The Real Winners and Losers from ONE Championship: A New Era

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    ONE Championship/Getty Images

    ONE Championship went to Tokyo and the Ryogoku Kokugikan Arena for their biggest event to date on Sunday.

    The event was appropriately titled  A New Era—because that is exactly what it is supposed to begin.

    The showcase was not simply stacked to be stacked. This was an announcement to the world of the promotion’s intention to compete with the biggest MMA brands and become their equal. An announcement that it boasts some of the world’s greatest talent and can put forth shows that will leave fans salivating for more.

    Mission accomplished.

    Three of four title fights have definitive finishes. Shinya Aoki breezed through Eduard Folayang with his signature grappling, Xiong Jingnan made a brilliant comeback to stop “Unstoppable” Angela Lee and Aung La N Sang put a stamp on Ken Hasegawa. The fourth title fight was marred by a disqualification after illegal elbow strikes from Kevin Belingon landed to the back of Bibiano Fernandes’ head.

    Former UFC champions Demetrious Johnson and Eddie Alvarez both made their organizational debuts, but only one was successful, proving that ONE Championship is not a promotion they can simply dominate.

    What else happened? Who made their mark? Who had significant setbacks? Let’s answer those questions with the real winners and losers coming out of Tokyo and ONE Championship’s  A New Era.

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    ONE Championship/Getty Images

    The event had a couple of low points, chiefly the bantamweight title fight disqualification, but all in all, ONE Championship got the stellar event it had hoped for in Tokyo.

    It was an important event for the promotion. Four title fights, two key debuts and several other marquee fighters wee all on one card as ONE Championship expanded its global footprint. A boring card would have been disastrous. Instead, ONE was able to showcase not only the brand but also its homegrown talent.

    Their top featherweight prospect, Garry Tonon, showed out with a first-round TKO. Timofey Nastyukhin helped validate their roster with a first-round knockout over Eddie Alvarez. Demetrious Johnson looked outstanding in his submission victory. Oh, and three of the four title fights delivered.

    There is little doubt that ONE Championship earned a swathe of new fans after the event. It was fun, exciting and a little different from the norm.

    There is still a wide gap between ONE and the UFC, but this event will help show that ONE is growing and viable alternative for fans and fighters. Only time will tell how far ONE can go, but if it continues to grow and becomes a serious threat to become the top MMA organization in the world, we will all look back to A New Era as the jumping-off point.

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    Shinya Aoki is almost a cult figure in this sport. He is an odd duck with a specific skill set that has entertained fans for years. But he had dropped into a bit of obscurity after falling on hard times.

    In November of 2016, Aoki lost the ONE lightweight title to Eduard Folayang by TKO. He returned more than a year later to face Ben Askren for the middleweight title. Another TKO loss. He was considered past his prime and another fallen star riding out his time in a lesser promotion.

    After three straight wins in 2018, Aoki began to rewrite the script. He was back and ready to challenge for the lightweight belt in front of his compatriots.

    Not only did Aoki even the score with Folayang, but he dominated. A quick 2:34 arm-triangle submission. He looked outstanding and like his old self.

    Is Aoki over the hill and washed up? Not if the main event was any indication. He is still a scary grappler with incredible grip strength. He had Folayang trapped in the choke quickly and put him to sleep. Aoki celebrated in front of the crowd to thunderous applause and once again ascended to a title.

    Prepare yourself for another run atop the mountain, Mr. Aoki.

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    It is only natural for promotions to find ways to distinguish themselves from the pack, and having alternate classifications for weight classes is not uncommon. Pride also had different classifications when it was in competition with the UFC.

    However, it’s not 2007 any more, and the unified weight classes recognized almost universally by sanctioning bodies should be the norm. ONE Championship should assimilate as soon as possible.

    The main reason is as simple as keeping fans informed of what they are watching. How many new fans tuned into ONE Championship’s huge event to see Eddie Alvarez or Demetrious Johnson compete did not realize they were in new divisions? Alvarez’s lightweight division is 170 pounds, and Johnson’s flyweight bid is at 135 pounds.

    Weight matters in the sport, and fans have a right to know where fighters are competing. By essentially naming its weight classifications one division down from the global standard, ONE Championship is keeping fans in the dark.

    This is a simple fix and would help fans understand what weights fighters are competing at. Weight classifications should be ubiquitous, but that isn’t the case in ONE Championship.

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    On March 2, Weili Zhang defeated Tecia Torres by unanimous decision at UFC 235. It was considered by many to be the biggest victory by a Chinese mixed martial artist to date. On Saturday, it was usurped by ONE Championship strawweight champion Xiong Jingnan.

    Angela Lee has been the calling card for ONE’s global expansion, but she was moving up in weight to take on “The Panda” in a bid for history as the youngest double champion. Jingnan, like many on the ONE roster, has flown under the radar as a top-tier fighter. That may have changed after her gritty performance at A New Era.

