A Fighter Profile: Yoshihiro Akiyama
By Daniel Gibbon
At One Championship Legendary Quest MMA fans around the world will witness the return of Japanese martial arts legend Yoshihiro ‘Sexy Yama’ Akiyama (14-6-0-2NC).
The 43-year-old will return to the sport after a 4-year lay off when he faces Agilan Thani (9-3) in the co-main event of the evening on June 15th.
Akiyama first started Judo when he was just 3 years old. His early start in Judo along with a lot of hard work paid dividends on the world stage when he won Gold at the Asian games for South Korea in 2001. A year later he would again go onto win gold although this time he would do so whilst representing Japan.
Akiyama qualified to represent South Korea in 2001, even though he was born in Osaka Japan because his family lineage includes descendants from South Korea. Akiyama was awarded dual citizenship but has since renounced his Korean nationality and Korean name; Choo, Sung-hoon.
After his success at the Asian Games Akiyama went into the 2003 Judo world championships as one of the favorites. On his way to the semi-finals, he unsurprisingly beat his first three opponents comfortably, although his wins did not come without controversy. The controversy surrounding these wins concerned the state of his Jidogi, as all three of his opponents accused him of wearing a slippery Gi.
As a result of these complaints, Akiyama was made to change into a reserve Gi and would go onto lose both his semi-final and third-place matches, resulting in him leaving the competition without a medal.
After an investigation was launch into the complaints surrounding Akiyama’s slippery Gi, it was concluded that he was not cheating. The two reasons provided for the slipperiness of the Gi were; the high levels of humidity in Osaka and the detergent they used to wash it.
The International Judo Federation’s referee director Carlos Barcos said after the investigation:
“Not at any moment did we doubt fair play in this case. We are absolutely sure that Mr. Akiyama is correct.”
This was not the first time that Akiyama had been accused of wearing a slippery Gi. Former world champion Kenzo Nakamura also accused Akiyama of wearing a slippery Gi when they fought at the 2002 championship trials.
Shortly after this controversy, Akiyama decided he wanted to transition from Judo into MMA. When he was asked about the reasoning behind this decision he stated:
“I felt like I had accomplished everything I could in Judo, and I wanted to move onto a new challenge.”
To give himself the best possible chance of succeeding in this new challenge Akiyama joined a training camp run by Greg Jackson. When he was asked why he chose Greg Jackson’s camp he said:
“He (Greg Jackson) has a lot of experience and I learned many new techniques from him.”
Akiyama had immediate success from the get-go in his MMA career winning K-1’s; Heroes light heavyweight Grand Prix world championship in 2006, just two years after making his MMA debut.
On the 31st of December 2006, just less than 3 months after he won the Heroes Grand Prix, Akiyama would take part in a highly anticipated match against Pride legend and fellow Japanese native Kazushi Sakuraba (26-17). When the bout between these two Japanese icons concluded, part way through the first round, Akiyama had his hand raised.
This win would not stay on Akiyama’s record for long however as after a review of the fight the result was overruled and changed to a no contest. This review took because the fight, much like Akiyama’s career, was shrouded in controversy.
Throughout the fight Sakuraba was visibly annoyed as Akiyama consistently stuffed his takedown attempts, Sakuraba could also be heard complaining to the referee that his opponent was excessively slippery. These complaints made against Akiyama were very similar to those made against him during the 2003 World Judo championships and by former Judo world champion Kenzo Nakamura at the 2002 championship trials.
The finish of this fight was also controversial and left a lot of fans outraged, not just because of the greasing claims throughout the match but also because most felt that referee Yoshinori Umeki jumped in prematurely to call an end to the fight.
Just when it seemed like no more controversy could come from this fight fans claimed Akiyama’s gloves were different from those of other fighters on the card. Fans believed this because his gloves appeared to be missing the manufacturer’s logo.
