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Manager Shu Hirata Criticizes Shinya Aoki, Talks State of Japanese MMA

Shu Hirata is the manager for some of Japan's most successful MMA fighters. Takeya Mizugaki (pictured), Yoshiyuki Yoshida and many more Japanese fighters fight under Hirata's management. But since the demise of PRIDE FC in 2007, many have begun to question the level of Japanese MMA and Japanese fighters.

It is Hirata's job to bring Japanese fighters to the West and to help them be successful. He is better at his job than anyone else. In this exclusive interview, Hirata sheds light on the problems with Japanese MMA, the failure of Shinya Aoki and the future of the sport in Japan.

For many fans, Shinya Aoki's fight against Gilbert Melendez was being used as a measuring stick for Japanese MMA as he was the first Japanese champion to fight in America in his prime since PRIDE collapsed. What did you think of the fight and were you surprised by the outcome?

No I am not surprised at all. Remember, Aoki's fighting style is very risky to begin with and also, this is not to protect him or anything, but his strategy is not suitable for today's five-minute rounds and the 10-point must scoring system. His fight style is suitable for an unlimited time bout where judges score the entire bout (as in PRIDE or DREAM), not by rounds. His fight style is to look for that one or two opportunities to submit the opponent just like Royce Gracie did when he fought Kimo in the primitive era of MMA. In that fight Royce got beat up but yet won the fight with an armbar.

I mean, if you want to be really ultimate about it, Aoki's fight style is suitable for fighting in an open field with no judges. Fighters fight till one of them submits or gets knocked out kinda thing. He would be suitable for fighting in a place like Ganryu Island where Misashi Miyamoto faced Kojiro Sasaki. But we all know this is a modern era of MMA. So I am not surprised that Aoki got dominated because he has never really kept up with what has been taking place in the North America for the past ten years or so.

Aoki wasn't fighting under the same scoring system as everyone else here in the States. Not only the scoring system but he had never even fought in the cage. I mean, my god, Strikeforce doesn't even allow elbow shots to the head. If this was in the UFC, he may have ended up being very bloody. Its obvious fighters here in the States know that if the opponent pulls guard, then take him to the cage, close the distance and drop punches and elbows. Aoki never had to deal with that when he was fighting in a ring.

Also in today's MMA, striking skills, especially boxing skills, are an absolute must. I know Aoki has been training Muay Thai but he has almost no punching skills, and that is a big chunk out your game. Without having an effective striking it's almost impossible to close in on a fighter the caliber of Gilbert Melendez.

Aoki implied after the fight that because of his loss Japanese MMA is inferior to American MMA. Japan is now just a "MMA colony" of America. What did you think about that?

You know, I've had dinner with Aoki so I know him and I think he is a good guy but I am going to say something very critical because I like the guy. Who the hell do you think you are? Really, who said that you are the representative of Japan?

While he was taking a safe path, the guys like Yushin Okami, Ryo Chonan, Akihiro Gono, Yoshiro Maeda, Kuniyoshi Hironaka, Keitaro Nakamura, Dokonjonosuke Mishima, Mitsuhiro Miura, Yoshiyuki Yoshida, Kazuhiro Nakamura, Takeya Mizugaki and recently Takanori Gomi, and of course, many others, bravely stepped up and went to the real "Major League" called the UFC/WEC. Sure only few of them are still surviving in there but these guys are the fighters that carried the Japanese flag on their shoulders.

All Aoki did was, walked on a safe, glorious path created by DREAM and fought in Strikeforce, which is not necessarily the certified "Major League" of MMA. He is not walking on the tough road. Its like while Ichiro and Matusi are playing in the MLB, he was making a special appearance in some Canadian or Carribean baseball league. So for him to say Japan has become a MMA colony of the States just because he got beat by Melendez is a big insult to guys like Okami, Mizugaki and Yoshida who are still fighting and winning enough to stay in the big leagues.

So what needs to change about Japanese MMA to allow more Japanese fighters to survive in the West?

The skill level of fighters, the training environment and even the respect MMA fighters get from the general public right now in North America is way ahead of Japan. I think overall effort is lacking. The promoter is not putting enough effort to promote shows. For example, there is not enough emphasis on getting sponsors and TV deals from overseas.

I think fighters and gyms are not putting in enough effort to learn new training methods. There should be more fighters going to the states for training, and more trainers should be coming to the States to see and learn what the other MMA fighters and trainers are doing. Also, Japanese fighters should also put in a little more effort to learn about training, dieting, nutrition and everything else necessary for MMA. I think fighters and gyms should be more keen on bringing in their own sponsors. All of these things would ultimately bring more business to the world of the Japanese MMA but I don't see that happening. It has been the same for the last ten years or so.

What do you think can bring about these changes needed in Japan ?

Unless going digital in 2012 makes a big difference in the Japanese TV market, Japanese MMA would never ever going to beat Zuffa because there is no such a thing as a big PPV market in Japan. People in Japan are not used to paying for television. It's not customary. It's not common.The only way to revive Japanese MMA, I believe, is to have a Japanese UFC or WEC champion.

Look at MLB. its very popular in Japan now because there are Japanese stars that are doing well - like Ichiro and Matsui. But in the UFC or WEC, we still haven't seen Ichiro or Matsui yet. Think of it this way: if GSP or Anderson Silva were Japanese, then they would be all over the Japanese TV by now and even an old lady in the deep woods of Yamagata prefecture would know what the UFC is. So fighters are the ones that can really change everything. Even only one Japanese champ might be able to change everything. We need Japanese Tiger Woods in the UFC then everything would fall into the places for the entire industry.

Is there anybody fighting now that you think could become this champion that Japan needs?

I honestly think Yushin Okami and Takeya Mizuagki still have a chance to became the first Japanese champion in the Octagon. Besides them, I think fighters like Ikuo Usuda and Nobuhiro Obiya could be very competitive if they are willing to cut to 145 lbs. I've always believed that Hatsu Hioki could compete at the world's top level at 145 lbs, as could Lion Takeshi.

However, because of Japanese MMA politics some of those fighters won't leave Japan and test their skill in the Octagon so I am actually already looking to the younger generation of athletes.

I am now doing a heavy scout on high school judo or wrestling champions that are willing to begin MMA training here in the States and start a pro MMA career here in the States. I have to convince their parents as well but so far I am not having any difficulty explaining to kid's parents that UFC / WEC is far better than fighting in Japanese MMA shows.

Yes, times have changed. I can not mention his name here yet, but I am close to signing a 17-year old national high school judo champ that is willing to skip Japan as soon as possible and do MMA here in the States. This kid and his father are huge UFC fans so it took me five minutes to convince them.

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