After a year away from the ONE Championship cage, Yusup “Maestro” Saadulaev is excited to make his return.
On Saturday, 20 January, the Dagestani Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt will undoubtedly face his toughest challenge to date – former three-time DEEP Champion and submission grappling legend Masakazu “Ashikan Judan” Imanari (36-16-2) at ONE: KINGS OF COURAGE. The bout will take place at the Jakarta Convention Center in Indonesia.
The last time Saadulaev (16-4-1, 1 NC) appeared inside the ONE cage was back in October 2016, where he defeated Jordan “Showtime” Lucas with a modified rear-naked choke.
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It was an incredible show of grappling mastery that only narrowly missed out on being ONE’s Submission of the Year 2016, claiming second place.
With that in mind, it is surprising to hear that the spirited bantamweight warrior lived a completely different kind of life during his childhood.
Born in the small city of Khasavyurt, which lies on the border of Chechnya and Dagestan in Russia, Saadulaev was raised in a close-knit family. He was one of six brothers, and he peacefully herded sheep instead of getting into trouble.
“I started working on my father’s farm even before I went to school,” he recollects. ”It was my duty to contribute to the family. My spare time was spent with my brothers, playing around. Win or lose, whatever happens, they are the people I can always rely on.”
Still, trouble seemed to find him. There were times when other kids tried bullying Saadulaev, but he would not back down, and always stood up for himself.
That strong spirit would prove instrumental in his martial arts journey, which did not begin until he became a teenager.
Growing up, he loved watching movies featuring his heroes Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan, and they ultimately led to him watching North American and Japanese martial arts promotions in the 2000s. However, they were not the catalyst for training.
“They did not inspire me to become a martial artist,” says Saadulaev. “It was life itself that lead me that way.”
At the age of 12, Saadulaev got his first taste of martial arts when his father brought him to a gym famous for its freestyle wrestling.
“It is a national sport in my region, and Khasavyurt has one of the best schools in the world,” he reminisces. “My eldest brother was very good at it, and I was expected to follow suit.”
The coaches were impressed by his hard work ethic, but after three years, he quit because he reached a point in his life where he was trying to figure out his future. In fact, following high school, he took a year off because, as he puts it: “I did not know who I wanted to be.”
He tried studying linguistics at Dagestan State University, which led him to the United States courtesy of the school’s Study and Travel program. It was there where he stumbled upon his destiny, and became the man he is today.
In 2004, a 19-year-old Saadulayev found himself in Chicago, where he took up Brazilian jiu-jitsu under Christian Uflacker, and Thai Boxing under Ricardo Perez. The Dagestani fell in love with both martial arts, and soon entered competition.
He scored a victory in amateur Muay Thai, but achieved more success in the grappling world, as he became a NAGA gold medalist, a Pan American BJJ Champion, and eventually, a BJJ black belt.
That is also where he made his professional cage debut for a small Chicago promotion in September 2008.
“The coach recommended me to a promoter. I won in 46 seconds, then I competed more and more. It became addictive,” explains Saadulaev, who quickly realized he could have a successful career.
“It is a fast-growing sport for many reasons: the business model is right, marketing is good, and it attracts lovers of different martial arts. The cage is the pinnacle of martial arts, because it is so versatile and so complex.”
Saadulaev competed all throughout the world, eventually signing with ONE Championship in 2012, where he is one of only two men to own a victory over ONE Flyweight World Champion Adriano “Mikinho” Moraes.
Now living in Makhachkala, the capital of Dagestan, Saadulaev has created a wonderful future for himself. Besides standing as one of the world’s best bantamweights, he coaches several of the region’s top athletes, and manages even more, including former ONE Featherweight World Champion Marat “Cobra” Gafurov.
“Maestro,” as he is called, is riding a four-bout win streak heading into his upcoming tilt against Imanari at ONE: KINGS OF COURAGE. A victory would undoubtedly put him in title contention, which is part of his grand plan.
“My goal in the next five years is to not lose any bouts,” he says. “Competing is a priority now, coaching comes second, and management third. I might have to cut down on coaching so I can train myself more.”
From herding sheep to submitting opponents, Saadulaev finally knows who he wants to be – a ONE World Champion.