Imanari Versus Saadulaev Is A Bout Not To Be Missed

ONE Championship’s year is off to an excellent start in Indonesia this Saturday, 20 January, when ONE: KINGS OF COURAGE gets underway at the Jakarta Convention Center.

It’s a fascinating card from top to bottom, and one of the stand-out contests sees Japan’s Masakazu Imanari take on Yusup Saadulaev.

Commentating for ONE Championship all the way back in 2012, I remember being excited to see Imanari, the famed leg-lock specialist, make his ONE Championship debut in Singapore against Filipino striker Kevin Bellingon.

I recall being captivated at the thought that here was a man whose speciality was obvious to all, and yet while you knew it was coming, time after time there was nothing his victims could do about the imminent leg lock that would end their night.

To this day, I still wonder whether Imanari’s slip, which ultimately led to Belingon’s submission, was intentional. The Filipino is famed for being dangerous with both his hands and feet, but Imanari wanted him on the floor, where he could clutch at his opponent’s legs to mount his attack.

So it was that Imanari kicked, missed, and slipped, only for Belingon to pounce into what I described at the time as, “a nest of vipers.” Within seconds the Team Lakay hero had lost control of his lower limbs, as they were twisted into submission.

For Imanari, that was 17 contests ago, 11 of which he’s won, including all of his last three bouts. He now returns to the ONE cage against an opponent who makes an equally welcome reappearance.

Saadulaev’s 21 bouts are dwarfed by Imanari’s 54, but his 16-4-1 record remains impressive. The 32-year-old Russian was beaten by Belingon, also in 2012, but collected valid scalps thereafter. Adriano Moraes was perhaps his biggest win the following year, while his last victory against an 8-1 Jordan Lucas helped nudge him back into contention for a shot at the ONE Bantamweight World Title.

Belingon is an eminently more experienced fighter than he was when he faced Imanari, and Saadulaev will look to draw upon similar cage-based lessons to avoid putting his feet where others fear to tread.

This will be one of those absorbing slow burners that will keep you on the edge of your seat until a crucial mistake is made. In their combined 75 bouts, neither man has ever been submitted, and I don’t see that happening in Jakarta.

I expect the Russian to just outwork the Japanese to take the decision.

Steve Dawson is a ONE Championship presenter and commentator, a Fox Sports presenter and an author of sporting biographies. He can be found on Twitter & Instagram as @Gulasahi