When Yusuke Kawanago first fought Rob Lisita in 2012, the Legend FC 145-pound title was on the line, the bout was held inside a ring, and the Japanese fighter won a clear-cut unanimous decision after repeatedly rocking his Australian opponent with knees.
Nearly two years have elapsed since that night in Hong Kong and much has changed in the intervening months. Both fighters are now signed to ONE FC and will be making their promotional debuts when they rematch on May 2 at the SM Mall of Asia Arena in Manila.
Their ONE FC: Rise of Heroes bout will take place in a cage, and the promotion’s rules, which allow soccer kicks and knees to the head of a grounded opponent, will be in full effect; plus, Lisita has shown in recent wins that he is a completely different fighter from the one Kawanago beat.
So while it will be the same two fighters standing opposite one another when the bell sounds, it will be a completely different fight and Kawanago has devised a special strategy for it.
“The knees were my strategy at the last time. I have a different strategy for this time and if I make it work I must win. It’s named ‘Kaeabago Bober’,” he said.
The meaning of that phrase remains a mystery, but it is one that Lisita will have to solve if he wants to avenge his defeat to Kawanago, who despite showcasing his striking skills in the first fight has a very underrated submission game.
Lisita’s striking looked somewhat sloppy during the defeat to Kawanago and the Australian employed a slightly one-dimensional approach that consisted of shooting for a takedown at every available opportunity.
However, in recent fights, Lisita’s stand-up has looked to be on a completely different level and Kawanago admits the opponent he is facing on May 2 will be quite unlike the one he beat to win the Legend FC belt.
“I think his skills and techniques for ground and striking have improved,” he said.
Lisita was frustrated during the first fight because on the few occasions he did succeed in taking Kawanago down they ended up entangled in the ropes and the referee consistently elected to stand the fighters up rather than restart them in the original position.
At ONE FC: Rise of Heroes they will be competing inside a circular cage, but Kawanago, who has spent his entire career fighting in the ring, does not feel that this is necessarily a factor in his opponent’s favor.
“I do not think that it will be difficult in the cage. I even think that I will have more advantages in the cage,” he said.
Kawanago’s record stands at an impressive 13-3-2, but there is an asterisk beside two of those defeats because they came courtesy of highly debatable split decisions. The first was at the hands of Kensaku Nakamura at a Pancrase event in 2010 and the second was against Mark Striegl at Legend FC 5, an outcome that was largely described as “the robbery of the year.”
While Kawanago does not agree with the judging of either contest, he is not making excuses and blames himself for not being more decisive.
“As you can see from the videos, I do not think I lost; however, it is my responsibility to finish the fight.”
He came close to finishing Lisita in the first fight when a flying knee at the end of the second round connected cleanly with the Australian’s chin of the Australian, who was saved by the bell as Kawanago unleashed a barrage of ground and pound.
Lisita looked to be on wobbly legs as he made his way back to the corner on that occasion and Kawanago has his sights firmly set on securing a finish at ONE FC: Rise of Heroes.
“I always aim to finish fights and I have been training to do that and even picturing in my mind how I will finish him,” he said.
There is another big featherweight fight coming up at ONE FC: Honor & Glory on May 30, when Martin Nguyen and Bruno Pucci put their perfect professional records on the line against one another, but there is no doubt the winner of the bout between Kawanago and Lisita will be a strong contender for an immediate title shot.
Kawanago is very familiar with the reigning champion Koji Oishi, who, like him, is a Pancrase veteran and would not be averse to challenging him for the title.
“Oishi is a great fighter and of course I would like to challenge for the title, but my career target is to win the ONE FC belt and it does not matter who I have to fight to do that. So until I get a title shot, I will just focus on beating whoever is in front of me, one by one,” he said.
Kawanago has spent the majority of his career competing for Pancrase, although he fought four times for Legend FC before the Hong Kong headquartered promotion folded with him as the reigning 145-pound champion.
It left Kawanago as one of the most eligible free agents on the open market, but the 31-year-old ultimately decided to sign with ONE FC and is looking forward to making his mark in Asia’s biggest MMA promotion.
“I think that I can fight strong fighters at ONE FC and that it is the biggest MMA event in the entire Asia and very close to the biggest in the world. I am very honored to fight in ONE FC and I really appreciate being given such a wonderful opportunity.”
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