While many MMA fans are getting excited the UFC 145 match between Jon Jones and Rashad Evans, do not forget the absolute treat that awaits the attentive fan this Friday night. One of the most accomplished lightweights in MMA, Shinya Aoki, will be fighting on American soil for just the thrid time in his career. The Japanese born fighter will be facing former Bellator Lightweight Champion Eddie Alvarez, whom Aoki defeated by heel hook in 2008. Widely considered one of the best in the Lightweight division, Aoki has one of the most diverse and aggressive grappling games in the entire sport.
Aoki's challenge has always been closing distance but if Aoki is able to close that distance he has a very good clinch takedown game, in which he shows excellent chain takedown ability.
On the left, Aoki catches a leg kick and lunges in for a single leg and then steps behind the leg to try to get a trip takedown. When that doesn't work Aoki switches to a waist lock.
Aoki's opponent attempts an Uchi Mata takedown but Aoki's base is too solid. Aoki slips behind his hips and spins him to the ground. This is an excellent example of chaining together techniques that keeps an opponent off balance and on the defensive.
Slipping around to the back is one of the key's to Aoki's clinch game, from there he has a variety of takedowns. If the opponent defends those takedowns, Aoki will immediately put his hooks in and climb on to the back.
If all else fails, Aoki is not afraid at all to pull guard in dramatic fashion.
Aoki has long and flexible legs, ideal for playing a very active guard. Aoki has also trained in the 10th Planet system, a style of grappling developed specifically for use in the context of MMA.
The centerpiece of the 10th Planet system is the famous rubber guard, which Aoki can make excellent use of because of his flexibility.
Aoki playing rubber guard. Photo by Daniel Herbertson of Sherdog
Using a combination of traditional guards and the rubber guard, Aoki aggressively sets up submissions from his guard. From his back Aoki is also extremely fond of leg locks. This hardly surprising as one of Aoki's long time training partners is Masakzau Imanari, a leg lock master. Aoki makes heavy use of footlocks, especially against American grapplers because Aoki believes they are less experienced at defending against leg locks.
Aoki spinning for a heel hook against Eddie Alvarez, Gif by Smoogy
Aoki's training in shoot grappling has given him a killer instinct when it comes to footlocks not found in your common BJJ black belt. In his first fight with Alvarez, Aoki found himself on bottom with Alvarez advancing towards mount.
Aoki adapts a classic BJJ escape when the top man kicks his leg over to mount. As Alvarez kicks his left leg over it takes weight off of his right leg. Aoki turns hard toward that right leg, but instead of just getting back into half guard as in the classic escape, Aoki slips under for the heel hook. This awareness for opportunities combined with a creative flair is what makes Aoki so dynamic on the mat.
It is because of joint awareness and flair that Aoki is able to use such a diverse array of techniques, including many not seen commonly in MMA.
One of the most famous examples is the Aoki-plata, which is a gogoplata shin choke from the mount that he used to tap out Katsuhiko Nagata. It is a move that requires a great deal of flexibility and control. it is originally an Eddie Bravo submission take comes from the mount, but Aoki has made this submission his own.
From the mount Aoki keeps his weight heavy and slides his leg around the shoulder, in what is called the "gangsta lean mount" in the 10th Planet nomenclature. Aoki then slides his foot across the bottom man's face, until gets to the other side of the head. The shin then is across the neck and Aoki pulls on the back of the head to tighten the choke, forcing a tap.
Another famous Aoki moment came when he used a Judo technique called Waki Gatame, which is a takedown that uses a straight arm lock to force an opponent to the mat. If the opponent fights the takedown at all the arm can be broken and used to be illegal in Judo competitions because it caused too many injuries. Aoki adapted the Waki Gatame to MMA and actually snapped Keith Wisniewski's arm while still standing using that technique.
While Aoki is an amazing grappler, he is a liability on the feet and doesn't have the most stout chin. As a result Aoki's fights are almost never dull as he is normally either working for a submission or living on borrowed time on the feet, a exciting finish often results either way. So take some this Friday and have a Bellator appetizer for your UFC meal on Saturday.
And as a primer, here is Aoki pulling off the Waki Gatame in just his fifth professional fight. (Skip to about 2 min for the submission)