Leandro Issa is 9-2 and riding a six-fight winning streak but the Brazilian has had to bide his time since defeating Soo Chul Kim last September. That wait came to an abrupt end this week when it was announced that he would be facing the legendary Masakazu Imanari in a co-headlining clash at ONE FC: Destiny of Warriors next month.
Imanari is the number one bantamweight in Japan and is coming off a first round submission victory over the previously undefeated Kevin Belingon at ONE FC’s most recent show, the seventh heel hook win of his career.
He has well and truly earned his ‘Master of Leg Locks’ nickname and is a second degree BJJ black belt with sixteen submission wins to his name. Issa is also packing a BJJ black belt and the Brazilian has won numerous competitions, most notably the Mundials. He has seven submission wins in MMA to his credit as well.
However, he has never faced anyone of Imanari’s caliber but still believes he is ready for the challenge and is looking forward to what will be the biggest fight of his career in front of 10,000 fans at Stadium Negara in Kuala Lumpur,
“He’s a great fighter, very dangerous on the ground and I am very happy to have this chance to test myself against such a famous fighter. I saw him fight at the last ONE FC and he is very dangerous with submissions so I will have to take care,” said Issa in an interview with Fighters.com.
As chance would have it, the two actually share a teammate in common as Issa has been training with Shinya Aoki in Singapore and Imanari used to be part of the same team as him in Japan. The Brazilian believes that having such highly skilled training partners at Evolve MMA could make the difference for him in this fight,
“At Evolve MMA we have BJJ world champions, Muay Thai word champions and now we have Heath Sims who is many times wrestling national champion. All in the same place so it is easy to train, in Brazil it would be maybe impossible to find different trainers like this and you would have to travel to many different places,” explained Issa of his camp.
In his last fight he showed some much improved stand up, which he attributed to the decorated team of Muay Thai trainers at Evolve MMA, but was disappointed not to be able to finish Kim after dominating much of the fight,
“To be honest I didn’t like my last fight because I lost some positions. but it was a great experience for my career to fight three round on such a big show with so many people there. I have fought on many different shows in Brazil and the US and China but I never see so many people watch MMA before,” he admitted.
Although Issa has not competed for a while he has not been taking any time off and is constantly training and looking to improve as a fighter even when he doesn’t have a fight. The trainers and athletes at Evolve MMA are all full-time, salaried staff meaning they continue to work together all year round, and as a result he thinks he thinks that come June 23 he will be a different fighter from the one who scored a decision over Kim.
“I am eight months without a fight but during that time I always training at Evolve Academy to improve my techniques and get better everywhere,” stated the 28-year old. “I’m always training to be able to improve because I think we learn new techniques when we are off season but but I can’t wait to fight again.”
Without having the ability to dictate where the fight takes place it is difficult for a BJJ practitioner like Issa to impose his ground game on an opponent and he says he has been working hard on his wrestling recently, saying, “I believe the wrestling is very important in MMA and will help me a lot to work my ground game. Heath Sims is very good coach and he has a lot experience in MMA and wrestling so he help Evolve Fight Team a lot. I’ve been training hard at Evolve MMA everyday and trying to improve on all my weaknesses.”
After spending most of his career at featherweight Issa recently made the drop down to 135 pounds and will have a significant size advantage against Imanari who is four inches shorter than him. It could be that in this contest he chooses to use that wrestling ability to try and keep the fight standing because he probably has superior stand up skills to the Japanese fighter but regardless of the outcome he says he will be staying in the bantamweight division.
“It is not very difficult for me to make the weight but I have to have discipline. I always fought for the featherweight but it was very easy to make weight and I felt small for featherweight so now I will make my career in bantamweight and I want to be champion, if ONE FC give me a chance I’m going to try to get the belt.”
Issa’s Evolve MMA team mate Yodsanan Sityodtong, a former WBA Super Featherweight champion, suffered the first defeat of his career when he was submitted by Jiang Long Yun at ONE FC: War of the Lions this past March. Issa already holds a 2010 win over the Chinese fighter and says he has been working with the Thai fighter to help him improve his ground game, revealing, “Me and Jak (Yodsanan) fight in same weight and we train together so he help me a lot doing Muay Thai and boxing and I help him on the ground game. Life here in Singapore is great, I live here three years and a half already and I feel at home. The training at Evolve MMA is amazing and I can learn so much, mark my words Evolve MMA will be the best MMA academy in the world soon.”
The bantamweight division is dominated by Brazilians with anything from three to five in the top ten depending on which set of rankings you use. After fighting in three different continents this is Issa’s opportunity to make his presence felt among them by beating the best bantamweight in all of Asia.
PHOTO CREDIT – ONE FC