MMA in Asia is growing by the day. ONE FC CEO Victor Cui's vision of creating a network to "accelerate the development of Asian fighters and the sport of MMA in the region" has definitely taken flight with the third event - War of the Lions. Showcasing local rookie phenoms to major international top ten fighters, pitting titled champions of regional organizations against top fighters shared from others, and attracting international talent from major western promotions, ONE FC proved it is serious about unifying and building the sport of MMA in Asia.
This is the second installment of my report from Singapore covering ONE FC 3. For all of you who like to look at pictures instead of read, just enjoy the scrolling. Event coverage in words is further down the page. The first part of this series, on my arrival and the weigh ins, can be found here. The final part will cover the MMA scene in Singapore.
Fight day had finally arrived. My first time in Singapore, my first time at a ONE FC event, and my first time receiving the World's Largest Press Pass. Seriously, this thing was so big that I wanted to glue glitter onto it and use a Bedazzler so that I could walk into the hall like female Flava Flav.
The taxi ride to the Singapore Indoor Stadium took forever. The driver asked this guy next to us if were were going the right way, and he answered "follow me, man!" You Singaporeans sure know how to throw a caravan party.
More big: no explanation necessary. During the final leg to the stadium, we passed an entire sports compound. I was quite impressed at the number of sports associations in Singapore. With outdoor weather year round, it's the perfect area for it. Although I don't think I'd be a long distance runner in the heat.
My buddy Zike from MMAOrient was my taxi partner to the event. As we were walking up to the venue he said, "You want to walk the red carpet?" Get the eff out of here, man. Oh wait, there IS a red carpet.Well while all the early birds were off to the side ogling the life-size billboard of men with 12-pack abs, I parted the swath of preliminary ring girls (cage girls?) and I walked that damn red carpet (albeit alone and with absolutely no paparazzi... oh wait, that's me anyway) to the other end where the real red carpet diva held court.
Nadia, Nadia, Nadia. Whether it is nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous tweets, or, by opposing, end them? Here is a woman who has grown further by her social media and international connections than whatever her job title happens to be (something like "All Hail the Woman Who Does Everything"). And from the moment I touched down in Singapore at 2:30am to the taxi ride to the airport flight home, she was an invaluable host and definitely an asset to ONE FC.
Of course beyond the media table there were the obligatory second level ring girls duking it out to get you amped up. I totally felt for them. Fighting in stilettos is difficult.
Back Stage Preparations
So I went to the Red Corner. After running the gauntlet of ghurkas. ONE FC security is so tight that Aoki had to have his passport AND his cover of Men's Health just to use the toilet. A note of warning: don't think of rushing backstage because I'm pretty sure all the security guys take triple doses of TRT and I saw them warming up GNP with Crusher. But check out the hands-in-pockets stance. A martial arts teacher once told me never to do this, so I was itching to try a single leg just to see who could draw quicker. But I didn't because I like my nose where it is.
Fitting with the ONE FC theme of BIG, the fighters' rooms were cavernous, like Olympic-size swimming pools turned upside down. Because of this, the slightest sound echoed; everyone was being extremely quiet. Except for the Thai guys who have had as many fights as bowls of tom yum gong. I swear I heard one say "Why so serious?" There were no plastic chairs or linoleum floors; it was a proper conference room. There was even a full layout of mats to roll on and a bunch of pads ready to go. I've seen actual fight events held in smaller rooms than this... and with less equipment.
As the clock ticked closer to showtime, things started to loosen up. Notice Team Lakay's Coach Mark Sangaio saying "Damn, this giant pass is heavy."
The Don was holding court. If you need an introduction to Chatri Siyodtong, founder and head coach of Evolve MMA and motivational speaker/philanthropist/international jet setter, then you must be from Mars. Or more likely Saturn; I'm pretty sure you can see Aoki's rainbow tights and Evolve cap from Mars.
Wait... is this ONE FC, or DREAM... or DEEP... I'm confused. Today Aoki is wearing his tights for a jacket.
Three main things go on backstage before a fight: wrapping, relaxing, and warm ups.
