Kimihiro Eto is out to prove a point in more ways than one when he steps back on to the big stage at ONE: ‘King of the Jungle’ in Singapore on Friday.
The 16-5 Japanese fighter has found himself pigeon-holed as a grappling specialist, and with good reason. He was raised in a family of judokas and this talent was front and centre during his impressive run through the ONE Warrior Series last year.
The former national champion in both freestyle and greco-roman wrestling, who also excelled at the collegiate level, put on a grappling clinic through a three-fight unbeaten streak in the developmental series that turned plenty of heads.
Eto’s three consecutive wins all came by way of submission, and each of those submissions was an arm-triangle choke. Now the 31-year-old wants to show fight fans that he’s far more than simply a ground-based fighter.
“Many people say my wrestling is strong,” said Eto. “But in mixed martial arts, the flow is between striking and grappling.
“I want to show everyone how smoothly I use them now.”
That said, Eto will take any route he can to ensure he has his hand raised against local hero Amir Khan at Singapore Indoor Stadium in his sophomore effort with the Asia-based promotion.
The last of those aforementioned wins came against Trestle Tan at OWS 4 and secured him the six-figure ONE Championship contract on which he’d had his sights set.
But the momentum he generated ground to a halt in his official promotional debut in Kuala Lumpur at ONE: ‘Masters of Destiny’ last July. Eto was given an opportunity to avenge his OWS 1 loss to Dae Sung Park but the rematch panned out just like the first fight.
In hindsight, Eto admits the pressure of the occasion got the better of him.
“I’d been focusing more on imagining the fight itself,” said Eto.
“In ONE Warrior Series, there is basically no audience. I had seen a big ONE Championship show before, but when I actually walked out to the ring for my last match, I was quite shocked by the huge atmosphere and I lost my concentration in the second round. So, in training, I’ve been closing my eyes and imagining the feeling of the big show before I start sparring. That part was missing from my last camp.”
And things won’t get any easier for him this weekend, when he steps inside the circle against veteran Khan. Despite being still just 25 years of age, the Singaporean has amassed 12 wins on the ONE stage in a professional career that dates back to 2014.
Both fighters are familiar with one another’s strengths and weaknesses, having trained extensively together at Singapore’s renowned Evolve MMA.
Fresh off his razor-close split decision win over New Zealand’s Ev Ting, Khan is confident he knows precisely how to exploit his former training partner.
“He is not so comfortable in striking exchanges. He doesn’t have a good eye on movements especially when it comes to incoming shots,” Khan explains.
“What he really excels at, though, is his wrestling, which I’ve trained with him. He even taught me some moves, so I am familiar with his moves. His wrestling is definitely better (than mine) but on the offensive side. I feel my takedown defense is better, so that would be the only advantage he has.
“I’m definitely not underestimating his striking, though – he could have made improvements from two years ago when we trained together, but I don’t feel it will be too big a threat for this contest. He has to take me down one way or another if he hopes to have a shot at winning.”
But Eto believes he has a clear path to victory against the former lightweight title challenger, and for as much as he wants to display his striking credentials, he knows where his bread will be buttered.
“My aim is to use feints and striking to set up the takedown. Depending on how I mix the strikes with takedowns – he will be conscious of both – I’ll be able to press him up against the cage,” Eto reveals.
“So, I’ve been putting together a plan to cut off his movement and use my takedowns. With the ring, it’s easier to get away, but you can’t do that with the cage. My specialty is using wrestling in the cage, so it’s much better for me.”
“He has a slightly longer reach so he’ll circle and throw jabs. When the distance closes, he’ll look for a counter with his right, throw the middle kick, and take his distance again. I feel that if I can get inside the pocket, I can get the takedown.”