Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Ayaka Hamasaki Profile

Photo from
Name: Ayaka Hamasaki (浜崎 朱加)
Birthday: March 31, 1982
Birthplace: Yamaguchi-Ken, Japan
Height: 5"1 (158cm)
Weight: 105lb (47.6kg), 115 (52kg)
Record: 14-2
Notable Wins: Herica Tiburcio, Yuka Tsuji, Mizuki Inoue, Ham Seo Hee, Amber Brown, Jinh Yu Frey

Ayaka Hamasaki, is the Invicta FC 105lb Champion, has defended her title twice, is the first Japanese fighter to win an American MMA title, and has been named the atomweight of the year three years in a row. In other words, she is a very impressive fighter. However impressive she is, not a lot is known about this fighter, at least outside of Japan. I first saw her compete in a grappling match against Saori Ishioka in 2011 and have followed her career since. Over that time, I have had the opportunity to interview her several times. The information in this article comes from those interviews, other interviews, people that known Ayaka, and Ayaka herself.

The Pre-MMA Years

Ayaka Hamasaki was mischievous growing up, sometimes skipping school. This annoyed her teachers, who wanted her to join the Judo club, where some of her friends were. Ayaka lived in a dorm near her high school, with roughly 30-40 other kids. In addition, the school had an athletic focus, requiring all of the students to join a sports club. So with little choice in the matter, Ayaka joined the Judo club. In her own words, Judo was heart breaking. Practices were hard, intense and constant. During the school year, Ayaka trained in the morning, went to classes and trained again in the evening. During the summer time, she trained 2 to 3 times a day. During winter break, she trained. Judo was a constant in her life.

After high school, Ayaka continued with Judo through college, where she placed second in the All Japan Junior Judo Championship, losing to a future world champion. Ayaka would not reach any higher though, as she was sidelined with an injury. She continued with Judo even after graduating, however after a year and a half she quit. Having competed in Judo from high school till she was 23, Judo was not something that Ayaka necessarily enjoyed. Judo sometimes made her angry. However, she recognizes that Judo transformed her life and for that she is very grateful.

Post Judo

Rina Tomita liked MMA and was a fan of Miku Matsumoto. Miku was making waves in Japan, competing for and eventually headlining Deep events. At one of those events, Rina asked Miku where she could train, what gym did Miku recommend. As she lived and trained far away from Tokyo, Miku told Rina to go train with Megumi Fujii at AACC. Three months into training at AACC, Rina wanted to get physically stronger. So she met with a personal trainer named Ayaka Hamasaki. As they talked, Ayaka learned that Rina was training at AACC. While Ayaka knew about MMA, this is the first time she heard about women competing. As a result of their meeting, Ayaka went with Rina to AACC. Once there she met Megumi. Ayaka didn't know about Megumi, but was immediately impressed by her physique.

Ayaka, Rina, Megumi
Ayaka didn't want to become a professional fighter. She wanted to exercise and work-off some stress. Even though she was lifting weights through her job as a personal trainer, Ayaka missed the workouts from her Judo days, where she got to use and move her whole body.

When she first started training, Ayaka made an impression on those at the gym. Megumi and Abe-sensei didn't think that Ayaka would go pro, but there was a consensus that she showed promise. While she lacked many of the skills a fighter needs, her background in Judo and her explosive power would provide an excellent foundation. In the beginning, her lack of technique was apparent. It looked like she hated striking, shadowboxing especially, and when Ayaka rolled with Rina, Rina would beat her.

Megumi remembers rolling with Ayaka, both with the gi and then without the gi. Ayaka's movements and responses to her movements impressed her. Knowing about her background, Megumi thought that this kid has got what it takes to make it.

After training for a bout a month, Rina couldn't beat her anymore.

The Grappling Matches

After training for about 3 months, Ayaka started to think about competing in some grappling matches. In addition to her Judo background, she had been going to grappling practice at AACC. Eventually, someone asked her if she'd like to compete and she started competing in 2008.

At 29, Ayaka competed in her 5th grappling match, this time against the young up-and-coming pro-wrestler, Hikaru Shida. Hikaru is a successful pro-wrestler now, but at the time her bjj coach thought that she had the best grappling of any pro-wrestler he had trained. In his mind, she was capable of doing both pro-wrestling and real fights. Going into the fight, he had seen Ayaka compete in person, at a blue belt bjj tournament, where Ayaka lost. In his opinion, she was a good grappler but lacked basic bjj techniques, like how to break an opponent's guard. While it is true that Ayaka was still developing, it took her only 48 seconds to submit Hikaru.

