Former ONE Strawweight World Champion Yosuke “The Ninja” Saruta fell short of reclaiming the gold several months ago, but the 34-year-old is ready to hit the reset button and test his skills against one of the most unique mixed martial artists on the planet.
This Friday, 11 February, the Japanese veteran will collide with Cuban Olympic wrestler Gustavo “El Gladiador” Balart on the main card of ONE: BAD BLOOD, which broadcasts live from the Singapore Indoor Stadium.
Balart is known for his world-class grappling prowess, but the 4-foot-11 juggernaut is also famous for his smaller stature, his tenacious brawling style, and his fearless determination to charge forward against larger foes.
Saruta – who is now the division’s #3-ranked contender – is in complete awe of his opponent’s skill set. But after losing to reigning strawweight king Joshua “The Passion” Pacio in September, he hopes to make a statement and keep his name relevant amid the division’s shark-infested waters.
In this sit-down interview with ONEFC.com, “The Ninja” talks about his recent setback, gearing up for a comeback against Balart, his thoughts on the strawweight division’s newest star, and his pick to win the special rules super-fight between Demetrious “Mighty Mouse” Johnson and Rodtang “The Iron Man” Jitmuangnon at ONE X.
ONE Championship: You challenged ONE Strawweight World Champion Joshua Pacio in a trilogy bout last September, but things didn’t go your way. What happened?
Yosuke Saruta: I don’t have any regrets about the fight itself, except for the result, even though I was finished in the first round. I was very well-prepared for the fight, and I was confident. But a fight is decided in an instant, and there is always a winner and a loser, so I had to accept the result.
ONE: What lessons did you take away from that fight?
YS: I was not able to turn on the switch before the fight. I was too focused on strategy and tactics. I wish I had more of a fighting spirit. My cornerman, [Kenji] Osawa, also told me that.
I had spent a lot of time studying and imagining what I was going to do in my head, so I think I didn’t have enough fighting spirit to finish my opponent or go for the knockout. I think I’m going to go all-out on that part this time.
ONE: You’ll be fighting Gustavo Balart at ONE: BAD BLOOD. How did this match come about?
YS: At the very beginning, I was offered a fight with [former ranked contender] Lito Adiwang. I also expected it to be a tough fight against Team Lakay again. Adiwang had lost to Jarred Brooks, but I was looking forward to it because I thought he was a very strong fighter and a top-level fighter.
I wanted to fight him, but he got injured and had to cancel. Soon after, I was offered a fight with Gustavo Balart. He has a completely different style, but I had a feeling that he might be stronger than Lito Adiwang, so I gladly accepted the offer to fight him.
ONE: What makes you so excited to compete against a fighter like Balart?
YS: He is a unique fighter. A fighter like him is the only fighter in the world. In the strawweight division, he is on the smaller side, but I had never seen a fighter with a smaller frame than mine. Also, he has a strong heart.
When I went to watch an event in Thailand before [ONE: DREAMS OF GOLD in August 2019], he was fighting in the flyweight division, and he was fighting a guy [Chan Rothana] with a reach difference of more than 20 centimeters. He was swinging and tackling his opponent until the end, and it was a match that got the audience excited, so I’ve been interested in him.
He’s an Olympic wrestler, too. Before I started martial arts, I had always dreamed of becoming a world-class athlete, like an Olympian. At my age, it’s an honor to be able to fight with an Olympic-level athlete, and I want to test myself.
ONE: Knowing how talented Balart is at wrestling, are you confident in your grappling skills against him?
YS: Yes, I am. It’s impossible to find a training partner of that height with that kind of wrestling ability, isn’t it? So, I really don’t know until I face him.
But in terms of experience in MMA, I’ve been doing it for 15 years, and I’ve fought a lot of different fighters. I have a lot of strategies and techniques in mind, but fights don’t always go as planned, so I’ve won more fights by making adjustments during the fight. I think I can take advantage of that.
ONE: So, what will you do if he takes you to the ground? Do you think he can?
YS: In my past fights, there were not many fighters who tackled me. On the contrary, most of the time I tackled opponents who were strikers. I’ve been doing martial arts for 15 years, and I’ve rarely been put on my back, so I don’t have any image of not being kept or being beaten on the ground.
ONE: How do you think this match will play out?
YS: I think it will be a fierce battle. I think it will be a seesaw match. There will be a situation where he attacks and I hold back, and on the other hand, there will be a situation where I attack when Balart is getting tired. I think it will be an intense match.
I’m prepared for a tough fight. The last thing is the finish. I will finish with strikes or a submission. I think that would be a good way to show off my next goal, so I’m aiming for that.
ONE: There’s been a recent influx of talent in the strawweight division. What are your thoughts on that?
YS: It’s really starting to heat up. [Current #2-ranked contender] Jarred Brooks joined. I’ve had my eye on him for about five or six years now. I had trained with him at [Wajutsu Keishukai] Hearts when I had just dropped down to strawweight and was not yet a Shooto Champion. I was really shocked, and after training with him, I realized that there was such a strong guy in my weight class. It was the first time I felt that way.
When I heard that he was coming to ONE last year, I felt like it was destiny. I was shocked by him about five years ago. He’s the guy I’ve been targeting because I thought there was a guy like him. If I have a chance to fight him, I feel like I have to do it.
ONE: Also, your MMA idol, Demetrious Johnson, is fighting Rodtang Jitmuangnon in a special rules super-fight at ONE X on 26 March, with two rounds of Muay Thai and two rounds of MMA. What are your thoughts on that fight, and who wins?
YS: The match itself is interesting. Of course, it will be a serious fight, but I think it will be exciting to have a new project, a super-fight, a dream match. Japanese people seem to like that kind of thing.
I think Rodtang will go forward proactively, but I think DJ will use his step work to fend him off. I think he’ll get a takedown in the second round and submit Rodtang on the ground.