The ONE Super Series is packed with the world’s best exponents of the striking arts, and another world-class addition to the roster will make his promotional debut on 27 July.
Panicos Yusuf will step under the ONE Championship lights for the first time in a ONE Super Series bantamweight bout against Top King Muay Thai World Champion Han Zi Hao.
The bout forms part of the stacked card for ONE: REIGN OF KINGS at the Mall of Asia Arena, Manila, and will mark the latest step in a journey that has taken Yusuf from a quiet childhood upbringing in Cyprus to the Mall of Asia Arena in front of a potential audience of more than a billion viewers.
“It was a free childhood,” he says of his early years in Cyprus.
“I was able to play outside a lot, climb trees, play football and have scraps like most boys.
“We were in a village and we had free reign of the place. It was a really safe place to be.”
Both of his parents were hard workers – his father was a labourer and his mother was a cleaner – and Yusuf picked up their work ethic as part of his own makeup.
“They stayed positive, worked hard and provided for us so we could have a better life,” he says.
“My work ethic has helped me through my career, and that’s because of my parents. By the time I was 8, my dad took me to his valeting job with him and I used to work 12-hour shifts.
“Every summer holiday I was working while my mates were going to the beach. My mum never let me spend the money – [she] made me open an account and save it.
“They are my role models. To go what they’ve been through and make me the man I am today – there’s not reward great enough to give them. The only thing I can do is make them proud and be the person they want me to be.”
Yusuf’s time away from work was predominantly spent pursuing athletic endeavours. He played any sport he could find, but was inspired to try martial arts after watching his on-screen heroes Jean-Claude Van Damme, Bruce Lee, Jet Li and Jackie Chan on TV.
Initially, he tried karate as an 8-year-old, but soon became frustrated by the lack of contact in training, so he transitioned to other sporting disciplines: football, swimming, volleyball and cycling.
But his “play anything” approach soon gave way to a singular focus when he discovered Muay Thai.
“Within four weeks I quit every team I was in to do that every night, and two months in, I had my first fight in the Cyprus championships,” he said.
“It was fairly new in Cyprus, so the level was quite low. I lost my first fight – I think I just gave up in the second round – but I was so disappointed I just wanted to get in again straight away.”
That determination saw him do whatever it took to succeed.
It paid off. He compiled an excellent 36-6 record and captured two Muay Thai world titles.
During that time, he also found a soulmate as he married his wife Cara and moved to the United Kingdom
There, he took up a full-time job in order to help pay for his training, and even made regular trips to Sitjaopho gym in Huahin, Thailand to get the best preparation for his bouts.
He would also diversify his career in martial arts when he took over the running of All Powers Gym in Stockport, England.
The rigours of running the gym took him out of action for two years, but when he returned to action, he went on a remarkable 23-bout win streak.
But despite his obvious talent and growing record, Yusuf still did not feel as if he was a ‘professional’ athlete.
“I probably never saw it as a profession because it was never financially substantial enough to maintain my lifestyle,” he explains.
“With being a husband, father, having a mortgage and a gym to run, it was hard.”
Looking for a more lucrative pursuit, he transitioned his skills to mixed martial arts.
“If I could make it to the top to a big organisation, it would be worth it because I could continue doing what I loved, which was fighting,” he explains.
After getting a few bouts under his belt, Yusuf flew to Japan in a bid to impress Rich Franklin during the ONE vice president’s talent-spotting show, “Rich Franklin’s ONE Warrior Series.”
Yusuf was not able to do himself justice, as his workouts were plagued with jet lag, but despite heading home with only advice to improve his grappling to show for his efforts, a better offer soon followed.
“A couple of months later, ONE Super Series was starting and they wanted me on board. I was super excited because I was able to do the original thing I was most passionate about – and I could get paid,” Yusuf says.
It is the opportunity he dreamed of, and he plans on taking it with both hands as he makes his competitive bow on a huge global stage.
“I’m excited about fighting in the Philippines. [Manila] is my mum’s hometown and I’ve always wanted to go,” he says.
“I don’t really know anyone there, and I don’t think many people know I’m half Filipino because my last name is Yusuf, but it’s exciting for me.
“It’s my chance to make my debut and have a great performance for ONE.”