Yusup “Maestro” Saadulaev battled through a pair of devastating injuries to defeat one of the bantamweight division’s top contenders, and now, he wants a crack at the gold.
The 34-year-old Dagestani suffered two fractures during his bout with Japanese warrior Daichi Takenaka at ONE: AGE OF DRAGONS in Beijing, China last month. Despite the pain, he continued with the match and courageously earned a split decision victory.
As it stands, “Maestro” is healing from his injuries, but he is already looking towards the future. He wants to challenge ONE Bantamweight World Champion Bibiano “The Flash” Fernandes for the belt next year, and if that means having to get by someone else, he has no problem doing that.
In this exclusive interview, he talks about the war he had with Takenaka, competing through immense pain, his unforgettable 2019, and his desire to meet “The Flash” in the Circle next year.
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Posted by ONE Championship on Saturday, November 16, 2019
ONE Championship: You defeated Daichi Takenaka via split decision last month, but your goal was to finish him. What happened during the match?
Yusup Saadulaev: During the first round, I broke my hand, and during the second, my tibia. Both injuries slowed me down massively — the first one affected my striking first, and then the second affected my wrestling, and as you know, wrestling is my strong point.
Also, don’t forget how strong my opponent was. When getting ready for Takenaka I treated him as an undefeated fighter. He is very strong. He won against top athletes, like Leandro Issa. It was never going to be an easy bout.
ONE: When did you figure out that you were injured? Was it during or after the match?
YS: I understood my hand was broken straight away. I could hear some clicking sound and felt the bones scratching against each other. As for my leg, it went numb in the second round, but I found out about the injury only when we got to the hospital after the event and got an x-ray.
ONE: How did this affect your original plan?
YS: The original plan was to try and compete with him in the stand-up. I wanted to explore my options during the first round, and then trade punches and take him down, but this plan went south pretty quickly when my hand got broken.
I tried moving around more and showering him with a barrage of punches, but I was losing power and he was pushing back. I tried to work with knees to the body when we were in a clinch — I noticed it made Daichi lose his breath.
I still tried taking him down in the ring, but I noticed it is harder to do it in the ring. The ropes work better for the person you try to take down, while in the cage the situation is better for the person who executes a takedown.
ONE: How do you feel about your overall performance and your level of preparation?
YS: I was in the best shape of my pro career, and my preparation was second to none because I knew I was going to face one of the top talents in ONE. If you take into account the injuries, I could say my performance was very good.
I gave this fight all I had. I squeezed every ounce of energy out of my body and left it in the ring. The performance could have been better, but I could not execute good takedowns and utilize my wrestling skills. I am a bit upset I couldn’t finish the fight earlier, but it is what it is.
ONE: What surprised you most about Takenaka?
YS: I was surprised by how strong his head was — this guy can take a punch! I wanted to trade punches with him and was aiming at his head. Trust me, I packed a lot into each punch. I managed to cut him, but he kept pushing forward.
I would say he has great endurance, he is strong, and, for a purple belt, has amazing grappling skills. Oh, and let’s not forget his kicks — this guy has great legs!
ONE: Looking back at 2019, what can you say about the best moments of this year?
YS: I feel very comfortable at bantamweight now, and I am proud I got to face some of the best guys in this division — Dae Hwan Kim and Daichi Takenaka. I have been very busy this year. [I have had] three fights since May. It’s the busiest I have ever been in ONE.
ONE: Where do you see yourself going in 2020? What are your goals?
YS: In 2020, I want to become the ONE World Champion. I hope ONE gives me this chance as soon as my rehab is finished. If I have to fight one more guy, I hope it will be a rematch against Thanh Le — he got lucky the last time. But my main wish for 2020 is to try myself against the legend of our division, Bibiano Fernandes.
ONE: In your opinion, what makes a match between you and Fernandes so exciting?
YS: We are high-level grapplers, but my last two fights showed that without any doubt I am able to trade punches with him, too.
It would be a great show because I really want to get my belt before I start thinking about finishing my career. It is a now or never kind of thing. I will be fighting as if my life was on the line.