Reece “Lightning” McLaren still believes he can make 2020 a memorable year despite spending the first nine months on the sidelines.
The Australian will face Aleksi “The Giant” Toivonen at ONE: REIGN OF DYNASTIES on Friday, 9 October, and he will aim to follow a sensational victory over Gurdarshan “Saint Lion” Mangat with another spectacular win over a highly touted rising star.
That win against Mangat came last December, as McLaren finished the Indian athlete via rear-naked choke in the first round.
The #5-ranked flyweight contender was excited to continue his climb up the rankings, but his plans for a quick return were dashed by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Though he was frustrated and forced into lockdown, “Lightning” says the time away helped make him a more dangerous competitor.
“I just kept doing what I do,” the 29-year-old Gold Coast native explains. “I always run and do lots of visualization and lots of studying – just watching and watching and watching.
“I made a few leaps and bounds in a few aspects of mixed martial arts, so it definitely made me go back, slow things down, and study positions more.
“I think [the fans are] going to see a better, improved me. In the last six months, I’ve made some massive, massive gains.”
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Even before those gains, McLaren was regarded as one of the top flyweights in The Home Of Martial Arts – a status reflected by his spot in the flyweight rankings.
The Australian’s Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu black belt skills make him one of the most dangerous grapplers on the promotion’s roster, and in his division, perhaps only reigning ONE Flyweight World Champion Adriano “Mikinho” Moraes and #1-ranked contender Demetrious “Mighty Mouse” Johnson can match his highlight reel of submissions.
However, those skills will be tested against the undefeated Toivonen, who arrived in ONE Championship with a reputation as a prodigious grappler and then proved it with a slick first-round finish of Akihiro “Superjap” Fujisawa at ONE: MASTERS OF DESTINY in July 2019.
For his part, McLaren believes the Evolve representative will put his ground game to the test.
“He looks strong and he looks like he takes the back really well,” the Aussie says.
“He grapples very well. Being a European champion – that’s a great achievement. I know the grappling circuit in Europe is very high-level. They get all the big guns going to the Europeans, so that means he’s a very good grappler.”
At the same time, “Lightning” believes the standard of grappling in his homeland is just as good. He’s not overly concerned about “The Giant’s” submission threat, and he’s not even sure that fans will witness an all-out grappling clinic.
“I think it could go either way. It’s either going to be a stand-up battle as the two grapplers equal each other, or it’s going to turn into a massive grappling match,” McLaren says. “I’m a mixed martial artist, so wherever I can take it to have the edge, I’ll take it there.”
That ability to adapt and his huge experience advantage – the Australian has fought in more than twice Toivonen’s career mixed martial arts bouts – make McLaren confident that he’ll emerge with his hand raised.
He also knows that a victory would get him closer to a ONE World Title shot for the second time, and it could put him in prime position if the division’s reigning king Moraes and top-ranked challenger Johnson were unable to fight in a future ONE Flyweight World Championship tilt.
“I just think that any win at the moment for anyone will keep pushing us up the rankings,” McLaren says.
“Honestly, you go back to a year ago and I was slated to fight for the belt, so I believe I’m one or two wins away from having my name there as a replacement if Demetrious or Moraes get hurt.”
Though he does not want to speculate about the outcome of the contest, the Potential Unlimited Mixed Martial Arts representative is confident that the matchup will result in yet another show-stealing clash for fans.
“I don’t like to predict because everyone sounds cocky in predictions,” McLaren says. “So, all I can say is it’s going to be an exciting match, and tune in.”