Ayaka defeated Hikaru in 48 seconds

Amateur MMA

While Ayaka was coming to AACC, she was only coming to the grappling practices. However, after some time, she was invited to come to the striking classes. Even though she didn't know how to do anything, she really enjoyed it. Around the same time, Ayaka went to an MMA event for the first time and saw Megumi fight. Even though she had just started striking, after seeing Megumi fight, she wanted to give it a try. This is how a year and a half after walking into AACC, Ayaka made her amateur debut.

She made her debut in 2009, fighting twice in one night for Jewels. She finished the first fight via submission and the second fight went to a draw. Three months later she won another amateur fight. Two months later she won two more amateur fights in the same night. All-in-all she went 4-0-1 as an amateur, with 3 submissions.

The Pro-Debut

Ayaka's last two amateur fights occurred in one night. It was a Shooto event hosted by Yoichi Suzuki, the head of Alive Gym. He was obviously impressed by what he saw, as shortly after the event, Ayaka received an offer for a professional fight. Even though she never had a goal of fighting professionally, when the offer came, she talked to Megumi about it. They quickly decided to accept the offer. It was just a step up from what Ayaka was already doing.

Ayaka made her pro-debut against Konkua Sasaki in 2009. Kinuka was a veteran of Smackgirl and had amassed a record of 3-7, a common Japanese phenomenon at the time, before the fight. Ayaka didn't know anything about her opponent. Despite her record, Kinkuka did not go down easily, actually dropping Ayaka in the opening round. But Ayaka kept coming forward and submitted her in the 2nd round. 2009 had been a big year for Ayaka, fighting 5 times as an amateur and making her pro-debut.

The Jewels Years

Shooto was not the only organization that saw potential in Ayaka. Yuichi Ozono, the head of Jewels, noticed her as well. She had fought for Jewels several time as an amateur. When he saw her fight, he saw how good she moved. Megumi had been known as the "Queen of the Quick Kill", and he saw the similar quality in Ayaka. He knew that she could compete on the world stage.

This is how she was brought into the Jewels tournament to decide the first 52kg champion. In the first round of the tournament, Ayaka quickly won her match by submission in 48 seconds. In other matches, Mika Nagano defeated Celine Haga, Ham Seo Hee won her match, and Sakura Nomura won her match. The 2nd round and final match would be fought on the same day. In the 2nd round, Ayaka defeated Sakura, and Ham defeated Nagano. 5 matches later, Ayaka defeated Ham be decision to become the inaugural Jewels 52kg Champion. She had been fighting professionally for a little more than a year.

Afterwards, Ayaka fought Mizuki Inoue, who had also won a tournament. Ayaka dominated the match with her grappling, repeatedly taking Mizuki down then going for numerous submission attempts. This set up a Ham rematch, since Ham had beaten Saori Ishioka and V.V. Mei sine their last fight. In what was a highly anticipated rematch, Ham got injured in the first round. At the end of the round, she was not able to stand and it was obvious the fight was over.

After dominating the young talent in Mizuki, with whom she was very impressed, and having a disappointing result in the match with Ham, Ayaka fought what she considers to be the most important match of her Jewels career. In her next match, she fought Yuka Tsuji. If you are unfamiliar, Tsuji is a legend on the Japanese MMA scene. Arguably the biggest star during Smackgirl, Tsuji defeated a who's who of talent, amassing a record of 23-2, with 16 submissions and 2 ko's, before the fight with Ayaka. In addition to her fighting skill, Tsuji was a widely recognized figurehead of women in MMA in Japan. Tsuji had headlined the Inoki Bom-Bay-Ye 2003 event in front of over 43,000 people and on Japanese TV. Equally impressive, is that she headlined the event over names like Alistair Overeem, Fedor, Josh Barnett, Semmy Schilt, Alexander Emelianenko, Lyoto Machida and Rich Franklin. Even more, Ayaka was going to fight Tsuji in her hometown of Osaka. She trained very hard for this fight, thinking only about winning.

The support for Tsuji was incredible, but it didn't phase Ayaka. In her mind, she's never the hometown favorite, so it didn't bother her.

Ayaka destroyed Tsuji. She submitted her with a double-wrist lock in the first round. Afterwards, a teary eyed Ayaka hugged her mentor Megumi. When asked about it, she remembers that she had never fought a fighter that was on the level of Tsuji before and that even though she didn't think it would affect her, she was so happy that she couldn't help but cry when she won. While Tsuji may have been the hometown favorite, people climbed into the ring to be with Ayaka. Her seniors and juniors from college had traveled from all over Japan to see the fight. Afterwards, they all took a picture together in the ring. Gong magazine later dubbed the double-wrist lock that she won with, the "Hama-Lock". A play on one of the submission's names and her name. The name closely resembled Megumi's "Megu-Lock". In many ways, Ayaka's defeat of Tsuji announced the arrival of a new generation.

