Invicta Fighting Championships is hailed as a pioneer in women’s mixed martial arts, and rightfully so. The promotion is the first to successfully establish a female-only league on U.S. shores. But long before Invicta, and an entire ocean away across the Pacific, there lies a fertile breeding ground that has long supported organizations that exclusively promote the ladies of the sport. From Smackgirl to Valkyrie and on to the current torchbearer, Jewels, the promotions have produced talented fighters including Megumi Fujii, Hitomi Akano and, more recently, Ayaka Hamasaki.
As the leaders of women’s MMA on opposite sides of the globe, it only makes sense that Invicta and Jewels have partnered to share talent. Reaping the benefits of the relationship will be the U.S. fans, which will now have an opportunity to see the undefeated Hamasaki compete outside of Japan for the first time in her career.
“I can only think of good things coming out of this partnership,” Hamasaki told The MMA Corner in an exclusive interview.
Although the alliance can only equate to progress for women’s MMA, it also means a lot of travel for the Japanese star. After fighting in Nagoya, Osaka and Tokyo for her entire career, the Abe Ani Combat Club product now finds herself in the heart of the American Midwest for Invicta FC 2, which takes place in Kansas City, Kan., on July 28.
The trend for Japanese fighters making the trek to the U.S. to compete is not an encouraging one. Many of the top performers from the Land of the Rising Sun feel the effects of the journey. Hamasaki is no exception.
“I had [a] little bit of jet lag, but it’s gone now, so I’m feeling okay,” Hamasaki admitted.
The toll the trip takes on competitors often comes through in their in-ring performances. Many of those top fighters have met with disappointment. However, Hamasaki is surrounded by a set of peers who have the knowledge to help her overcome any adversity she might encounter. The 30-year-old is coached by Fujii, who excelled on American soil in the Bellator cage, and has Akano, a Strikeforce veteran, as a training partner.
“[Fujii] has been teaching me a lot,” said Hamasaki. “Not only about fighting, but also a mental approach towards fight[ing], to be a responsible individual, et cetera.”
Thus far, Hamasaki has found nothing but success in her career. After a friend suggested she try her hand at training in MMA, the 5-foot-2 strawweight signed up for grappling classes. Eventually, she moved on to striking as well.
“I really enjoyed it, and that was the beginning of my MMA career,” Hamasaki admitted.
That career kicked off with a submission win in October of 2009 under the Shooto banner. From there, the black belt Judo practitioner entered into the Jewels tournament to crown a first-ever lightweight (115-pound) champion.
In the tournament, Hamasaki needed just 48 seconds to dispose of her opening round opponent, South Korean kickboxer Han Sol Lee. That set up the stage for her rise to the crown in December of 2010, when in a single night she defeated Sakura Nomura and Seo Hee Ham, both via unanimous decision, to become the inaugural Jewels Lightweight Queen champion.
“Well, I actually just started to feel the responsibility of being a champ,” confessed Hamasaki, who has since gone on to successfully defend the title on two occasions. Before she defended the championship, however, she fought in a non-title affair against Mizuki Inoue. Hamasaki considers that fight to be her most challenging test to date.
“[Inoue] was a tough striker and also very good on the ground, and she was physically strong,” Hamasaki explained.
Despite the stiff test that Inoue represented, Hamasaki was able to emerge victorious, taking a two-round unanimous decision. She followed the victory with her two title defenses, first defeating Ham in a rematch of the Jewels Lightweight Queen tournament finals, though on this occasion Hamasaki put a more decisive end to the contest by forcing a TKO corner stoppage. Next, she submitted Yuka Tsuji by way of a first-round kimura.
The submission win over Tsuji brought Hamasaki’s record to a perfect 7-0. That spotless record has also landed her the No. 3 ranking in the strawweight division in the Unified Women’s Mixed Martial Arts Rankings, and also puts her at No. 8 in the pound-for-pound rankings.
Such accolades make Hamasaki a highly-anticipated arrival in Invicta. The organization had originally matched the grappler, who has a knack for holding her own in the stand-up versus kickboxers, against Austrian striker Jasminka Cive. However, just weeks away from the event, Cive was forced to withdraw due to issues in obtaining a visa, so Lacey Schuckman has stepped in to face the Japanese fighter.
“[Schuckman is] very aggressive and also persistent on the ground, so even if we ended up in a ground war, I think this is going to be an exciting fight,” said Hamasaki.
Hamasaki has worked on takedowns and fighting off the cage in preparation for this match-up. While her surprising success against kickboxers might hint at Hamasaki’s willingness to stand and bang against her submission-oriented foe, Hamasaki actually has other ideas.
“I am comfortable on the ground, so I am feeling okay about that department,” said a confident Hamasaki. “I will be looking to submit her on the ground.”
As she looks to maintain her unblemished record, Hamasaki will also seek to prove that the alliance between Jewels and Invicta Fighting Championships has opened the doors for the world to catch a glimpse of one of Japanese MMA’s best kept secrets.
Top Photo: Ayaka Hamsaki (top) works for a submission (Taro Irei/Sherdog)