Aoki starts new career at featherweight

Shinya Aoki is going down in weight to face Cody Stevens in Singapore on Friday. Esther Lin/Getty Images

Thursday afternoon in Singapore, ahead of One Fighting Championship's latest card, enigmatic Shinya Aoki stepped on a scale weighing 144 pounds.

This marked the first time the lanky 30-year-old Japanese star attempted to make the featherweight limit -- a new start to a memorable career that's fallen just short of exceptional, he explained this week through an interpreter.

"I've had a long career so it feels like I'm starting over again at featherweight," Aoki said.

Chatri Sityodtong, a backer of One FC, the founder of Singapore’s Evolve MMA gym and Aoki's head coach, had a big hand in the skinny fighter's decision to shed 10 pounds. Despite much evidence to the contrary, Sityodtong believed the 5-11 Aoki to be too small for lightweight.

Aoki said the move was also something he wanted, that it's been on his mind to do.

"There's no real reason" for doing it right now, the former Dream and Shooto champion said. "It was just the time."

It's not as if the 10-year pro has suddenly struggled, which is something that often precipitates fighters seeking a new lease on life in a different weight class. Aoki (30-6) steps into 145 having won 10 of his last 12 fights at 155, only falling to powerful Americans Eddie Alvarez in a Bellator contest in 2012, and Gilbert Melendez for the Strikeforce title two years earlier.

Cody Stevens hopes to become the third American in a row to beat Aoki. But odds are he'll be the 10th to lose to the slick grappler.

A hard-working featherweight from Mansfield, Ohio, Stevens, 31, got the call to fight Aoki three weeks after besting veteran Dustin Neace by decision in late August. Aoki is the kind of opponent Stevens (11-5-1) has wished for since committing himself to MMA in 2008. He gave up his $50,000 a year job at a drilling company, with its 60 to 70-hour work weeks, to pursue the sport full time.

"Great sacrifice, great reward," Stevens said by phone from Thailand, where he trains with Roger Huerta and Brian Ebersole. "I have a fiancee and 8-year-old daughter back in the states, but I've invested 20 years of my life, including wrestling and mixed martial arts, so I always want to make the most out of opportunities and make the most out of my life. I don't want to have any regrets."

He's experienced enough life to own regrets, including a felony after his fourth DUI. But MMA has gone a long way in helping Stevens better himself, and that helps explain why he’s intent on making the most of this opportunity.

"What better way to challenge yourself than fighting a legend of the sport in Shinya Aoki?" he said. "I can out-mixed martial artist him. If it hits the ground I'm not going to freak out. I'm going to make it a scramble and let some things go."

Stevens said he fought tall featherweights before, so Aoki's length won't bother him. Neither will competing in a part of the world that knows and cares for “The Baka Survivor.”

"When you go fight someone in their hometown, you have to put them away, or it's got to be really convincing," Stevens said. "That's just how it goes."

Aoki, typically confident and aloof, claimed to know little of Stevens. He hasn't prepared a game plan, he said, and didn't claim to hold any expectations of what it will be like to fight in the same weight class as Jose Aldo. As for pros and cons of the move, Aoki said he'll "figure that out after I fight there. I don't know yet."

Sityodtong told Sherdog.com that he envisions Aoki as the featherweight Jon Jones at 145, with advantages in reach, height and size. If any of that filtered into Aoki's thinking, he didn't let on, though he said the division is where he’ll concentrate his efforts.

Two days before weighing in for the co-main event contest, Aoki expressed that the cutting process wasn't going to be an issue. He’d step on the scale and make it. And he did.

“No big deal,” he said.

Stevens, who weighed 145, sees the circumstances a bit differently.

“It got me a fight with Aoki at featherweight," he said. "It worked out good."