Hatsu Hioki bombs Rumina Sato at Shooto Tradition IV back in 2008. Is Hioki Japan's only hope for a top fighter in the world?
One of the conclusions that fans have come to realize after Gilbert Melendez's domination of creative submission artist Shinya Aoki on Saturday evening during Strikeforce's Nashville event is that Aoki has been highly overrated for a number of years. The blame can't solely be laid on fans, writers, and analysts, and while I'm sure there will be plenty of discussion from fans saying that they predicted that Aoki would crumble to American competition -- the fact of the matter is that we need the proof to back up the claims.
Melendez's range striking, punches into the guard, and ability to maintain posture and avoid Aoki's submission attempts completely demolished any idea that Aoki had about trying to effectively produce offense in the battle. In fact, the fight was an one-sided beatdown that has caused a re-thinking in where Aoki would stand in rankings, in discussions regarding UFC competition, and in a broader case -- where Japanese MMA stands.
As Luke Thomas pointed out in his radio broadcast with 106.7 The Fan, I also agree that Aoki probably couldn't beat Tyson Griffin in the UFC, and he's a lower top ten fighter. Why the sudden change? We now have evidence that supports all the claims that elite wrestlers with decent striking can batter the Japanese phenom. Unfortunately, the UFC lightweight division is littered with those same fighters, and many of North America's up and comers fit the same mold as well.
But I want to touch more on the broader arguments from fans. More specifically, there have been some arguments that Japanese MMA is simply unable to compete with the systems of fighting developed in North America and Brazil.
The interesting part about the entire argument is that it's brought me to a point where I need to think about why there is this appeal to find the next great Japanese fighter, even among hardcore fans. Maybe it stems from the glorious days of PRIDE, the viewings of older Shooto events in which Japanese fighters took a beating and kept on ticking, or possibly the honor, pageantry, and pride they've showed during events in their homeland. I'm not sure exactly what it is, but there is this interest from the hardcore fanbase in finding this super athlete in a land where mixed martial arts is molded into the culture.
Will Japan ever produce such fighters? We could take a meticulous look at their systems within the country such as their amateur wrestling programs, Judo and Karate programs, and all of the various training available, but most of us come back to the conclusion that the collegiate wrestling program in the United States is the sole reason why North American fighters continue to have huge success and Japanese fighters lose in those match-ups.
Japan also struggles to accept the measures of weight cutting and having guys fight at a weight that's advantageous to their success. Michihiro Omigawa's drop in weight created a monster. Why aren't more guys doing that?
Eventually, an Asian-born fighter will shock the world and become a real threat to the top competition, but those nations will need athletes who are willing to travel for training and fully commit to becoming the best. Right now, the only hope left at lightweight is for Tatsuya Kawajiri, who has solid wrestling and a brawling style of striking, to go on a miraculous run in Strikeforce and then head to the UFC. Will he do it? Probably not.
Hatsu Hioki is the only real threat to a top spot in any division in mixed martial arts. But there is the always-present problem of crossover battles and switching from Japan-based promotions to the United States. Hioki has fought a few times in the States with success against lesser grapplers than himself, but how would he fair against the aggressive wrestlers of North America? It's something I'd like to find out.
The hardcore fan in me would love to see some sort of change in Japan from their camps and their athletes, and with that change -- a supreme athlete born to resurrect a dying Japanese MMA market. It may be too little, too late as there are already signs of a demise, but rest assured -- MMA will continue in the tiny country to our West. One day, it'll rise again.