Fighters change weight classes for a myriad of reasons. Some look for competition at a different weight class when they reach a point of complacency in their own weight class. Others find themselves unable to make weight for their natural weight class after a while, thus deeming it necessary to change divisions. Others look to turn things around after a skid in a weight class, and thus view a drop in weight or a jump in weight as a fitting solution.

After spending the brunt of his career at lightweight, it appears that ONE FC lightweight champion Shinya Aoki will add his name to the list of lightweights dipping their toes into the waters of the featherweight division. Aoki tweeted a successful cut and his team claims that Aoki usually makes 155 pounds easily, so a drop to 145 would make sense. Besides, if Aoki desires to climb back to being one of the top fighters in the world, he will have better luck doing it at his new weight than he did at his former weight.

Aoki represents ONE FC as its lightweight champion, and as champion he has become the primary target of ONE FC’s lightweight stable of fighters, including Lowen Tynanes, Caros Fodor and Kamal Shalorus. Those lightweights provide the best action that MMA fans will find in the Asian scene and any of them could give Aoki fits in at least one aspect of a potential fight.

However, if Aoki wants to really let the world know that he remains one of the best fighters in the world outside of the UFC, he should seek out fights with Eric Kelly, former ONE FC featherweight champion Honorio Banario, or any other featherweight that would stand between him and reigning ONE FC featherweight champion Koji Oishi.

Skeptics will ask why, after such a long run as a lightweight, Aoki would find his road back to prominence at featherweight. After all, Aoki only struggles against top-level wrestlers and fighters who find a way to negate his ground game. On the surface, Aoki simply needs to refine his striking and prove he can defend himself against more credible wrestlers.

Aside from that, the highly regarded “Master of Flying Submissions” stands small, even for a lightweight. Therefore, it stands to reason that Shalorus, Tynanes and others may and likely will overpower him. Tynanes, who has demonstrated progression as an undefeated featherweight finisher, holds the potential to lock himself in as the man to dethrone Aoki. Meanwhile, Shalorus’ power and size grant him as much of a chance as his wrestling in securing him the victory.

Aoki stood a chance of losing his first fight with Eddie Alvarez, as well as fights with Mizuto Hirota and Arnaud Lepont, and the fights in his trilogy with Joachim Hansen. Granted, he lost the rematch with Alvarez in Bellator MMA and the second fight with Hansen, but he also won two of his three bouts with Hansen, finished his first fight with Alvarez, and submitted both Hirota and Lepont.

What lesson did fans learn in those wins? They learned that nobody can judge fights before they happen, even if they feature a man with Aoki’s grappling brilliance and look like complete mismatches on paper. Book Aoki against Tynanes, Fodor, Shalorus or any other ONE FC lightweight right now, and although skeptics may still disagree with Aoki’s chances, fans would not even think twice about whether Aoki would walk out with a win. Not to underestimate any of those potential foes, but there comes a time when fans must call a fighter “that good,” and for all of his lack of a refined striking game, Aoki remains “that good.”

With a move to featherweight, Aoki gets more challenges, as most fighters do when they change weight classes, but he also gets less mismatches. A bout with Aoki’s ground wizardry vs. Kelly’s skill set raises a multitude of questions, especially if Kelly’s wish comes true. Even if Aoki defeated Kelly easily, his domination in the weight class will only come in the form of an extended undefeated run, because while fans of Aoki would expect Aoki to handle the featherweights with ease, the competition he would face would present legitimate threats to Aoki’s status as one of the world’s best.

The question remains, however, about how overcoming those challengers will reaffirm Aoki’s prominence and arguable preeminence. Proving he can compete well in two weight classes allows him to contribute to ONE FC as a growing promotion, as no fighter under the promotion’s banner can claim the distinction of holding belts in two different ONE FC weight classes. In addition, wins over a myriad of international challengers, even the lesser-known national champions that ONE FC may bring in from time to time, would cement Aoki as a man who fought the best in the world because those talents would literally come from every corner of the world with their sights firmly and ferociously fixated on Aoki’s position near the top spot.

If the 30-year-old submission ace wants to make that drop a reality, he picked a good time to start.

Photo: Shinya Aoki (Dave Mandel/Sherdog)