Yusup Saadulaev stepped up to face Adriano Moraes on very short notice in the main event of ONE FC: Warrior Spirit and the Russian was rewarded for his dauntlessness with a split decision victory over the previously undefeated Brazilian in Kuala Lumpur.
Saadulav is better known for his Sambo than his striking, but he seized the initiative in the opening round of this catchweight bout, fought just under the bantamweight limit, attacking with a series of kicks and executing a textbook trip.
The Russian appeared to be firmly in control and following some frantic second-round stand-up exchanges in which both fighters were tagged, he caught a leg kick and took Moraes down. An almighty scramble ensued, which ended in Saadulaev escaping from side control and working for a leg lock.
As he sought to lock in the submission, he left himself exposed. Moraes took full advantage to land several hard punches with the bell sounding at the end of the round to save Saadulaev from the unanswered onslaught.
The momentum was with the Brazilian and after narrowly missing with a looping overhand right, he dragged Saadulaev to the ground. The Dream veteran worked his way and attempted an ambitious belly-to-belly suplex, only for Moraes to end up on top of him in mount.
Saadulaev succeeded in sliding out and, looking for a leg lock, ended up in side control. With the clock winding down and the Brazilian potentially ahead under the ONE FC overall scoring system, he needed an emphatic finish and scored with a series of knees to the head of his grounded opponent.
It was an entertaining and highly technical fight between two well-rounded fighters that could have gone either way. The judges were divided, but Saadulaev was the winner by a margin of two votes to one, handing Moraes the first defeat of his career.
For Saadulaev this win represented redemption as he went 0-2 with losses to Kevin Belingon and Leandro Issa at the start of his ONE FC career, but has now won his last two and is 11-3-1 overall. The win over Moraes follows his submission victory over Ryan Diaz in Manila.
Moraes drops to 9-1 after experiencing defeat for the first time. Despite being slightly taller than Saadulaev, the Brazilian normally competes at flyweight and will be a force to be reckoned with in the ONE FC 125-pound division.
In the co main event, Leandro Ataides announced himself as an immediate contender for the ONE FC 185-pound title when it is introduced with a dominant performance against seasoned French veteran Bryan Rafiq.
The Brazilian, who trains out of Evolve MMA in Singapore, is a multiple-time BJJ world champion, but looked very confident in his striking, landing hard low kicks before securing an early takedown and looking to land some ground and pound.
Rafiq used all his experience to work his way up. Ataides narrowly missed with a head kick before landing a flurry of punches that left his opponent collapsed on the ground in a dazed and disorientated state.
Replays showed that at least one of the punches connected just behind the ear causing the immediate lack of equilibrium. Ataides remains undefeated and with a 6-0 record he is an early frontrunner for the 185-pound belt, while Rafiq drops to 8-3, being stopped for the first time in his career.
Chris Lokteff came into his heavyweight fight with Tony Johnson Jr. with a reputation for being a big hitter. He lived up to the billing in the opening round, twice dropping the American wrestling standout with hard right hands.
Johnson showed a granite chin to survive and work for the takedown every time he got dropped, but decided to waste no time in shooting for a takedown in the second round, ducking under a kick attempt from Lokteff and grabbing a leg.
Using his 265-pound frame to full effect, Johnson went to work from top position, grinding away with short sharp elbows. He slowly moved Lokteff towards the cage and when the Australian turned away to try and escape, the King of the Cage and Bellator veteran took his back, sunk in his hooks and worked for a rear naked choke.
It appeared to be sunk in deep and the referee was taking a close look as Lokteff’s arms were flailing around as if he were on the verge of losing consciousness, but Johnson might have expended all his energy because he gave it up and the Australian immediately sprung to his feet and landed a series of brutal soccer kicks.
In the third round, the pace dropped with Johnson possibly paying the price for going all out with the earlier choke attempt. His takedown attempts were labored and Lokteff capitalized on one sloppy shot to land another vicious soccer kick that looked to have possibly broken the American’s nose.
Johnson came desperately close to finishing the fight with the second-round rear naked choke, but the judges all opted for the superior aggression and striking of the Australian, giving Lokteff a win that takes his record to 12-1. The only other fighter to previously defeat his now 7-2 opponent was Strikeforce heavyweight champion Daniel Cormier.
Earlier in the night, up-and-coming Malaysian flyweight prospect Gianni Subba made it three stoppage wins out of three in the ONE FC cage when he stopped compatriot Chen Yun Ting with a barrage of elbows in the opening round.
The 20-year-old got the early takedown and then subjected Ting to a vicious onslaught of ground and pound that let him bloody, battered, and unable to defend himself. The win takes Subba to 3-0 and cements his status as one of the most exciting young fighter in Asia, while Ting drops to 1-1.
Another Malaysian to taste victory in front of his hometown crowd was lightweight Peter Davis, whose Egyptian opponent Alaa Mazkoum acquitted himself far better than his 1-0 record might have suggested.
Davis came out aggressively, but was knocked back by the Wushu champion, who looked to mount some offence from inside his opponent’s guard. He was tied up by the Malaysian model, who escaped and shot for an immediate takedown, locking in a head-and-arm choke only to see his opponent saved by the bell.
Davis is primarily known for his Kung Fu based striking, but looked to implement a wrestling based game plan and shot for the takedown almost immediately in the second round. Mazloum tried to capitalize with a guillotine choke, but the hometown hero used all his experience to escape and sink in his hooks from a sideways position while clinching up against the cage.
It is a move made famous by his Muayfit teammate Eric Kelly, but Davis executed it to perfection. Once Davis had the back of the Egyptian, it was only a matter of time before the rear naked choke forced a tap, which takes the Malaysian to 7-3 and breaks his two-fight losing snap, while Mazlou drops to 1-1.
Another fighter who is very popular with the Kuala Lumpur crowd is flyweight Saiful Merican. The Muay Thai specialist claimed his second successive win with a hard-fought decision victory against Cambodian Tok Sophon, which leaves both fighter’s tally standing at 2-1.
The biggest upset of the night came in the final of the Malaysian 145-pound Grand Prix when favourite Melvin Yeoh was outwrestled and outworked by AJ Mansour, who took home a trophy and snapped a three-fight losing skid. The first ever ONE FC national champion is 2-3 overall, while his opponent is now 7-2.
On the undercard, Samir Mrabet (3-0) beat Steven Durr (1-2) by decision, Nik Harris (5-2) beat Zuli SIlawanto (7-6) by TKO (retirement), and Casey Suire (4-0) beat Raymond Tan (2-1) with a firs-round guillotine choke.
Next up for Asia’s biggest MMA promotion is ONE FC: Moment of Truth, which is set for the SM Mall of Asia in Manila on Dec. 6 and will be headlined by a 145-pound title rematch between current belt holder Koji Oishi (24-9-10) and recently deposed champion Honorio Banario (8-2).
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