The "Hama-Lock"
Invicta FC

Two months after the biggest win of her career, Ayaka got the chance to do something she never thought she would, fight abroad. The promotion was Invicta and it was their second event. Ayaka was looking forward to testing herself abroad. Some fighters might have been nervous, but Ayaka wasn't. In what is a common characteristic in all of her fights, Ayaka took the fight for what it was, excited, not nervous. An opportunity to challenge herself. And this fight did present a lot of challenges. Ayaka had never fought under the unified rules before, never fought in a cage before, and still did not consider herself a world level fighter.

In the fight, Ayaka fought Lacey Schuckman. Thinking back on the fight, Lacey's physical strength sticks out the most to her. At the time, Ayaka, like Megumi, didn't cut weight. Instead she walked around at roughly 52kg (115). Nevertheless, Ayaka was able to take Lacey down numerous times throughout the fight and in the end, won via a hard fought submission. She had been in positions where she could have thrown elbows, but she was still getting used to the new rules, elbows still felt unnatural. Even though she won, Ayaka left the match feeling like she still had a lot to learn.

After defeating Emi Fujino in Japan, Ayaka's next fight in Invicta was supposed to be against Carla Esparza for the Invicta 115 title, but Carla had to withdraw because of an injury. As a result, Ayaka was slated to face Claudia Gadelha. This fight would be an important moment in Ayaka's career. She was looking forward to fighting a larger opponent, as she thought it would be a good test for future fights against larger non-Japanese fighters. A week before the fight it was in jeopardy. A week before the fight, Ayaka was informed that she would not be allowed to tape her knees. Ayaka needed to tape her knees but didn't feel like she could pull out for that reason. She had trained really hard, but she knew the tape would be a problem. Ayaka lost the fight via TKO in the 3rd round. Thinking back on the fight, Ayaka remembers how strong Claudia was, she couldn't do anything.

Surgery and Return to Japan

A month after her fight with Claudia, Ayaka had surgery to fix her knees. She didn't want to tape her legs anymore. The surgery would put her out of commission for a little more than a year, making the future uncertain. A lot of changes had occurred during her rehabilitation. Megumi Fujii had retired and moved to the other side of the country, Hitomi Akano and Rina Tomita had also retired. When Megumi left, other women also stopped coming to the gym, 9 in total. Ayaka felt lonely in the gym, being one of the only women left. Outside of the gym changes, Jewels had been absorbed into Deep becoming Deep Jewels, leaving Ayaka's future in Japan uncertain. She also didn't know what division she wanted to fight in. She had never tried to make 105 before, but it was an option. When I spoke to her during her rehabilitation, she didn't know who she wanted to fight for or at what weight, but she wanted to fight in Japan.

Even though she said that she wanted her next fight to be in Japan, she was originally slated to make her return fight on the Invicta FC 9 card, against Herica Tiburcio, but visa issues led to Herica not being able to compete, so the match was scrapped. Her return would be for Deep Jewels, against fellow Invicta and Jewels veteran Sugirock. Interestingly, Ayaka was uncharacteristically nervous, as she was coming off of the surgery, she would not be taping her knees, and she was dropping down to 48kg(105), something she had never done before.

Even though she hadn't fought for a year, Ayaka looked very good in her atomweight debut, dropping Sugirock with strikes and tko'ing her in the first round. While Ayaka had looked good at 115, she seemed to have more power at 105.

Ayaka drops Sugirock with punches
Photo courtesy of Lady Go!
Next, she fought again in Japan, this time against V.V. Mei. V.V. Mei had also been testing herself abroad and had previously fought in an action packed war against Megumi. This fight was part of a Deep New Year's Eve event at Saitama Super Arena. The event had severally highly promoted womens' fights on the card, showing that like in the U.S., things were changing in Japan. Women were becoming more and more part of mainstream MMA and Ayaka was in the top women's fight on the card. She won a fairly dominant decision and in doing so, was named the 2014 Atomweight of the Year.

The Championship

While Ayaka was looking very strong at 105 in Japan, she wanted to fight in America, she wanted to make another run for the Invicta title, this time at 105. Ayaka had been previously slated to fight Herica Tibrucio, but the fight didn't come to fruition. In the meantime, Herica had become the Invicta FC 105 champion. The fight was rescheduled, this time for the title. Because it was for the title, the fight felt special to Ayaka and as a result, she felt a little nervous before the fight, but she was excited.

