Things don’t always go as planned. If there’s a mantra that should be held by every fighter, promoter and fan in mixed martial arts, that would be it. No matter how carefully a promoter or matchmaker structures a card and no matter how intent a fighter is on participating, it won’t always work out. Injuries get in the way, as do other commitments. Nobody knows this better than Ayaka Hamasaki.

As the Jewels strawweight champion, Hamasaki has been considered the No. 1 contender to her Invicta counterpart, Carla Esparza, ever since Esparza captured the Invicta crown. But the universe has not yet aligned to bring these two top 115-pounders together in the cage. In fact, it seems intent on keeping them apart.

Hamasaki made her Invicta debut nearly a year ago at the promotion’s second event, where she submitted Lacey Schuckman in the third round. Two events later, the promotion was set to crown its inaugural strawweight champion, and the two women vying for the belt were expected to be Esparza and Hamasaki. There was just one problem—Jewels wanted its champion to defend her Jewels championship less than a month earlier. Hamasaki was forced to withdraw from the bout with Esparza and instead fight Emi Fujino at Jewels 22nd Ring, the promotion’s first event to utilize a cage rather than a ring.

Hamasaki (Dave Mandel/Sherdog)

“She has power, stamina and speed,” Hamasaki said of Fujino in an exclusive interview with The MMA Corner. “I thought she was very good at fighting in the cage, utilizing the cage too.”

Although Hamasaki admits that Fujino was her toughest opponent to date, the second dan black belt judoka was able to successfully defend her Jewels title with a unanimous decision victory over Fujino. With her Jewels commitment served, Hamasaki returned her focus to Invicta and a meeting with Esparza, who captured the title with a win over Bec Hyatt, Hamasaki’s replacement in the title tilt at Invicta FC 4. The two had a new date: July 13, 2013 at Invicta FC 6.

However, once again, it wasn’t meant to be. Esparza was forced to withdraw from the scheduled contest with a knee injury. That left Hamasaki with a new opponent, fellow contender Claudia Gadelha.

“Well, it’s too bad I couldn’t fight Carla, but it’s an injury, so there is nothing I can do,” Hamasaki said. “I just want to perform well to secure a fight against Carla. Both Carla and Claudia [have a] strong ground game, so it’s been same in terms of preparing to fight her.”

The 24-year-old Gadelha has picked up five of her pro wins via submission and remains perfect through nine fights. She is also a decorated Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu black belt.

“I believe Claudia is more of a BJJ-based fighter, so I am preparing for that,” Hamasaki admitted. “Looks like she is physically strong and has a good ground game, so I have to change my way of fighting, for sure.”

Hamasaki is no stranger to tough fights. In addition to Schuckman and Fujino, the 31-year-old southpaw has locked horns with Seo Hee Ham on two occasions, scoring a decision victory and a corner stoppage TKO, and has defeated teenage prodigy Mizuki Inoue and former Smackgirl and Valkyrie champion Yuka Tsuji. With a list of victims that includes so many top names, Hamasaki is certainly worthy of her status as one of the elite in the division. But does she look at Gadelha as a step down in competition?

“I don’t think like that at all,” Hamasaki confessed. “I think she is a strong fighter. I am not too familiar with Claudia’s past opponents and I feel I need more experience in the cage. But I am carrying hopes from everyone I fought in the past, so I am giving everything I have.”

Hamasaki (R) applies an armbar (Dave Mandel/Sherdog)

Among the hopes she carries are those of her trainer, the legendary Megumi Fujii. If there’s one name that is synonymous with the female side of the sport in Japan, it is that of Fujii. But Fujii recently announced her upcoming retirement from the sport.

“Honestly, I am very sad that she has decided to retire,” Hamasaki admitted. “Even today, I believe she is the strongest female MMA fighter in the world. Not only in MMA, but also life in general, she taught me so much.”

Hamasaki’s success will become part of Fujii’s legacy in the sport. Undefeated through nine fights, Hamasaki knows she has another tough test awaiting her on Saturday night at the Ameristar Casino Hotel in Kansas City, Mo., but she also feels that she has at least one factor that favors her, and perhaps even two.

“Maybe I have a stronger mind?” the Jewels champ ventured. “I don’t know [if] ‘confident’ is a right word for this, but I know I will have an unbendable heart on Saturday night.”

If her past success is any indication, Hamasaki stands a good chance of emerging with her hand raised on Saturday night. Then it will be back to chasing that elusive fight with Esparza. Perhaps the third time will be the charm.

Ayaka would like to thank her sponsors: InSpirit, Alienware Computers, East & West. And more than anything, she would like to thank Invicta for giving her this opportunity. Follow Hamasaki on Twitter: @kk331ayaka

Top Photo: Ayaka Hamasaki (top) delivers ground and pound (Dave Mandel/Sherdog)