After the investigation into the fight, it was deemed that Akiyama had not intentionally applied any substances such as Vaseline or Thai oil in order to gain an unfair advantage, although he had applied skin moisturizer for cosmetic purposes.
After the investigation’s findings were announced a visibly upset Akiyama told the press that; he knew petroleum jellies and snake oils were prohibited but he believed that the use of cream to combat his dry skin was allowed.
Akiyama publically acknowledged that he made a mistake and apologized to Sakuraba. He also clarified that he would like to face Sakuraba again in the future, however, the rematch never came to fruition.
Following the inquiries into the other controversies that occurred during this fight the stoppage was deemed to have been fair, so Yoshinori Umeki would not be penalized for this. However the sub-referee was penalized for ignoring Sakuraba’s complaints about greasing during the bout, and the official responsible for checking the fighters’ bodies and gloves was suspended from duty for six months.
Much to his credit Akiyama did not protest against the result of the fight being changed to a no contest or his purse being withheld. This fight continues to polarize the MMA community around the world to this day, especially in Japan.
Akiyama would be involved in more controversy exactly one year and two fights after his bout against Sakuraba. This time the controversy was caused when his opponent, Kazuo Misaki, knocked him out cold with an illegal soccer kick when Akiyama was trying to scramble back to his feet. The result of this fight was also reviewed and later made a no contest.
After all of the controversy, Akiyama soon attracted interest from organizations in the west including the industry-leading UFC who he would go onto sign a contract with.
He claimed a split decision win in his fight of the night UFC debut against Alan Belcher at UFC 100, headlined by Brock Lesnar v Frank Mir 2. This win took his record to 13-1-0-2NC.
After his victorious debut, Akiyama would then go onto lose his next four fights against; Chris Leben via third-round submission, Michael Bisping via decision, Vitor Belfort via first-round TKO and Jake Shield via decision.
Coming off the back of his four losses in a row Akiyama returned to winning ways in his sixth UFC fight when he beat Amir Sadollah by unanimous decision, at UFC fight night 52 Hunt vs Nelson.
After his return to wins column Akiyama, unfortunately, he lost his final UFC fight against Alberto Mina and bowed out of the sport with a modest record of 14-6.
Although Akiyama only won 2 of his 7 UFC fights, he did manage to earn 3 fight of the night bonuses.
Akiyama’s record may not seem great on the surface although it should be taken into consideration that three of his six defeats came at the hands of; a former UFC Middleweight champion (Bisping), a TRT infused monster (Belfort) and the criminally underrated fighter (Jake Shields).
After his retirement from the UFC, nobody expected to see Akiyama return to the world of MMA and he really had no need to. He has a successful career outside of the ring in the Korean entertainment Industry where he has regularly book both acting and modeling gigs.
Akiyama started his acting career in 2007 on the Korean television series; 2 days 1 night and his biggest role to date were in the 2016 Korean war drama; Operation Chromite starring Liam Neeson.
So what convinced Akiyama to return to MMA with ONE Championship? In an interview about his return at Legendary Quest, Akiyama answered this question when he said:
“It is because of Mr. Chatri Sityodtong’s passion, his passion gave me the power to fight again.”
Another influential factor in his return could be the organization itself. He probably chose ONE Championship for his return because they share similar values to him, unlike most western MMA companies.
ONE is an organization that promotes respect and healthy competitions, which is the complete opposite of a lot of the promotion for match ups made by Western promotions featuring fighters such as; Conor Mcgregor, the Diaz brothers, and Michael ‘Venom’ Page.
Ahead of his return Akiyama sent a message to his opponent which was both simple and respectful. Akiyama simply said:
“Thank you for fighting me.”
This is something that is a far cry from most promos or pre-fight messages in western organizations but a normal and valued attitude at ONE, proving that they are the right company for Akiyama to return with.
ONE Championship Legendary Quest will be headlined by Stamp Fairtex v Alma Juniku and will be streaming live and for free from Shanghai via the ONE app on the 15th June 2019.