With his 17-2-2 record, Masakatsu Ueda is arguably the top Asian bantamweight at the moment. He's beaten some of the top fighters in the division, including Eduardo Dantas and Kyoji Horiguchi, and is on track to win the ONE FC 135-pound Grand Prix.
For a fighter with such impressive credentials, his last couple of wins have been fairly routine: a unanimous decision defeat of Min Jung Song and a second round submission of Jens Pulver. But to win the tournament, Ueda will need to overcome another of Asia's top bantamweights in Kevin Belingon.
The fight is strongly rumored to be taking place at ONE FC: 'Rise to Power' which is set for the 20,000 capacity SM Mall of Asia Arena in Manila on May 31, meaning that Ueda will be fighting on the Filipino's home turf. He wouldn't confirm that the match-up was booked, but he did have this to say about the prospect of a Bantamweight GP Final in the Philippines.
"Kevin Belingon's striking is extremely dangerous but I am very confident I can win the ONE FC Bantamweight Grand Prix Final. I have gotten used to fighting in Singapore now, Manila is a new place so it will be a step into the unknown but I am a professional mixed martial artist and I will travel anywhere to fight. I am happy that my job allows me to see so many new places."
Belingon booked his spot in the final with two very impressive stoppage wins which showcased the speed and athleticism which helped the Filipino win his first nine MMA fights and become the URCC Flyweight Champion. In the quarterfinals, Yusup Saadulaev was brushed aside in under a round while Thanh Vu fared only slightly better, getting stopped by a brutal barrage of strikes less than six minutes into the fight.
Ueda went the distance with Song (who incidentally beat two opponents in a single night to book a spot in the final of the Road FC Bantamweight Grand Prix last weekend) in his quarterfinal match-up but, while he was expected to beat Pulver, a win over the former UFC lightweight champion meant a lot to the Japanese veteran,
"I am proud to beat Jens Pulver because he is a legend of a fighter. I felt strong pressure from him during the fight so I tried to get a chance to take him down. On the ground I could make my game so in the final moment I caught the right arm deeply to his neck and from there I believed in my skills to finish."
Ueda put Pulver to sleep with a Brabo choke but, with a fight on May 31 looming ahead, did not take any time off to celebrate,
"After my win against Pulver I relaxed for a few days to give my body a chance to rest and then I started to training again."
He has only been beaten twice in his entire career and one of those two losses, a decision defeat to Travis Marx in his Bellator debut, resulted in him being released by the American promotion after only one fight. Although Ueda was disappointed with that decision at the time, it ultimately enabled him to sign for ONE FC and he is very happy that he did.
"I really like fighting in ONE FC because everybody is very kind to me and very supportive which makes me very comfortable to get in the cage.To be the champion of the ONE FC is my dream right now, that is my goal."
If Ueda defeats Belingon and wins the ONE FC GP his next fight will be for the bantamweight belt. With reigning 135-pound champion Soo Chul Kim out long term with an injury, Bibiano Fernandes is set to fight Koetsu Okazaki for the interim strap and Ueda says that Fernandes is a fighter he wants to face "in the future."
Hong Kong and Taiwan are believed to be next on the list of destinations for the promotion which is fast emerging as the main global competitor to UFC. Having already been featured on two ONE FC cards in Singapore, and with another fight in the Philippines close to being confirmed, Ueda is hoping that he will also have the opportunity to fight in Japan again.
"If ONE FC comes to Japan I would like to fight, that would make me very happy. A lot of people were watching my ONE FC fight in Japan because I had more than 100 messages on my Facebook after I won and great Japanese fighters like Shinya Aoki are fighting for ONE FC."
With Belingon resurgent after recovering from a couple of losses, Leandro Issa on the comeback trail and Fernandes very much in the mix, not to mention injured champion Kim, ONE FC's bantamweight division is very competitive.
Ueda has already held a world title with Shooto and is two victories away from being a Grand Prix winner and a world champion with ONE FC. The 35 year old is entering the most important period of his career but has a chance to secure himself some serious silverware and become one of the most decorated bantamweight in Asian MMA history.