Itsuki Hirata’s mixed martial arts career is just getting started, but the Tokyo native is already widely viewed as a future title contender in ONE Championship.

It’s easy to understand why.

Hirata, now 20 years old, essentially grew up in a jūdōgi (judo uniform), having first followed her brother onto the judo mat when she was only six. After dedicating her youth to the discipline and winning a prefectural championship in high school, she eventually decided to try her hand at MMA.

She’d seen some fights live and simply couldn’t resist the allure of the high-action sport.

“I retired from judo when I was 18 years old and decided to shift my career to MMA,” Hirata told The Japan Times from her home in Tokyo. “I attended some (live) events and I was getting interested.”

Once she’d committed to MMA, Hirata began training at Tokyo’s K-Clann gym, balancing her love for shopping, fashion and family time with a strict training regimen. Her first challenge was learning the striking aspects of MMA, specifically kickboxing and Muay Thai techniques. The process hasn’t been easy, but she’s enjoyed it.

“I enjoy MMA since I feel like I can express myself more freely,” she said. “I like fighting.”

Hirata quickly began competing on the amateur MMA circuit and, after a series of impressive victories, caught the attention of ONE Championship, a Singapore-based organization that promotes MMA as well as Muay Thai and kickboxing bouts. While she wasn’t very familiar with the organization until she was contacted by its scouts, she leapt at the opportunity to compete on the international stage.

“I didn’t know much about ONE Championship (at the time),” Hirata said. “I had no idea what kind of events they were holding. I only watched events held locally in Japan. I was a little nervous when I started (with ONE) but I felt confident because I won my debut fight.”

Fast forward to the present and Hirata is 3-0 in ONE Championship’s perilous 52.2-kg atomweight division, with a pair of submission victories over Angelie Sabanal and Rika Ishige, and a TKO triumph over Nyrene Crowley in the rear-view mirror. She’s now well on her way to a shot at the ONE atomweight title, which is currently guarded by champion Angela Lee.

While she’s showing all the hallmarks of a future champ, she’s in no rush on her journey to the top.

The level-headed 20-year-old feels she still has some growing to do before she fights for her division’s championship — particularly after a humbling training session with ONE strawweight champion Xiong Jingnan at the famed Evolve MMA facility in Singapore.

“I am not satisfied yet,” Hirata said. “I went to Evolve MMA for some training and practiced with Xiong Jingnan, who is only one year older than me. She is much stronger than me and she practiced with me as if I was a child. I need more practice.”

Hirata hopes to get that practice in her upcoming bouts. While she doesn’t currently have a fight scheduled, she’s hoping to be matched up with Vietnamese American talent Bi Nguyen in her next outing.

Hirata was slated to fight Nguyen back in January, but Nguyen was forced out of the bout with an injury and replaced by Crowley. Given that Nguyen is both a step up in competition and a big star due to a stint on U.S. reality TV mainstay "Survivor," Hirata hopes ONE Championship will attempt to reschedule that matchup.

“I need to fight with Bi Nguyen,” she said. “I am really keen to do it.

“I was disappointed (when she withdrew from the bout) because I wanted to fight her,” she added. “I am looking forward to fighting her when her injuries heal.”

If Hirata is able to pick up victories over a few fighters of Nguyen’s caliber, that's when she believes she’ll be ready to step onto the canvas with Lee.

“The earliest timing (for a title fight) would be around end of this year, but I (would prefer) next summer (2021),” she said, sharing her ideal time frame for a potential title fight. “I really want to fight with her.

“I have the confidence, but I need to work much harder to be champion as there are lots of tough athletes in my division,” she added. “I'm going to do the best I can in order to win the championship belt.”

Winning a ONE Championship title at such a young age will be a tall order, but there is precedent. Lee won the belt when she just 19. Hirata admires the champ greatly for that accomplishment — and seeks to emulate it at her expense.

“Angela Lee became the champion when she was 19,” Hirata said. “I am very impressed with her. She is also very kind. I respect her and I would like to be a woman like her.”

Tom Taylor is a Canadian writer specializing in combat sports. His work has appeared on Bleacher Report, South China Morning Post, Vice, Ozy and more.

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