Yushin “Thunder” Okami built his legendary career as a middleweight, and now he wants to showcase his arsenal at full strength in his return to the division on Friday, 14 January.
The Japanese icon will face Leandro “Wolf” Ataides in a must-win mixed martial arts outing as part of the lead card of ONE: HEAVY HITTERS inside the Singapore Indoor Stadium, and “Thunder” feels like he’s in the position to make a run at the top.
“I will come back to the middleweight division, where I’ve been for a long time,” he says.
“I am 40 years old. I believe that I am at my strongest now, with all my experience, conditioning, and physicality. I believe I’m at my best, and I’ve been training hard.”
But instead of it pushing him toward retirement, the veteran campaigner felt rejuvenated by his students, and it gave him the hunger to return.
“There were times when I felt like I was going to shift my focus from being an active fighter to being an instructor. But by training with them, I was able to make it this far without extinguishing my flame. I’m thankful to them,” he says.
With a renewed vigor and a more comfortable weight class to compete in, “Thunder” thinks he can match the elite operators at middleweight – starting with a divisional stalwart in Ataides.
“Wolf” is a strong, physical athlete, but with the added size, Okami has no qualms about standing opposite the Brazilian – or anybody else in the division, for that matter.
“During the fight with Agilan Thani, I felt the gap between my condition at welterweight and myself at middleweight,” he explains.
“The biggest advantages [of moving back up] are that I can get myself in great condition, and I can show my best power. The opponents become bigger, but if I believe that I can move the best and generate the most power, I think there will be no problem.
“Many things came together, but at the end of the day, it’s not about the opponent but about the weight class, where I can show my full potential.”
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Though the move was mostly spurred by his ability to function effectively inside the Circle, Okami admits that there was another motivating factor that prompted his step up.
“When I thought about making a comeback to the middleweight division, the only fighter I wanted to fight was Aung La N Sang,” he says.
“I knew him before I came to ONE, and I respected him. He was the champion at middleweight and light heavyweight. The content of his fights were great, and I was proud of him as an Asian.”
Still, “Thunder” won’t look past his next test. He knows that Ataides is a tough adversary who poses a threat in multiple ranges. But, with the 40-year-old’s experience, he feels that he’ll be slicker than his wild rival.
“Ataides has been fighting and shining in ONE for a long time, and he is an iconic middleweight fighter. He’s got all the skills and also got great offense,” Okami says.
“Of course, his strengths are his physicality and power. He gathers all his power and attacks at the right moment. His weakness is that he has rough and messy parts. If I point out those parts of him carefully, I think his vulnerability will come out. He has a lot of strength, but that kind of roughness comes out when he attacks and defends.”
Okami’s fire is back. And his resume automatically puts him among the top contenders in the division.
A win over a highly ranked foe in his first middleweight outing in ONE would cement that status – and potentially set up a meeting with the man who pushed him to return, former divisional champion Aung La “The Burmese Python” N Sang.
That said, “Thunder” also has ONE middleweight gold on his mind, and he hopes that a dominant victory on 14 January will put him on current kingpin Reinier “The Dutch Knight” de Ridder’s radar.
“Ataides is a highly evaluated fighter, so if I beat him, the number of fighters above him will be limited,” Okami says.
“I don’t have time to take it easy and take a lot of fights because of my age. So if I can beat him, I’ll be able to get a middleweight title fight soon. I’ll get the belt within the year – that’s all I’m thinking about.
“Of course, he’s going to go for the KO, and I’m going to go for the KO, pound out, or submission. I want to finish him inside 15 minutes.”