The biggest win of Yusup Saadulaev's career came in the last moments of 2011 at what, although no one knew it at the time, would be the last event ever to be held under the DREAM banner. The Russian knocked Hideo Tokoro out with a slam so brutal worried fans were left wondering whether the Japanese veteran had actually survived.
Saadulaev had run up an outstanding 8-0-1 record competing in the US which secured him a place in the DREAM Bantamweight Grand Prix, which would ultimately be won by Bibiano Fernandes. However question marks still hung over the Russian because the standard of opposition he had been facing up to that point was fairly mediocre.
On his DREAM debut he dropped a unanimous decision to Rodolfo Marques and was eliminated from the 135-pound tournament but the matchmakers were sufficiently impressed by his performance to give him a second chance.
Saadulaev was invited back and thrown in with Tokoro in a bout he was expected to lose. The result was the sort of highlight reel finish which all wrestlers turned mixed martial artists dream of and Saadulaev attributed the spectacular slam to a mixture of good fortune and good old fashioned hard work,
"The win over Tokoro was the biggest for me, but not the hardest. I got lucky, besides I was working very hard for that fight."
Saadulaev has not fought since that night but he recently signed with ONE FC and will be competing in the Bantamweight Grand Prix which begins on October 6th. Although he has been out of action for the best part of nine months he says his coaching commitments have kept him constantly busy,
"I was very busy coaching in my club that I founded when I returned from US, and also I had to manage Dagestan Grappling Federation which I’m a president of. I loved to fight in DREAM and I love the respect the Asian fans have for the fighters, I think ONE FC has a bright future and of course I love the rules."
Fedor Emelianenko may have hung up his gloves many are predicting that Russia will be well represented when the next generation of MMA champions emerges. Saadulaev spent several years training in the US but he is now back in his native Dagestan, a region which is renowned for producing high calibre wrestlers,
"I am working hard with my grappling team, Top Team Dagestan. I’m a founder and a head coach of the team and I founded it in 2010, right after I've returned from US. Right now it is the biggest grappling team in Russia, there are about 500 members in our gym, and 10 great coaches, also it is the strongest as it won Russian nationals in 2011 and 2012 and last year two of our students won the Abu Dhabi World Pro Jiu Jitsu tournament, one of them took silver and two took bronze."
It wasn't until he moved to the US in 2006 that Saadulaev began to turn his talents towards grappling and MMA but he had been competing on and off in wrestling for the best part of a decade,
"I was thirteen, when my Dad brought me to the wrestling gym and they say I was a hard worker but I quit after three years of training because injuries were chasing me all the time. I returned to the sport when I became 21 and won a few local wrestling tournaments in Russia."
After moving to Chicago Saadulaev started to train intensively in BJJ under Christian Uflacker and progressed so rapidly that as a blue belt he won a gold medal at the NAGA Grappling Championship in 2008 and the Pan American Championship in 2009.
Six of his nine MMA wins are by submission and the Russian attributes his remarkable rate of progress to a sheer love of the sport,
"Of course, wrestling helped with my accomplishments in BJJ and grappling, but I think what helped me the most was my interest to learn that discipline. I love BJJ and grappling very much."
Although the fight with Tokoro was a reserve match for the DREAM Bantamweight Grand Prix none of the semi finalists got injured so Saadulaev was denied a second chance to compete in that competition. This remains a disappointment, particularly as he feels he did not prepare properly for the fight with Marques,
"I was angry at myself ,because I didn't act like a professional for that fight. Training camp was bad, cutting weight wasn't done the right way... I’m not trying to steel from Rodolfo, he’s tough fighter and deserved the win but losing that fight definitely made me want to work harder."
That loss was the only one of Saadulaev's career to date and he will have another chance to win an eight man tournament with ONE FC. On October 6th at ONE FC: 'Rise of Kings' he takes on Kevin Belingon in the quarter finals of the bantamweight grand prix and is busy preparing for the unconventional striking of the Filipino fighter,
"Telling the truth I do not do much research on my opponents, I prefer to master my own game play. But from what I saw he’s very fast, explosive fighter, he’s pretty good at Wushu, you know, side kicks, round kicks, he’s good at those moves."
Fedor's retirement has left a vacuum which a number of Russian MMA fighters will be looking to step up and fill. At the moment no-one from that nation holds a belt with a top tier organization and Saadulaev, who says the sport is becoming increasingly popular in his homeland, is ready to step up,
"MMA is popular now and getting bigger and bigger. There are many talented guys here, especially in my region which is Dagestan. People follow my career even though I do not fight very often but this year things will change, I want to challenge the ONE FC champion."
Saadulaev' will have to be patient because there are still seven fighters standing between him and winning the ONE FC Bantamweight Grand Prix, including Masakatsu Ueda and Jens Pulver. Whoever is the last man standing out of the eight will be in pole position for the title which is about to be contested by Leandro Issa and Soo Chul Kim.
For all the fighters signed with DREAM it has been an uncertain few months but at least the organization's termination has allowed them to move on and many, like Shinya Aoki, Bibiano Fernandes and Saadulaev, have found a home in ONE FC.
The win against Tokoro catapulted Saadulaev up the bantamweight rankings and had many MMA fans wondering just how good he might really be. They have had to wait a long wait for an answer but on October 6th the Russian will have a chance to show that the brutal suplex slam on New Year's Eve was not just a flash in the pan, but a sign of even more exciting things to come.
ONE FC: ‘Rise of the Kings’ will be headlined by a bout between Zorobabel Moreira and Kotetsu Boku. The online stream will be $10 USD and it will also be available on pay-per-view (PPV) in the US for the first time.
For more information visit: www.onefc.com