    Lee was winning the fight with her length and grappling. Jingnan had a few moments, but nothing too substantial. In the fourth round, Lee nearly finished the fight with a triangle armbar. Jingnan’s face turned purple while her arm was bent backward. She didn’t give up. She showed championship mettle and a warrior’s heart.

    In the fifth, she attacked Lee’s body. Lee was tired and broken. The body shots paid off, and Jingnan poured it on to earn the stoppage.

    Without debate, given the opponent and stage of A New Era, Jingnan owns the biggest win in Chinese MMA history. But more importantly for China’s MMA base, the wins from Zhang and Jingnan show the nation is emerging. Where many promotions had hoped for promising stars, UFC and ONE have cultivated two potential stars from the region.

    Chinese MMA is on the rise, and it may just be a matter of time before the world stage is flooded with more talent as they are inspired by the grit, determination and talent of both Zhang and Jingnan.

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    Ken Hasegawa and Aung La N Sang put forth a Fight of the Year contender last year for the middleweight title. N Sang retained with a late-round stoppage to keep his double-champion status.

    N Sang is one of the faces of ONE Championship. The light heavyweight and middleweight champion defends both belts unlike a lot of other “champ champs.” Going back and forth between the divisions is difficult, but N Sang has managed to do it at a high level. He continued that trend with a second-round TKO at  A New Era.

    It was a beautiful straight right hand that sat Hasegawa on the mat. He followed up with some heavy ground-and-pound to force the stoppage, but it was the straight right that did all the damage.

    This was a big win for N Sang, as it established him as one of the best fighters in the world. While the consistent level of competition doesn’t quite add up to what a UFC champion has to go through, N Sang’s run as a double champion has to be respected everywhere.

    Additionally, he got a significant callout after the fight. Former UFC prospect and ONE Championship heavyweight champion Brandon Vera entered the cage to challenge Nsang for the light heavyweight title. An October date was proposed, and N Sang accepted.

    That is a significant fight and another premier headlining opportunity for N Sang.

    Myanmar can celebrate its star and recognize him as one of the world’s top fighters.

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    Eddie Alvarez exited the UFC as one of the top-five ranked lightweights in the organization. He took his talents to ONE Championship to compete in their 170-pound tournament. Although he was fighting up a weight class, the general thought was Alvarez was the favorite.

    And why not? ONE Championship’s roster is not filled with the notable names like the UFC or even Bellator. So surely he would walk through these unknown fighters en route to another title.

    Timofey Nastyukhin had other plans.

    The result was not simply one lucky punch. Nastyukhin was in control for most of the first round. He stalked Alvarez, took his time, picked his shots and hurt the Underground King with heavy punches. He had Alvarez stunned earlier in the round before the finish.

    It was a big win for Nastyukhin, but it’s a bigger loss for Alvarez. Losing later in the tournament may have been more understandable, but to lose to on his ONE Championship debut is damaging to his stock and makes his exit from the UFC look even worse.

    Given ONE Championship’s weight-cutting restrictions, he may not even be able to go back to 155 pounds. Can he survive at 170 for an extended period of time? That has to be a major question following a knockout loss to a fighter not even on most pundit’s radars.

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    Yodsanklai Fairtex wanted the rematch with Andy Souwer for many years. The two met in 2008, and Souwer won via a decision. The talented kickboxers continued their successful careers and never met again until Sunday.

    Fairtex maintained his incredible eight-year long unbeaten streak with his 31st straight victory. A swift second-round knockout put a big smile on his face.

    He was a real winner because he got the rematch and victory he had longed for. Very few times in this sport do such things occur. Time passes, and so do the opportunities. In other instances, those long-awaited rematches occur and the result remains the same because a fighter simply has their opponent’s number. Not in this case.

    ONE Championship’s kickboxing is not standard kickboxing. It instituted the use of MMA’s four-ounce gloves, and it has provided a spark for the sport. It fits Fairtex.

    Fairtex dominated Souwer and removed that black cloud hanging over him.

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    One of the most intriguing prospects in MMA picked up the fourth win of his fledgling professional career.

    Garry Tonon, a sensational grappling ace, dominated Anthony Engelen with a first-round TKO in the early stages of A New Era.

    Tonon got a takedown in the opening 15 seconds of the fight, and it all seemed academic from there. There may have been opportunities to finish by submission in the minutes that followed, but Tonon controlled position and looked for ground and pound from top position.

    “I am capable of controlling to the finish, and you’ll never get away,” said Tonon in the post-fight interview.

    It’s a scary, albeit accurate, thought. If a grappling star like Tonon takes you down, you are not getting back up. It allows him to do what he wants on the canvas. In this case, it was ground-and-pound. But should he seek a limb or a choke, he is likely to get that too.

    ONE Championship does not have an especially deep featherweight division, and at 4-0 Tonon, should be right in the mix for a title shot. Tonon is blossoming and could turn into a top-tier 155-pound fighter. ONE would be smart to continue to test him and prove it has one of the world’s best fighters on its roster.

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