I fail to see why this is necessary, Mr. Imanari. Are the top side of your hands going to actually connect with something?
No fight today, Mr Aoki.
M-1 Champ Yasubey Enomoto chilling with brother Felipe.
Yun told his wife that he was going on a "business trip" - not a fighting trip. So that explains the dress shoes (ubiquitous at the walk out rehearsal for being paired with shorts).
Ole Laursen gets some much needed floor time after recently completing the new roof on his cage at Legacy Gym's Boracay location.
Juggernaut Fight Club repping Singapore with Kim Hock.
Yuya Shirai was working on some TDs and then some kicks. He looks just as scary at 50%.
Watching Yodsanan Sityodtong warming up was a real treat. Even just five minutes of observing him was like a complete encyclopedia of technique.
And if you're with Team Buffet, there's always that eating thing. At every fight I've seen Mark Streigl at, I take home a souvenir snapshot of him nom nom nom-ing on something distinctively unhealthy. Wonder what he eats at Muayfit.
Even though he's had a relatively small number of fights, Eddie impressed me with his calm and jovial demeanor backstage before the fight. Maybe it's natural, or maybe the Thai guys rubbed off on him.
The Team Lakay guys have a very different atmosphere about them. They are quiet yet attentive, quick to smile and exceedingly polite, even when they are under pressure, as they were this day.
And then, all of a sudden, it's ten minutes to showtime and backstage becomes a flurry of staff organizing the walk out for the introduction ceremony. All the fighters and their corners are now standing alert and the mood is intense. They are focused, anticipating the moment they will walk into the arena to the sound of the ONE FC theme, the introductions by Lenne Hardt, and and - hopefully - the view of a packed house. Time for me to make my escape to the press section of the arena.
Inside the Singapore Indoor Stadium
As I hadn't gone to the previous day's rehearsals, I'd never seen the inside of the venue, so I entered through the main gate and tried to clear my mind of the backstage intensity in order to capture the moment. The hallway view was a clear shot to the cage and the viewscreen. On either side rose the stadium seating on a slight incline. I had to reach the center of the arena before I could turn around and get a good look around.
I was surprised by what I saw, felt, and heard. The configuration of the stadium was set for approximately 7,200 seats and it looked to be at 95% capacity, even in the nosebleed section. When ONE FC released their 'sold out' statement, there was public speculation on the reason being from two diametrically opposed standpoints: that there was a substantial number of giveaway tickets, or that MMA in Singapore is hotter than anywhere on the planet. In my opinion from having attended plenty of papered shows, giveaways don't always mean guaranteed attendance, therefore I was very eager to actually witness how receptive the Singaporeans were of MMA. Seeing a packed house was impressive and I felt the athletes deserved that support.
The feeling from the audience was quite different from anything I'd experienced. They were happy and relaxed. I guess that's the Singapore vibe? At first, I mistook this for complacency, but they proved me wrong within ten minutes of sitting down. As the fighters made their way, one by one, to the encircling cage platform, the Pride Lady's voice reverberated through the air - sometimes. Perhaps it was my location in the arena - which shouldn't have been an issue - but I couldn't hear some of the introductions and since I was on the opposite side of the ramp, I couldn't see the fighters entering either. What I could hear was the thundering support of the audience for the local fighters: Kim Hock and Nicole, plus transplants Yodsanan, Zoro, Fabricio, and posterboy Eddie Ng. The most eye-opening was the support for the Philippines' champions Kevin Belingon and Eduard Folayang, and crowd favorite Ole Laursen. All of the Japanese fighters went virtually unnoticed. I yelled "Crusher" as loud as possible to make up for it. If you were there, yes, that was me.
War of the Lions
As the results are official and the videos have been posted, there's no need to go into a play by play rehash of each fight. But there are experiences and realities that can't be conveyed through those mediums, so I'll try to share the intensity through words.
The first fight of the night started off with a bang with good solid exchanges from Danny van Bergen of Mike's Gym and Ritchie Whitson of Team Quest. Singapore gave them a rousing round of entrance applause. Ritchie got a takedown but in the process Danny ended up securing an arm. Richie tried to roll out of it but it only gave Danny more leverage to get the tap at just a minute nineteen into the first round. It was a quick fight and the crowd loved it.
