We are in a new era of Asian MMA. Promotions like ONE Championship and Rizin are at the forefront but fighters have not forgotten their roots.

Ryuto Sawada, who fights at ONE: ‘Mark of Greatness’, next week, takes inspiration from a Pride era legend. The Japanese flyweight started to pursue an interest in martial arts after watching Kazushi Sakuraba,

“I’ve always looked up to him, and even now I want to be a fighter like him. He was the smaller guy taking on the bigger guys, and he really got the crowd excited. I’ve always been attracted to that style of fighting – taking a submission win and raising the roof.”

Sawada has been booked to face Bokang Masunyane in Kuala Lumpur on Friday night. With both men required to tip the scales at 125lbs and pass hydration tests for this strawweight fight.

Wrestling roots

It means Sawada probably won’t be taking on a much bigger opponent, like his hero Sakuraba regularly did. But it might turn out to be a wrestling match and that would suit the Japanese fighter just fine,

“What I loved about wrestling was you can start off with nothing, and not be strong at all, and if you keep at it and don’t give up, you’ll get stronger and better. I was in the wrestling club for the first year of high school (but) realized that it was mixed martial arts that I really wanted to do.”

These days Sawada is based at Evolve MMA in Singapore. He has won three in a row for ONE Warrior Series and ONE Championship and thinks leaving his native Japan behind was clearly the best move,

“I get a lot of support from my Evolve teammates and coaches – they’re doing everything to build me up. It feels like a solid team atmosphere. I’m always grateful to them.”

Fuelled his fire

Two of his four losses came at the hands of strawweights currently on the ONE Championship roster. Yoshitaka Naito and Yosuke Saruta would both go on to become title holders with the promotion Sawada currently calls home.

It’s a position the 24 year old yearns to be in and he knows exactly what he needs to do to get there,

“I want to keep winning one by one until I can challenge the ONE belt.”

The losses might have blemished his record. But Sawada says they also fueled his fire and made him more determined,

“I got used to turning the frustration of a loss into hard training for the next match.”

Entertaining style

Fighters from wrestling backgrounds haven’t always been fan favourites. But Sakuraba was and Sawada wants to establish a reputation for being an entertainer,

“My fight style is always looking for the finish from the get-go. That style is what I want to show the fans and get them cheering,”

Masunyane earned his ONE Championship contract on the back of a very entertaining outing at Pancrase 307. So whatever happens when these two strawweight face off on Friday, it should be fun.