Mention the name “Masakazu Imanari” to anyone who has followed martial arts closely over the last decade or so, and you’ll be greeted with a knowing nod and a mention of leg locks.
That’s because the Japanese veteran has become the gold standard for leg locks in the cage over the past 18 years.
Known as “Askikan-Judan”, which translates to “Master of Leg Locks”, Imanari is a bona-fide legend in the sport. His unique style of in-cage grappling has marked him out as one of the most exciting submission specialists in the cage for almost two decades.
Despite his remarkable record and rarely-seen approach, Imanari (36-16-2) admits he wasn’t that remarkable as a youngster.
“I was like any other kid,” the 41-year-old.
“I enjoyed catching insects and playing Nintendo, but I definitely was not the most academic. I was a pretty fast runner, and always got high scores in Physical Education.”
He may have shown early signs of athletic potential, but he didn’t have any focus back then. That played a major part in him become what he described as “a troublesome kid”.
“I simply was not well-behaved,” he said.
Struggling to find friends and suffering with a chronic spine condition, Imanari’s only major interest was martial arts. He and his older brother were fascinated by the likes of Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee, but Imanari didn’t start training until at least 18 years of age.
His development moved up a gear after a succession of surgeries helped free up the movement in his back, and after initially training at a kickboxing gym, he transitioned to grappling, where he found his sweet spot. It was at that point that he decided to seek his fortune competing professionally.
“[I knew] from when I first started martial arts,” he explains. “When I told people, they would reply with a surprised expression like, ‘You?’”
He debuted in 2000, earning a draw, before taking two years to hone his skills before appearing again. That return performance saw him claim a heel hook submission win. It was the sign of things to come.
Imanari quickly became famous for his array of leg attacks, as he claimed a host of submissions using heel hooks, toe holds, and kneebars. He became a three-time world champion in DEEP across two weight classes, as well as becoming the only man to ever hold the Cage Rage Featherweight Title in the UK.
He even made a brief appearance in ONE Championship, submitting future bantamweight world title challenger Kevin Belingon with a reverse heel hook in March 2012 at ONE: WAR OF THE LIONS. His forward momentum in the ONE cage was halted by Brazilian Leandro Issa via unanimous decision at ONE: DESTINY OF WARRIORS three months later.
That loss prompted Imanari to return home to Japan to compete on the regional scene until the right opportunity presented itself. Now, five years later, that opportunity has arrived, and “Ashikan-Judan” is back, ready to claim another big win inside the ONE Championship cage.
Imanari will take on fellow BJJ black belt Yusup “Maestro” Saadulaev (16-4-1, 1 NC) in a bantamweight clash at ONE: KINGS OF COURAGE at Indonesia’s Jakarta Convention Center on Saturday, 20 January.
“What led me back?” he muses. “I could say destiny.”
That destiny will pit him against a fellow submission specialist, with the Dagestani athlete coming into the bout on a four-match win streak, with 11 of his 14 career wins coming by way of submission.
Saadulaev’s own mat skills will mean he’ll have few concerns about engaging in a grappling contest with Imanari on the ground, and that should make for a fascinating clash.
“His strength is in his wrestling and as for his weakness, I will find out when we meet,” said Imanari.
”We will just have to wait and see how the match goes. I am not relying on a particular game plan.
“I think I will make a big statement, and this win will be a big one.”