Yusup “Maestro” Saadulaev made his return to the ONE Championship cage in Jakarta, Indonesia just two weeks ago, and it was an immensely special night.
After 15 months away from action due to a knee injury, the Russian bantamweight faced off against three-time DEEP Champion Masakazu “Ashikan Judan” Imanari at ONE: KINGS OF COURAGE on Saturday, 20 January, and earned a unanimous decision victory.
What made the victory even sweeter was that Saadulaev had bested his own role model and martial arts hero.
“When my hand got raised by the referee, I was overwhelmed with emotions,” the 32-year-old says.
“I matured as a pro watching Imanari, admiring him and taking lessons from his matches, so that win meant a lot to me.”
Saadulaev’s grappling talent previously came under the spotlight during his last appearance inside the cage back in October 2016. The Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt masterfully flipped over Jordan “Showtime” Lucas and submitted him with a modified rear-naked choke. It was so impressive, it earned second place in ONE’s Best Submissions of 2016.
However, Imanari presented a different type of challenge for the Dagestan, Russia-born grappling specialist.
The 18-year cage veteran has astonished fans with his outstanding ability to entangle his adversaries’ legs, and submit them with various leg locks, heel hooks, and toe holds. That earned him the nickname “Ashikan Judan,” which loosely translates into the “Grand Master of Leg Locks.”
Knowing where the Japanese athlete’s strengths lay, Saadulaev understandably felt some trepidation heading into the contest.
“Imanari’s famous leg locks were bad news for my post-op knee rehab,” Saadulaev explains.
“Following an injury back in 2016, I had to undergo a serious knee operation. I am a strong wrestler, but ironically, my legs became my weak point after the surgery.”
Even though he had concerns about his recently-repaired knee, “Maestro” loved the prospect of facing his role model and hero.
Imanari, who won the DEEP Featherweight Title twice and the DEEP Bantamweight Title once, was a high caliber opponent who presented the Russian with a chance to make a spectacular return to action.
A victory could prove that Saadulaev was fully recovered from his knee injury, and also prove that he was fit to face the toughest martial artists in ONE’s bantamweight division.
“Imanari presented a real challenge, and I like challenges,” Saadulaev states. “After a year off, I felt I had no more time to waste. If I ever wanted to get a tough opponent to prove myself, it could not be any better than Imanari.
“Everyone kept saying I did not have a good takedown defense, so I took a chance to overturn this opinion and challenge myself at the same time.”
In preparation for the bout, Saadulaev trained alongside former ONE Featherweight World Champion Marat “Cobra” Gafurov, and leg lock specialist Zaur Akhmedov at Eagles MMA in their native Dagestan, Russia.
After four weeks, the trio headed to AKA Thailand in Phuket for the second half of their camp. That is where “Maestro” perfected his game plan, got into competition shape, and acclimatized to the Southeast Asia environment.
Then, on Saturday, 20 January, it was showtime.
Once the bell rang to begin the match, the two athletes collided. Imanari expectedly went hunting for the takedown, but Saadulaev was able to stuff the effort, control the top position, and strategically deploy strikes and submission attempts.
In round two, however, Imanari succeeded with his takedown. “Maestro” was on the floor, with his legs presenting a seemingly easy target. Despite knowing this moment would inevitably come, the Russian still felt nervous.
“When Imanari went for those leg locks in the second round, I felt threatened,” he says, candidly. “It was a dangerous moment, but my nerves were gone in about 25 seconds. I quickly felt in control.”
Finally, in the third round, Saadulaev felt confident, and he evaded Imanari’s wild takedown attempts. The Russian would eventually secure top position in his rival’s guard, and desperately tried to earn a stoppage victory.
“Maestro” may not have gotten the stoppage victory, but he secured a unanimous decision win on the judges’ scorecards, and overcame his initial fear in the process.
“I am excited that one of the best leg lockers in the world could not take my leg,” he says. “The only thing I regret is that I was not able to finish the match ahead of the final bell.”
Now riding a five-bout win streak and armed with a professional record of 17-4-1 (1 NC), Saadulaev is determined to continue his ascent up the bantamweight ladder. “Maestro” wants to be more active this year, and he has his eye on the ONE Bantamweight World Championship.
“I want to be very busy over the next couple of years. I want to compete a lot,” the Russian says.
“I feel that I broke into the top of my division, and in 2018 I hope to compete for the belt. It is time for ONE to challenge me more. I am ready.”