Leandro Issa is heading to his next fight this October with a chance to be crowned as the first ONE FC Bantamweight Champion. The 29-year-old BJJ champion is 10-2, and has won his last seven fights, including a dominant victory over Masakazu Imanari last June. He has looked impressive as of late, and in an interview with BloodyElbow.com, the Evolve MMA product talked about a myriad of topics including being rewarded with a title shot.
"It feels very good," Issa said as he talked about getting a shot at the promotion's inaugural title, "I have been working for a long time for a chance like this, and ONE FC is the biggest MMA event in Asia now so to be the champion would be very good for me. I always dreamed of being a world champion in MMA and being so close to my dream is very exciting. I have to work hard to make sure it happen."
He will be facing Soo Chul Kim, and while most pundits have him as a favorite after already having a win over the young Korean fighter, Issa clearly isn't taking this chance and his opponent lightly.
"I am not the champion yet. I still have to win and I know I am fighting against a very good opponent who is very tough, younger than me, and always getting better every time he fights."
"Winning the belt would mean everything but now I am just concentrating on training at Evolve MMA. Every day I train with world champions in BJJ, Muay Thai, boxing, and with Olympic and NCAA wrestlers," he continued, "I don't want to talk about being champion, I just want to train like champion and if I do that I believe everything will be good in my career."
He faced Kim a little over a year ago, when the Korean fighter was still technically a teenager. It was an entertaining back and forth battle, and although he still had his hand raised, he knows this fight won't be the same as a lot have changed in the last 13 months.
"For sure (his MMA game has improved greatly)," he said, "He just beat two very good fighters, very experienced with a lot of wins. He has fought a lot since his fight with me and it was against strong fighters, not easy fights. Now he is 20 and he has fought 10 times already, only two less fights than me, and I am already 29. He is learning all the time and is a very dangerous fighter, this will not be an easy fight."
The Singapore-based Brazilian fighter clearly respects his opponent, but he is very confident that his overall game has also improved leaps and bounds after some very significant coaching changes and additions to his camp.
"For me one thing that has changed is Heath Sims and Jake Butler joining Evolve MMA, who are both very strong wrestlers," he exclaimed, "I have always had trainers who are Muay Thai world champions like Orono Wor Petchpun and Attachai Fairtex, so many BJJ world champions like Zoro, Ximbica and Fabricio, and also Yodsanan who is a boxing world champion, but wrestling is very important for MMA and I have learned a lot from Heath and from Jake. I think that is one big difference. When you train with world champions every week, a year is a very long time. For sure I am a better fighter than I was last time we fought."
"He is good at everything, wrestling, stand up, BJJ and he has very good cardio, but I am black belt BJJ, so for sure he is not as good as me at that, and I feel sure my wrestling and Muay Thai are better than his," Issa said as he talked about the stylistic match up, "I think if he tried to train with some of my training partners he would have a problem. When you work your wrestling with guys like Heath, your BJJ with guys like Zoro, your Muay Thai with guys like Orono there is not too much to be frightened of. Soo Chul Kim is good, but he is not a world champion at anything."
While Issa has always been regarded as one of the most promising fighters in the region, another name that instantly pops up during discussions of top notch bantamweights is Bibiano Fernandes. The fighter who is ranked by the consensus as top 9 in the world, successfully made his ONE FC debut last month by defeating a fellow decorated BJJ fighter in Gustavo Falciroli.
Following the victory, the former two-division DREAM champion will be having a new baby, and decided to take some time off to spend time with his family. He has been promised the future title shot though, and Issa also talked about the possibility that their paths may cross in the future.
"Bibiano Fernandes is very famous. He's a DREAM champion, a BJJ champion, and I have known about him for a long time because he was very good at BJJ in Brazil, and I saw him in some competitions so I know who he is," Issa said, "I was not disappointed (that he isn't my first opponent for the title) because this is not my job to choose who should fight for the title, but if ONE FC wants me to fight with Bibiano in the future, then let's do it."
"Maybe in the future I will fight Bibiano but now I am only thinking about my fight with Soo Chul Kim. I don't think too much about other fighters, I only think about myself and my training. When it is time to fight, Chatri and Heath will look at the fighter, decide the gameplan, and talk to me about what they want me to do in the fight."
As for the bantamweight title picture, Fernandes will be waiting on the wings, and so will the winner of the Bantamweight Grand Prix which also starts on ONE FC 6. The line up includes talented fighters such as Masakatsu Ueda, Jens Pulver, Kevin Belingon, and Yusup Saadulaev, and while Issa has insisted that he's only focused on Kim, he did give some insight about the tourney.
"I don’t know who will win." said Issa, who had a hard time picking a tournament favorite, "Masakatsu Ueda and Yusup Saadulaev are very good fighters though, and I am happy that the best bantamweights in the world are signing with ONE FC because I want to fight the best."
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