The second fight sent the audience into some sort of rabid dog frenzy. Local favorite - entire Southeast Asia 'local' - Yodsanan of Evolve MMA had been calm and composed backstage, even sharing a warm Thai smile and a workman-like go at the pads during warm up. In stark contrast, Yun from Xtreme Sanda was next door practicing ground control from the top position and grappling more than any other fighter. But he looked just as composed as Yodsanan. And the fight began in much the same way. The boxer came out with some sharp combinations to which the audience sat on the edge of their seats waiting for a KO. It never came. Chinese Master Yun, at 45 years of age, weathered the initial barrage and repeatedly braved takedown attempts, until the Thai WBA champ seemed to stall out. Yun took advantage of it for a huge TD, textbook transitions to full mount, eventually giving the underdog a surprising upset win by RNC. As he was maneuvering for the choke, the crowd turned in favor of Yun, showing just how appreciative they were of a good MMA bout, no matter the victor.
The third fight featured the first Singaporean on the card, Kim Hock of Juggernaut, taking on a last-minute brave replacement fighter Major Overall from Muayfit. Kim smiles, a lot. Major doesn't smile, a lot. In the cage, their personalities switched. While the hometown crowd was on Kim's side, Major's entertaining fighting style won him some appreciation - until he showboated. Kim's crisp and clear boxing and his newly-minted wrestling ability were in contrast to Major's versatile performance, which made the fight a lot of fun to watch right up to the very end, when Kim put Major to sleep with a RNC in the second. The crowd loved it - a good mix of exciting fighting with a local pulling out the stops to win.
On deck was the second Singaporean and first female MMA bout in ONE FC and Singapore history, Nicole Chua of Evolve versus Jeet Toshi, coming in from India via Full Contact Championship. Nicole Chua seemed so quiet and businesslike before the battle - what small glimpse I got of her. Jeet was mixing it up in her corner's workout area and seemed alert, excited, and comfortable. Both fighters came into this fight with vastly different life experiences and expectations. Nicole implemented a game plan that was flawless. Jeet showed great heart and determination, and with more takedown defense and groundwork should become a positive force in women's MMA. Nicole's first round RNC - the third RNC in a row - won an emotional outpouring of support from her team and the whole stadium.
The card was progressing quite nicely. Next was Imanari versus Kevin Belingon, the conclusion pretty much foregone. Both fighters were very quiet backstage; Imanari blending into his Japanese entourage and Kevin with his Filipino team. Come walk out time, the crowd freaked out over Belingon and again went silent for the Japanese contingent. Inside the cage Imanari did his 'oops I fell down' trick and it baited Kevin right in; from the look on Kevin's face he knew he'd fallen for it and was pissed. He defended for an extraordinarily long time and came up with many good attempts to escape, forcing Imanari to fight to keep the leg and snag that heel hook. Imanari's exuberance at the win should prove to Kevin that it was a good fight.
Next up, Wonderboy and MRT poster child Eddie Ng of Evolve versus Jian Kai Chee of Muayfit. I barely caught this fight, and so did everyone else. TKO at 43 seconds. I'm thinking we need to see Eddie in a ring with a fighter who's been around the block a few times so we can gauge his true worth. His crowd appeal is worth its weight in gold - the stadium went crazy for the whole round, long after Eddie was finished working.
The card order is looking pretty suave at this point. Originally I'd hoped for Imanari to be awarded a main card spot, but the build up so far was excellent. Next up: DEEP Champ Yoshiyuki Nakanishi versus It's SHowtime Champ Melvin Manhoef - two guys who have been around the block a few times. Surprisingly, these two guys were practically invisible backstage prior to the intro walk out. They brought it all into the cage though, and the resulting melee led to a gash on Nakanishi's knee and a split-open shin on Manhoef. A big disappointment, but something to hopefully look forward to when both recover. The crowd was split on the decision to make it a no contest, and for the first time people were actually yelling what they thought should happen. At least they'll get to see it again.
