by Bernard Hopkins fighting until he's 48," Aoki says. "I believe I'll fight until 45 years old. I'm religious about my health and keeping, pretty much, in fighting shape year round, unlike other martial artists. I'm a true martial artist."
For Aoki to fulfill his goals, he'll ultimately need a change of scenery. The Japanese judoka has often disregarded inquiries about the UFC in the past, however as he continues to grind out the hours in Singapore, molding himself into perfect Sityodtong's vision, Aoki has slowly become more receptive to the idea.
"The bigger perspective is Shinya definitely wants to win the ONE FC world championship title when he faces Kotetsu Boku on April 5. I think, longer terms, he's definitely willing to take anybody in the world at lightweight," Sityodtong finishes.
"He wants to fight the best. He wants to beat the best. That's his [goal] in his entire life. This is what he loves to do and what he wants to do. You heard him, he's going to fight until he's 45 years old. So, you know, I see him dominating ONE FC, and then potentially dominating the UFC as well."