In the early days of ONE Championship, it was in desperate need to build legitimate star power. Their solution was to create Grand Prix tournaments that would make it easier for fans to follow fighters and hype future title fights.
This series will take a look at the winners of these tournaments. Their fights, the aftermath, and where they are now.
In this article, we’ll be looking at Masakatsu Ueda.
Looking back at it now, it seems like the Bantamweight Grand Prix was the only reason Ueda signed with ONE. He was already a Shooto veteran and champion with one-off fights in AFC and Bellator before his relatively short career with the promotion.
His 15-2 run from 2005-2012 includes wins over Royler Gracie, Kyoji Horiguchi, Eduardo Dantas, and Koetsu Okazaki, who would fight Bibiano Fernandes for the Interim Bantamweight belt in 2013.
Just looking at the resume Ueda already had coming in, there was little doubt that he was the favorite to win the tournament.
First Of Its Kind
The Bantamweight Grand Prix tournament began on ONE: Rise of Kings – the promotion’s sixth event.
Many fans consider this card as ONE’s first actual blockbuster event because of all the bells and whistles on offer. Not only did the event include the entire slate of the Grand Prix Quarterfinals, it also had the fight for the inaugural Bantamweight and Featherweight belts.
Other than their very first card, this event has few rivals in the early days of ONE in terms of history.
Besides Ueda, the tournament included Zhao Ya Fei, Min Jung Song, Yusup Saadulaev, Kevin Belingon, Thanh Vu, Mohd Fouzein, and Jens Pulver. The first round went like this.
- Pulver beat Zhao via Unanimous Decision
- Belingon beat Saadulaev via TKO in the first round
- Ueda beat Min via Unanimous Decision
- Thanh beat Fouzein via TKO in the first round*
*This fight actually took place on ONE: Return of Warriors
The Favorites Rise to the Top
The semi-finals of the Bantamweight Grand Prix took place in the Main Card of ONE: Kings and Champions. Fans may remember this card best as the event where Shinya Aoki beat Kotetsu Boku to become the ONE Lightweight Champion for the first time.
In the first fight, Belingon went up against Thanh and it’s safe to say the Vietnamese fighter had nothing to offer the eventual champion. Not only did Belingon have his way with the kicks, but he also got two takedowns.
Belingon ended the fight via TKO in the second round after rocking Thanh with a couple of head kicks and chasing him down with punches. If you watch the fight, you can actually see Thanh’s eyes roll to the back of his head. No one can really blame the ref for stopping it.
The second fight between Ueda and Pulver was no less exciting. Pulver knew coming in that the game plan for the Japanese was to use wrestling as the main weapon of attack. It was apparent that the former UFC Champion put a lot of effort in his ground game.
Unfortunately, his preparations weren’t enough.
Ueda was able to lock in a beautiful D’arce choke in the last two minutes of the second round to book his ticket to the Finale.
ONE Crowns Its First Grand Prix Champion
The finale of the Bantamweight Grand Prix was held just over a month after the semi-final at ONE: Rise to Power. A night Filipino fans remember in infamy as the worst event for their hometown heroes, bar none.
Ueda and Belingon was the 8th fight of the night with the odds having the Japanese as a moderate favorite. This was a classic striker versus grappler match, promising a lot of back and forth.
The first round was mostly Ueda; he had to eat a kick and a knee on his first two takedown attempts, but he finally got Belingon to the ground to threaten a Kimura. Belingon managed to escape and scramble back to his feet just as the bell rang.
The second round was more of the same from Ueda. After getting side control, he went to focus on an arm and threatened a submission.
His efforts didn’t go anywhere though, as Belingon scrambled free to hit Ueda in the face as they got up for good measure. The fight was still firmly in Ueda’s favor but Belingon was slowly improving at getting the fight back up to the feet.
After being an all-Ueda show, the dial turned dramatically as a flurry of strikes from Belingon cut the Japanese over the right eye. Ueda went for a takedown in desperation, but in the confusion, landed underneath his opponent for the first time in the tournament.
Ueda showed his grit at the last minute though, and reversed position, eventually advancing to full mount he rained down the ground and pound for the last ten seconds of the fight.
The outcome of the fight via Unanimous Decision was never in doubt.
Taking on the Flash
Ueda had to wait for nearly a year before he could reap the fruit of his tournament win with a title shot. Bibiano Fernandes was the newly-minted champ after beating Soo Chul Kim at ONE: Total Domination.
Masakatsu Ueda would be Fernandes’ first challenger at ONE: Rise of Heroes.
Nobody expected the fight to stay on the feet for very long. It was only a matter of who can get the better of the chess match on the ground. Everyone was wrong.
Except for the last minutes of the first, third and fifth round, it might as well have been a kickboxing match. This felt like the champion showcasing his striking skills. Bibiano was sending a statement to the rest of the division. I can stand and strike too.
Bibiano hit nearly every take down he attempted. When the fight went to the ground, the champion easily slid into either full mount or onto Ueda’s back. The Grand Prix tournament winner was looking like an amateur.
The only positive that can be taken from Ueda’s performance is that he gave Bibiano a shiner that almost covered the Brazilian’s left eye. This was a dominant defense for Bibiano and what turned out to be Ueda’s last fight in ONE.
Life After ONE
Ueda went on a 7-2 streak in Pancrase for the next three years. He beat Victor Henry, Luis Noguiera, Hidekazu Fukushima, and Jun Doi. He got enough steam to fight for an Interim Bantamweight title against Rafael Silva.
Unfortunately, that fight didn’t go in his favor, as Silva got the win with a Unanimous Decision.
After the loss to Silva, Ueda announced his retirement from MMA, taking off his gloves and putting them in the center of the cage.
He made the announcement official with a Facebook post.
I officially retired from MMA at May 20th. It was about 13 year of career as a MMA fighter. I showed everything I had through the 5R fight against Rafael Silva. I’m so glad that I was able to fight the great fighter as my last opponent.
I’ve fought many times in Japan & overseas and met a lot of great people. I was able to purse my fight career because of the people who supported me. I’d like to show my appreciation to all the people around me.
Thanks so much.-Masakatsu Ueda
He’s more comfortable competing in his native Japan, which is understandable. He can live well fighting for Pancrase with none of the logistic obstacles that a multi-country promotion like ONE demands.
He may have challenged Bibiano for the belt a second time. If Belingon was able to do it and even win one of them, there’s little reason to think Ueda wouldn’t do the same.
Ueda definitely has enough talent to stay in the top tier of any Bantamweight division, and may even have been the best in the world for a time. He just never got the global recognition many feel he deserves.
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