In just three years, ONE Championship figher Itsuki Hirata has gone from relative mixed martial arts unknown to reality TV star and is now on the precipice of becoming a breakout superstar as one of eight participants in the promotion's atomweight Grand Prix, that kicks off at ONE Championship: Empower on September 3.
Hirata, 22, did not have a run-of-the-mill journey in landing a spot with a major promotion like ONE Championship. She didn't compete on Japan's amateur scene for a few fights and build her resume up to score a contract with the promotion. Instead. "Strong Heart Fighter's" route consisted of one amateur bout in storied all-female Japanese promotion Jewels, then right into season three of Japanese MMA reality series Fighting Agent War.
A star born out of reality TV
"I participated [on the show] as a disciple of 'Mach' Hayato Sakurai. To put it simply, it was like Pokemon," Hirata told MixedMartialArts.com. "It was tournament-style but, if you won, your next opponent was decided by lottery. I had three matches in the tournament. The number of matches I fought was less than the other fighters around me but, I fought at a good tempo and didn’t see my bad points, so I did not become negative."
During here dominant three-fight run in the 'Pokemon' style tournament, Hirata (4-0) scored submission wins in every bout and dominated en route to being crowned the tourney champion. Her showing on the series made her an instant name and a prospect ONE Championship quickly signed at 19-years-old with no professional bouts under her belt.
The signing has proven a stroke of genius for the Singapore-based promotion so far. Hirata has continued on the path of destruction she started on Fighting Agent War by winning and finishing all four of her bouts in ONE. Her rapid ascension has quickly transitioned her career from talented prospect to "the next big thing" out of Japan. That status could be a heavy burden for even a veteran fighter, yet youth has its advantages when it comes to pressure, and Hirata feels little of it as she emerges as one of the promotions rising Japanese stars.
"I do not feel pressured," says Hirata. "The bigger the stage, my motivation gets higher. It is a rare thing to fight on this stage at such a young age. I think it is good to fight in Japan or in Japanese promotions, but there is no one like me in Japan."
Success backed by the support of her mother and a Japanese MMA great
Hirata admits, her success has been helped along in a major way by two major support systems in her life. The first being her mother, who expects nothing less than victory from her daughter, and that is exactly the way Hirata likes it.
"My mother worries a lot, especially when it is my brother's fight. But when it is my fight, she is more motivated than me. Every time, before the fight, she tells me that you do not have to do anything extra, just win," Hirata says. "Even during fights, I often hear that she is more concerned with winning than the fight itself. According to my mother, if I lose, she will not accept it. So that is the biggest pressure on me. If the people around us worry or whine, it makes fighters feel anxious so, I can be stronger if the people around me stay strong. I appreciate it so much."
Another huge factor in the young star's unbeaten run has been Japanese MMA legend Shinya Aoki. The former two-time ONE Championship lightweight titleholder has been a role model for the 22-year-old, and an example of walking the path of an MMA fighter on your own terms.
"He may be more like a teacher or a parent than an older brother. I respect the way he pursues himself without worrying about the cameras. When I look at other fighters, they try to say the good things, but Mr. Aoki does not do that," she said. "I think some fighters try to behave nicely when the camera is on, but for me, I want to be me and want to show my true colors. So that is why Mr. Aoki is one of my role models."
Itsuki Hirata sees ONE Championship: Empower as a chance to empower girls around the world
The promotion's "Empower" event will not only be the kickoff to their first all-women tournament but ONE Championship's first completely female event. Being a part of something so historic for the organization holds an added significance for Hirata on two fronts. First, because she feels the promotion is offering her an opportunity to sink or swim with the best atomweights on the roster. Secondly, and maybe most importantly, she sees her participation on the card as a chance to be an example for young girls across the world. And that has been extra motivation for her in her camp via messages on social media.
"I think it is a great thing. There are women-only events in Japan too, but they do not seem to be very successful. It is different from Japan. This tournament brings together fighters from eight different countries. I am the youngest among the competitors and I feel that I am being tested by ONE Championship because they put me into the tournament with high-ranked fighters," Hirata says.
"I think I can have a big impact on people around me in Japan and encourage young girls to do their best. I also receive messages through social media from girls younger than me, elementary school, and junior high school students. They were encouraged by seeing me. I can influence girls younger than me in that way and it makes me realized that I need to work even harder."
At "Empower" Hirata will face her most experienced opponent yet in Invicta FC veteran Alyse Anderson. Although the 5-1 Anderson maybe the Japanese fighters most accomplished foe yet, she doesn't believe the matchup is a notable step up in competition. Instead, it's a chance to develop further by facing an opponent that has a physical advantage she has yet to face.
"I don’t think she is a big step [up in competition]. My opponent has a longer reach than me. I have been practicing with fighters who are bigger and have a longer reach than me. I thought it was a bit difficult, but because I have been practicing a lot, I will be fine in the fight," said Hirata.
Hirata has Meng Bo on her hit list
The brackets for the tournament have not been made official so Hirata doesn't know who she would face in the semifinals with a win. However, when asked if she has a preference among the talented atomweights in the Grand Prix, one specific name came to mind.
"I wanted to fight against Meng Bo in this tournament. Her right-hand straight and physicality seem very strong. The Chinese fighters are getting stronger these days. So, I am curious how strong they are. I know that [Stamp Fairtex] is strong in striking because she is Muay Thai based, but I have always kept an eye on Meng Bo because I thought she was a perfect all-round fighter."
ONE Championship: Empower takes place on September 3 inside the Singapore Indoor Stadium. The event will air live on Bleacher Report and B/R app at 8:30 am ET. The card also features a strawweight title fight main event between champion Xiong Jing Nan and Michelle Nicolini.