Judo master Yuya Shirai came out looking to dump BJJ master Fabricio Monteiro on the canvas to welcome him back the the world of MMA, but that didn't happen. This was a very game slugfest and an excellent pairing. The fight kept on and on in a back and forth manner showing good cage control by Fabricio, and the audience finally got to witness a fight go the distance. Monteiro pulled out a decision win. I was surprised to see him teaching two days later, on midday Monday when I visited Evolve. He was still totally stoked.
The three round battle set the stage for what could have been called the most anticipated fight of the night around Asia, Ole Laursen versus Eduard Folayang. Both men had difficult weight cuts. There was a lot of speculation from the people in the stands as to whether or not the fight would get out of the first round due to Ole's wind or somebody getting KTFOed. Neither happened. These two warriors came out and demonstrated their distinctly different styles, and proved why they're two of the region's best athletes. After three rounds the judges were left to decide if Eduard's kicks or Ole's takedowns and work on the ground were more superior, and their decision went to Ole. There were initial boos from the crowd, but they quickly stopped and the fighters got cheered for their efforts.
My main event - sorry, the co-main event - came next. Crusher Kawajiri versus KOTC Champion Donald Sanchez. Crusher by crushing, first round. Once on the ground and inside Sanchez' closed guard, Kawajiri's frustration with Sanchez' long legs keeping him from ground and pound could be seen on his face. So he worked his way out and around to get the tap by his third triangle in a row. When the Crusher climbed on top of the cage for the first time in his life, he won himself a whole new fan base.
Time for the final fight of the night, Zorobabel of Evolve versus Felipe Enomoto of Enomoto Dojo. The oddest thing happened. Once the fight began, the entire stadium grew silent. It was just like witnessing a show in Japan where the observers are more focused on what actually happens in the ring rather than on having a good time. Zoro came out with some spectacularly surprising leg kicks. It took Enomoto an entire round to find distance and clinch him to the cage. In the second round, Enomoto found better distance and was able to get Zoro to the cage again, but Zoro added elbows to the mix. Both fighters started trading, and just when it seemed that Enomoto had been damaged by those leg kicks, Zoro throws another and trips him, leading to a stomp to the head and a warning. In the third round, a flurry and a final devastating roundhouse knocked Enomoto down and Zoro was able to showcase his ground skills with textbook transitions to slap on an arm bar.
As the lights came back on, the crowd was filing out. At cageside, officials stretched their legs and sponsors came up for chats with some of the media. Leaving the arena was quite simple but leaving the stadium itself was a nightmare. There was no public transportation but the odd bus that goes who knows where, and by the time my companions and I were on the road hailing reserved taxis, we saw our own hotel bus slipping out of the parking lot. The after party did make up for the 45 minutes wandering angrily before Aaron Kobes kindly got us a cab.
Good fight card made great by the order of go.
Enthusiastic and involved crowd.
Very well-organized and well-staffed event.
Fighters given every amenity to ensure their comfort, safety, and condition.
The live audio was problematic.
There was only one big screen, so some of the audience will have missed walk outs and action shots (as did I).
Two things stood out for me following this event. The first were the comments I heard from the live audience and people who'd watched the fights on streaming. Quite a few people said they thought announcer Lenne Hardt's voice was strange or out of place in the event. As many of the Singapore audience are new MMA fans, it's possible they have no connection with The Pride Lady and don't understand her significance. Since the pomp and circumstance of ONE FC 3 wasn't on the level of the Japan-based promotions' theatrical efforts, such as ten minute back story lead ins and ten meter tall entrance sets, it's also possible that the fantastic over-the-top announcing was perceived as incongruous.
I also heard the stream was poor at the beginning, but did get better with time.
The second thing was that just about every fighter I talked to was salivating for a chance to get on a ONE FC card. Hopefully the promotion will fulfill its own business plan of getting a ramped up schedule in the works; the teams who signed up for the ONE FC network are clamoring to get their fighters into a cage, and there's a lot of them. The excitement felt for the promotion as well as the eagerness to see it expand is palpable.