Leandro Issa was the early front-runner to be inaugural ONE FC 135-pound champion after impressive wins over Soo Chul Kim and Masakazu Imanari, but his title run came to a surprising halt when he was stopped in the second round of his rematch against the Korean.
"Brodinho" is a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ) world champion who earned his shot at the ONE FC belt by winning seven successive fights, two of them under the banner of Asia's biggest mixed martial arts (MMA) promotion. That streak was broken by the loss to Kim, but he bounced back to beat top-rated contender Yusup Saadulaev earlier this year.
With an 11-3 overall record, Issa is undoubtedly in the mix in the rapidly improving ONE FC bantamweight division, but says with so many new fighters being added to the roster, the bar is being constantly raised.
"ONE FC is getting bigger all the time and there are many new and good fighters in the 135-pound category, so it is even more of a challenge for me to try to improve my skills and techniques and become a better fighter. Some of the best bantamweights in the world are also going for the title shot, but I am more focused to train harder because of that and I will do my best to get one more shot."
Recent additions to the ONE FC roster include Bibiano Fernandes, Koetsu Okazaki, Masakatsu Ueda and Ryan Diaz, who are all highly experienced and between them have won numerous belts with organizations such as Shooto, Dream and King of the Cage.
Fernandes currently holds the interim 135-pound belt and is likely to face Kim in a unification bout before the end of the year while Ueda recently beat three separate opponents to win the ONE FC Bantamweight Grand Prix and is tipped to be the next in line for a title shot.
Issa had initially been penciled in to face Diaz at ONE FC: "Pride of a Nation" in May, but was forced to withdraw from the fight due to injury and Saadulaev stepped in to replace him. The Russian scored a second-round submission, a result which 'Brodinho' says he was expecting.
"Ryan Diaz stand-up skills are good, but I was not surprised Saadualev submitted him because he is good on the ground."
The decision victory over Saadulaev took Issa's ONE FC record to 3-1 and no one in the bantamweight division has registered more wins. With Fernandes about to face Kim, Ueda waiting in the wings and Saadulaev and Kevin Belingon both in better form of late, the division is already crowded, but the Brazilian has his eye on one fight in particular.
"I wanna fight Soo Chul Kim again, last time we fought I made a mistake in the first round when I took him on the ground and never finished him and on the second round he caught me on that one perfect punch. All fighters experience defeat, but I learned from that experience and would like to fight him a third time."
With the title tied up by the unification bout between Kim and Fernandes, a eliminator between Issa and Ueda is an option which ONE FC matchmaker Matt Hume might like to explore and the Brazilian says he would be open to a fight with the 16-2-2 former Shooto champion.
"Ueda is also a very tough fighter but I believe I can match up with him because I train at Evolve, the best academy in Asia with all the world champions and coaches who I believe can help to make me a better fighter than him."
Although only 29 years-old, Issa is already something of a veteran in Asian MMA terms. He has been based in Singapore since 2009 and has fought there six times, allowing him to witness first hand the explosive growth the sport has enjoyed and the impact ONE FC has had on the scene.
"ONE FC is one of the biggest MMA shows in the world now and it has made MMA very famous in Singapore. When I first came here not many people knew about MMA, but a lot of people know who I am because I am a ONE FC fighter and they see my fights on the television."
Issa is also one of the founding members of Evolve MMA which was established in 2009 and has grown to the point where it is universally recognized as being the premier academy in Asia.
"I have been with Evolve MMA since it started and I have been an instructor for four and a half years. Evolve has offered the best in every aspect of my life and honed me not only as a good teacher, but a true MMA fighter. When I was in Brazil I only trained in BJJ, but here I can work with the best coaches in Muay Thai, BJJ, wrestling and boxing."
None of the main bantamweight title contenders are currently scheduled to compete at ONE FC: "Kojima vs Leone" in September, but with cards set to take place in Kuala Lumpur, Singapore and Manila before the end of the year, Issa should have plenty of opportunity to prove he deserves a second shot at the bantamweight belt.