Following B.J. Penn’s unanimous decision loss to Frankie Edgar for the UFC Lightweight title, who is the best 155 pound fighter in the world?  I nominate this man, Shinya Aoki.  The highly decorated mixed martial artist makes his United States debut this Saturday night in Nashville, Tennessee fighting for the Strikeforce Lightweight Championship against Gilbert Melendez.  But what do we really know about this Japanese submission specialist. 

Aoki’s MMA Record (23-4) (4-0 Pride, 7-2 DREAM)

Notable wins: Mizuto Hirota, Joachim Hansen (2), Vitor Ribeiro, Eddie Alverez, Caol Uno, JZ Cavalcante, George Sotiropoulos

Notable losses: Hayato “Mach” Sakurai (2), Joachim Hansen

Titles: DREAM Lightweight Champion, Shooto Middleweight Champion, WAMMA* Lightweight Champion

*WAMMA = World Alliance of Mixed Martial Arts, they currently have only 2 champions as Dana White and the UFC are not on board with WAMMA’s goal of having just 1 champion per weight class regardless of organization.  Therefore Fedor (Heavyweight) and Aoki (Lightweight) are the only WAMMA champs at this time.

Aoki may be best known as the guy wearing pants who pulls off crazy submissions like gogoplatas and such.  He is not imposing and at 5’11-155 often looks much weaker than his opponent.  However strength is not a big part of Aoki’s game.  Positioning, a crazy rubber guard, and of course submissions (14 of his 23 wins are by submission) are what make him great.

This past December, Aoki showed fight fans a different side of himself.  He was scheduled to fight Kawajiri, but a short notice switch had him battle Mizuto HirotaAoki caught Hirota in a submission (jump to the 2:55 mark), pulling his arm behind his back until it broke, then immediately after, the normally calm, reserved fighter gave his fallen opponent the finger a la Brock Lesnar.  The guy has fire. 

On Saturday many American MMA fans will be introduced to Aoki, who will not be allowed to wear his signature pants.  Die hard fans are well aware of Aoki’s significance in the sport, pointing to wins over JZ Cavalcante, Bellator Lightweight Champ Eddie Alverez, Sengoku Lightweight Champ Mizuto Hirota, and DREAM Lightweight Grand Prix Champ Joachim Hansen.  

Perhaps if those wins were over Kenny Florian, Sean Sherk, Diego Sanchez, or even Joe Stevenson, Aoki would be a bigger name for the casual fan.  Not participating in the UFC can be seen as not fighting the best fighters in the world, but not in the Lightweight division. 

The 155 pound class, to me, is the only division (of the 5 UFC divisions) that if you did a competition pitting the UFC vs. The Field (Strikeforce, DREAM, WEC, Bellator, Sengoku, etc.)  The Field would win.  In many divisions, Light Heavyweight and Welterweight it wouldn’t even be close in favor of the UFC. 

In a hypothetical 16 man Lightweight Tournament (something Dana White would never sign off on) the 8 best UFC Lightweights take on the 8 Best Non-UFC Lightweights.  I will pick the teams right now off the top of my head.

UFC: B.J. Penn, Frankie Edgar, Kenny Florian, Gray Maynard, George Sotiropoulos, Diego Sanchez, Sean Sherk, Clay Guida.  (For argument sake Diego stays at 155)

The Field: Shinya Aoki, Eddie Alverez, Joachim Hansen, Tatsuya Kawajiri, Josh Thomson, JZ Cavalcante, Gilbert Melendez, Benson Henderson

How great would that be?  Who do you think wins?  I still say Penn wins the tournament, but I like The Field to send more guys to the 2nd and the 3rd rounds. 

I guess my point is, the Lightweight division is a little bit different.  Fighters like Aoki, who have not been in UFC, still get to face some of the toughest challenges that their division has to offer.  That is why I am really looking forward to the Aoki vs. Melendez fight on CBS this Saturday. 

And who knows, Aoki turns just 27 next month, he could fight in the UFC after all, but I don’t think he has to.      

Strikeforce is putting on a potential “Card of the Year” with Saturday night’s event that boasts a ridiculous 3 title fights…

Light Heavyweight Championship: Gegard Mousasi vs. Muhammed “King Mo” Lawal

Middleweight Championship: Jake Shields vs. Dan Henderson

Lightweight Championship: Gilbert Melendez vs. Shinya Aoki

And did I mention that these fights are completely free?  No pay-per-view here, just CBS this Saturday night.  Enjoy the fights!

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