Gustavo “El Gladiador” Balart may be small in stature, but the 4-foot-11 juggernaut has a big heart and the skills necessary to climb to the top of the strawweight division.
This Friday, 11 February, the Cuban star will face former ONE Strawweight World Champion Yosuke “The Ninja” Saruta in a pivotal clash at ONE: BAD BLOOD, which broadcasts live from the Singapore Indoor Stadium.
Balart, a Cuban Olympic wrestler, had experienced some adversity at the beginning of his ONE Championship career. “El Gladiador” dropped back-to-back decision losses at flyweight, and then he had his strawweight debut spoiled by a head kick.
The 34-year-old has turned his luck around, however.
Balart has a chance to build on that momentum in Singapore, and a victory over Saruta – currently the division’s #3-ranked contender – would undoubtedly catapult him into the strawweight rankings and have him knocking on the door of a World Title shot.
Ahead of this clash in Singapore, Balart talks all about Saruta, how his small stature has benefited him, and much more.
ONE Championship: At 4-foot-11, you’re the shortest male athlete on the roster. Do you feel that has affected you in any way during your career?
Gustavo Balart: Not at all. It actually gives me the strength to keep going. I have many detractors, people who don’t believe in me. But I have been able to show that I am strong and that I can do things. I have proven my ability many times.
ONE: Ultimately, all of your opponents have been bigger than you. How have you been able to face this disadvantage to excel in a sport as demanding as mixed martial arts?
GB: As a fighter, you must take advantage of your virtues and defend your disadvantages. True, I am a short fighter, but that’s why I am stronger and faster. My opponents must watch their distance because in mid and short distances, my punches are stronger. Everything is a mind game. Whoever has a stronger mind is the one who wins at the end of the day.
ONE: Let’s talk a little bit about your last fight against Ryuto Sawada. It was a tough fight with a little bit of controversy, but you pulled out the win. What was going through your mind during that match?
GB: It was a complicated fight, especially because of the tension I experienced after losing [three] fights in a row. Also, during the fight, I was called out twice for the two illegal shots. Then I was called out again for a shot to the liver, which could have finished him, but was counted as illegal.
I was very afraid of being disqualified because I couldn’t rack up another loss. I was dominating the fight on the ground and in the stand-up, but I was feeling nervous about being disqualified.
ONE: Now, you’re taking a step up in competition and meeting former ONE Strawweight World Champion Yosuke Saruta at ONE: BAD BLOOD. How are you feeling ahead of this fight?
GB: Physically, I feel very good. I feel like my boxing and wrestling are superior compared to my opponent´s. I feel like I can take the fight anywhere I want. I am happy for the opportunity because I know Saruta. He is a great fighter. He is the former ONE Strawweight World Champion, and I believe that if I win this fight, I can see myself on the path to the strawweight title.
ONE: But do you think that you deserve a World Title shot if you beat him?
GB: I think if I beat him, that’s enough to be considered a title contender. He is the former champion, so beating him should open that door for me.
ONE: How have you prepared for this fight? Have you made any specific changes?
GB: I haven’t made many changes, as my previous opponent had a very similar style. But Saruta is a little more active, and the previous one was more static, although with very strong Muay Thai. The only real changes are improving my reactions to watch for his explosiveness.
ONE: What do you think is Saruta’s most dangerous weapon? What should you watch out for?
GB: I have to watch out for his speed and explosiveness. I have to watch out for his hand speed or takedown attempts. But I’ve prepared for all of that. I’m always watching for his quick shots.
ONE: Can you give us any prediction as to how this fight will play out?
GB: In my last fight, I was close to finishing it in the second round, and in the third round with a flying knee. I kicked him in the midsection, but he complained that it was an illegal shot, so the referee bought it.
That’s why, this time, I want to develop the plan, take it easy, and go step-by-step. But my goal at the end of the day is to finish this fight the first chance I have.
ONE: Also, the last time you walked to the Circle, you were dressed up as a Gladiator. Do you have a special outfit for this occasion?
GB: This time, I will also be dressed as a gladiator, but with a modification. I will have a Julius Caesar sword and sheath (laughs).