In what she describes as a troubling trend in her Invicta title fights, Ayaka had a rough first round against Herica. Herica hit her with a hard body shot and seemed to have a deep choke locked in when the round ended. In the following rounds, Ayaka repeatedly took Herica down, who while active on the bottom, was resigned to acting defensively. In the end, Ayaka won a 2-1 split decision to become the champion. To be honest, she was surprised. She thought she had done enough to win a clear decision. She doesn't speak English so didn't know what was going on and was worried when she heard that it was a split decision.

Courtesy of All Elbows
Even though though she was the champ, it didn't set in immediately. It didn't really set in till afterwards, when she was eating with her friends. People had traveled from all over to watch Ayaka fight for the title. The head of Inspirit, a long time sponsor of hers, Shooto Legend Rumina Sato, and friends from around America came to watch the fight and to celebrate afterwards. In winning the title, Ayaka had become the first Japanese fighter to win an American title and it was a big deal. Japanese fighters like Tatsuya Kawajiri were congratulating her on Twitter, she graced the cover of magazines, and an event was planned to celebrate her victory.

An advertisement for the event. Amongst those who showed up were:
Kenji Osawa, Funaki, the Pancrase CEO, the Deep head, and the former Jewels head.
Ayaka was once again named the atomweight of the year, in 2015.

Ayaka wouldn't fight again for almost another year, this time against Amber Brown. Amber came to a lot of people's attention when she fought Emi Fujino and Kikuya Ishikawa in Japan. Afterwards, she had been signed to Invicta, where she won three fights in a row to earn this title fight. A physical fighter known for her endurance, Amber looked to be a solid challenge for Ayaka. The fight was an amazing fight. The fight went back and forth, but Ayaka was able to get Amber to reluctantly submit near the end of the third. Prior to the submission, Ayaka had transitioned from numerous arm locks as the two rolled around. In her corner, was a new face, Rena. While not especially popular outside of Japan, Rena is a big star in Japan. A multiple time Shoot Boxing champion, Rena made the transition to MMA and is now one of the faces of Rizin in Japan. It is a perfect match, training wise as Ayaka has a grappling background and Rena is a world-class striker. Hamasaki is usually in Rena's corner now when she fights. As mentioned above, there was a time period when a lot of the women left AACC, but now new talent was starting to come. Some of their attraction to the gym, has to be attributed to Ayaka.

Ayaka began gracing more and more Japanese magazines on a regular basis.
Ayaka didn't wait long to step back in the cage again, this time against Jihn Yu Frey, who had defeated Herica Tiburcio in her last fight. Frey's power had been on display in the fight, where she dropped Herica with a punch near the end of a round. Frey's power was evident in the first round of the fight with Ayaka. As Ayaka jokes, she's had some bad first rounds in her title defenses, but Ayaka started to fight her way back. Unfortunately the fight was marred with controversy. Ayaka connected with a very solid punch that cut Frey above the eye. To some, the punch appeared to have badly phased Frey, but we will never know. The ref stopped the fight due to the cut, leaving a sour taste in everyone's mouth, the fans, the corners, the media, Ayaka, and Frey.

Before the Amber fight, Rena had started training with Ayaka. After the Frey fight, Emi Fujino and Ayaka Miura started coming to train with Ayaka. People wanted to train with the champion. Increasing opportunities for women, opened up training partners for these women. A couple years before, these women couldn't train together because it was very likely they would have to fight each other. Not anymore. Ayaka fights for Invicta, Rena fights for Rizin, Emi fights for Road FC, Miura fights for Pancrase, and V.V. Mei fights for One Championship, meaning that all of these former rivals can now train together. Iron sharpens iron, and by these top women now being able to train together, their own skills will only rise.

Ayaka was once again the atomweight of the year, in 2016.

The UFC Dream

In her last fight, Ayaka once again tried to make a run at 115 in Invicta, this time against the former champ Souza. When asked why, the answer is simple, she wants to fight in the UFC. For her, as a mma fighter, UFC is the dream. One must imagine that it is somewhat frustrating for her to see past opponents and past Invicta 105ers get shots in the UFC, but for her, the call has yet to come. She may have lost, but do not count Ayaka out. She came back better than ever after her first defeat and one should expect her to come back even better after this loss. Once she is healed up, we should expect to see the easy going, motorcycle riding, cat loving, nerves of steel Ayaka back to her winning ways.

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