It's strangely appropriate that Las Vegas is the capital of the fight world. Few places are ruled by the clenched fist of Lady Luck quite like the Strip; a neon paradise where fortunes are won and lost deep into the night, and the line between opportunity and disaster swallows all who stumble upon it.
The parallels between that desert cocoon and the insulated world of combat sports are many, but the shadow of the Lady is chief among them. Really, it all goes back to the old phrase. The puncher's chance. The great equalizer. The reason Matt Serra can knockout Georges St. Pierre in three-and-a-half minutes, and Fabricio Werdum can end a dynasty in 69 seconds.
But at what point does luck become a convenient excuse for surprise? St. Pierre was absolved after avenging his failure, so it seems repetition is really the deciding factor. Excuses are easy to come by after one loss, but much scarcer when they arrive in pairs.
This is the reality Shinya Aoki now faces. Nearly four years ago, Aoki, the current DREAM lightweight champion, dispatched one of the toughest tests of his career in a mere 92 seconds. Staring eye-to-eye with highly-regarded American bruiser Eddie Alvarez, Aoki snaked his limbs into a heel hook and cranked on Alvarez's knee, drawing an immediate tap. The Japanese crowd went wild, and Alvarez went back home to seethe about what went wrong.
Now Aoki and Alvarez are slated to meet again at the main event of Bellator 66 this Friday, in a rematch that could prove to be one of Alvarez's career-defining moments. But for Aoki, piece of mind is it's own reward, and one that cannot be overstated. "One could say that I got lucky in that fight," Aoki remarks. "I train every day. It's my life. I am a martial artist.
"Maybe our first fight was just luck? This fight is the real one."
Much has changed since the two men first met. From 2009 to 2011, Alvarez looked nearly unstoppable, seizing the Bellator lightweight strap on the wings of a seven-fight win streak, and driving his name to the top of the 155-pound rankings. However, amid rumors of a rematch with Aoki, the American's crash back to earth would be spectacular.
Set to defend his title against a little-known prospect by the name of Michael Chandler, Alvarez quickly found himself locked in the fight of his life, eventually succumbing to a fourth-round rear-naked choke in one of the year's most electrifying brawls. Over a span of 18 minutes, Alvarez had lost his title, his ranking, and potentially, his rematch with Aoki. Nonetheless, halfway across the world, he had gained the respect of his rival.
"It was an incredible fight. You could really see their big hearts and fighting spirits. I learned a lot about the warrior mentality from watching that fight," Aoki exclaims, playfully adding, "However, it is not my style. I prefer to win a fight without receiving any damage."
Meanwhile, as Alvarez staked his talents in Bellator, Aoki continued to blaze his own trail across Japan, ripping through a 11-2 record while defending his DREAM lightweight title twice.
The evolution of a fighter is often drawn upon a linear path, however, for Aoki, that path changed in one defining moment. After joining Singapore's burgeoning powerhouse camp, Evolve MMA, last year, one of mixed martial art's most feared grapplers began experiencing growth he never thought possible. "Evolve MMA is the best thing that has ever happened to me in my career," Aoki earnestly says. "It is also the first time that I truly feel part of a family. I'm a totally different fighter today."
Though Aoki's words ring cliché, they should not be taken lightly. Universally panned for his striking for much of his career, the 28-year-old champion surprised many by showcasing a renewed sense of confidence on the feet in his last fight, brutalizing Satoru Kitaoka over five rounds to maintain his championship belt and send a warning to all challengers.
While it was merely a first step towards becoming the complete fighter he wishes to be, the performance marked a long-awaited development that his critics had been itching to see. "It will take a long time," Aoki readily admits.
"I am still not good at striking yet. But I have improved a lot. I am blessed to train under Muay Thai legends like Namsaknoi Yudthagarngamtorn, Attachai Fairtex, and the rest of the many world champions at Evolve."
Not too long ago it looked like Aoki vs. Alvarez II would never happen. After falling to Chandler back in November, Alvarez was caught in an uncomfortable limbo. With no title and a soon-to-be expired Bellator contract hanging over his head, the American asked for an immediate rematch against Chandler, hoping to reclaim what once was his. But Bellator CEO Bjorn Rebney balked at the idea, refusing to budge from the tournament format, and thus Alvarez was left with a difficult decision. Renegotiate a new deal and reenter the next lightweight tourney, or roll the dice for a rematch four years in the making, against the man he couldn't get out of his head.
Soured by contract negotiations he believed to be miles apart, Alvarez chose the latter option, and Rebney promised he would deliver. Now, Aoki, the white whale that eluded both Alvarez and Rebney for so long, is set to make his third professional appearance in North America, in a meeting that many consider to be the biggest non-title fight in Bellator history. It is an unquestionably proud moment for the promotion, and one that Aoki, who split his previous two stateside appearances, is happy to be experiencing now, rather than earlier in his career. "I just understand the American style of fighting a little bit better," he explains.
"The cage is just fun. There is also a specialized skill in learning how to use the cage. I love it."
Of course, what comes next isn't so certain. Aoki has yet to receive another offer from Strikeforce, but if he did, he "would gladly take it." In the meantime, he expects to debut for Asia's fastest rising promotion, ONE FC, on October 6, 2012 in Singapore, though he opened the door to potentially fight on their June 23 card as well, depending on DREAM's upcoming schedule.
But all of that means nothing right now. Somewhere out there, in the shadow of a Cleveland hotel room, Eddie Alvarez is waiting, his focus smoldering with revenge.
Aoki defeated this man once, whether Lady Luck played a part no longer matters. He knows the second time will not be so easy, and really, he wouldn't have it any other way.
"I fight a lot because I love it," Aoki vows. "I have a lot of confidence in myself."
"I am ready."