Reece “Lightning” McLaren knows the ONE Flyweight World Grand Prix could define his career, so he is extra motivated to make his presence felt in a tournament field that is loaded with elite martial artists.
The Australian will have a remarkably difficult opening round match-up, however.
“You have the best flyweights in the world competing in this ONE tournament, and it’s an honor to be in it,” he says.
“I’m here to compete against the best and I get the ex-champ right off the bat, so that’s excellent.”
All four of the quarter-final bouts will take place at the landmark event, so “Lightning” will be able to get a close look at his potential opponents for the future.
The excitement of the tournament and the chance to compete on the first Japanese show in ONE Championship history has the Gold Coast resident buzzing with anticipation.
“It’s a dream come true to compete in Japan,” he states.
“When [the organization] announced this card, everyone wanted to be on it. I’m beyond excited and beyond thankful.
The 31-year-old from Almaty, Kazakhstan defeated Adriano Moraes in his promotional debut to claim the ONE Flyweight World Title back in November 2015, but an injury kept him out of action for nearly two years.
Akhmetov, who is a three-time National Greco-Roman Champion in his homeland, has a determined clinch attack and looks to put his adversaries on their backs. Most of the time, he succeeds with his favored strategy.
McLaren is a savvy grappler, too.
The 27-year-old possesses formidable wrestling and holds a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu black belt, which makes for an intriguing clash of styles. He holds his rival in the highest regard for his skills and sees very little room for error against “The Kazakh.”
“He was the champ for a reason. He doesn’t have any major gaps. He’s very good,” the Aussie says.
“He tends to be able to hold people down quite well, so we’ll test him with the cage wrestling and see if he can keep me down.”
Despite the sizable challenge ahead of him, “Lightning” sees a route to victory.
“It’s going to be a tough, tough fight. It’ll go to points or I’ll catch him with something, but it won’t be easy at all,” he continues.
“I think that my game, just the way I do things, is a bit different to anything he has faced before.”
The Australian will cement his status as one of the tournament favorites if he can eliminate a former World Champion in the opening round, and it will also give him more confidence when he enters the semi-finals.
He is working hard to overcome Akhmetov and take the first step, but his daily motivation comes from the chance to make his dream a reality.
“The way it’s drawn is super exciting for all of us on our side [of the bracket],” he explains. “This is how the dream story goes — you keep winning and you meet the G.O.A.T. [greatest of all time] in the final.”
For now, a potential match-up against Demetrious “Mighty Mouse” Johnson is a long way off. The first move toward it begins with Akhmetov at the famous Ryogoku Kokugikan on 31 March.
McLaren is prepared to dig deep, but he also believes his phenomenal submission skills will allow him to make a statement on the night and progress to the next round of play.
“Look, I’m a nightmare if I can get on top of any man,” he offers. “The challenge against Akhmetov is getting there. But if I do, it’ll be a pretty short night.”