Yet another Muay Thai World Champion will enter ONE Super Series for ONE Championship’s latest blockbuster event in Manila, the Philippines.
His opponent in the Mall Of Asia Arena will be Han Zi Hao – a Top King Muay Thai World Champion.
Before Yusuf steps into the ring to meet his Chinese opponent, learn a little bit more about what made the Cypriot a top-class striker.
Young And Free
Yusuf grew up on the island of Cyprus in the Mediterranean Sea, where he experienced a humble, but often idyllic life.
“It was a free childhood. I was able to play outside a lot, climb trees, play football, and have scraps like most boys,” he says.
“We were in a village and we had free rein of the place. It was a really safe place to be.”
His father was a Turkish-Cypriot, and worked as a laborer. His mother was born in Manila, the Philippines, and earned money as a cleaner.
As a youngster, they passed on values from their cultures, and he spoke both the Turkish and Tagalog languages, but the most important thing they taught him was the value of hard work.
“They stayed positive, worked hard, and provided for us so we could have a better life,” Yusuf says.
“My work ethic has helped me through my career, and that’s because of my parents. By the time I was 8, my dad took me to his valeting job with him, and I used to work 12-hour shifts.
“Every summer holiday, I was working while my mates were going to the beach. My mum never let me spend the money – she made me open an account and save it.
“They are my role models. To go what they’ve been through and make me the man I am today – there’s no reward great enough to give them. The only thing I can do is make them proud, and be the person they want me to be.”
Bitten By The Martial Arts Bug
When he was not pitching in to help his family, Yusuf was an active child who tried his hand at any sport he could.
Inspired by his big-screen heroes like Jean-Claude Van Damme, Bruce Lee, Jet Li, and Jackie Chan, he desperately wanted to try martial arts.
He took karate classes when he was 8, but admits he only lasted three months, because he was bored of its non-contact nature.
For the next few years, he tried anything he could – cycling, swimming, football, volleyball – joining as many teams as possible, but he was not inspired to focus on just one. That all changed when he discovered Muay Thai.
“Within four weeks, I quit every team I was in to do Muay Thai every night, and two months in, I had my first fight in the Cyprus championships,” he says
“It was fairly new in Cyprus, so the level was quite low. I lost my first fight – I think I just gave up in the second round – but I was so disappointed I just wanted to get in again straight away.”
Making Ends Meet By Any Means
Muay Thai was everything to Yusuf, and he did whatever it took to excel.
He worked a full-time job to support his training, which included regular trips to the Sitjaopho gym in Huahin, Thailand, to hone his skills. It paid off, as he built an outstanding record of 36-6 and won two Muay Thai World Championships.
During that time, he also moved to the United Kingdom to marry his wife, Cara. In Stockport, England, he left his regular job to take over All Powers Gym from his friend, coach, and mentor, Paul Tite.
Though his focus on the gym forced him to take a two-year break from competition, he returned to action under the guidance of the late Liam Robinson, who coached him to a 23-bout win streak.
However, despite his successes, Yusuf never felt like a professional athlete because of all the other things he needed to do to make ends meet.
“I probably never saw it as a profession, because it was never financially substantial enough to maintain my lifestyle,” he says.
“With being a husband, father, having a mortgage, and a gym to run, it was hard.”
It was his dream to make a living by competing, so he tried his hand at mixed martial arts.
“If I could make it to the top to a big organization, it would be worth it, because I could continue doing what I loved, which was fighting,” he explains.
Your Professional Career Starts Here
After his first few bouts in the cage, Yusuf traveled to Japan to try out for “Rich Franklin’s ONE Warrior Series,” but his audition was wrecked by jet lag.
Operating on just a couple of hours sleep – some of that on the gym’s treadmills – he impressed the coaches with his striking, he was not as sharp as he would have liked to be on the mat. He was told to improve his grappling to earn another chance, but a better opportunity was just around the corner.
“A couple of months later, ONE Super Series was starting, and they wanted me on board. I was super excited, because I was able to do the original thing I was most passionate about – and I could get paid,” Yusuf says.
Now, he has the opportunity to make an impression on one of the grandest stages in the martial arts world – the sold-out Mall Of Asia Arena.
He believes Han will be a tricky opponent because of his boxing ability, but he is confident of victory – and hopeful he can turn in an entertaining performance in a place that is special for his family.
“I’m excited about fighting in the Philippines. Manila is my mum’s hometown, and I’ve always wanted to go,” he says.
“I don’t really know anyone there, and I don’t think many people know I’m half Filipino because my last name is Yusuf, but it’s exciting for me.
“It’s my chance to make my debut and have a great performance for ONE.”