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ONE Championship makes debut in Japan

by Jason Coskrey

Staff Writer

Before coming down the ramp for her fight, Mei Yamaguchi, in a nod to her surroundings at Ryogoku Kokugikan, did a brief shiko (where a sumo wrestler lifts his leg high and straight before stamping it down on the ground).

Then, she made her way down the ramp as the strains of Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man” blasted throughout sumo’s hallowed hall. She’d go on to win with an armbar.

That’s something you don’t see during the New Year Basho.

ONE Championship finally made its debut in Japan on Sunday with One Championship: A New Era showcasing the company’s brand of martial arts in front of what looked like a packed house in the home of sumo.

“For me, this is is the beginning of a new era for martial arts globally, not just Japan,” ONE CEO Chatri Sityodtong said. “To receive so much love from across the globe is unbelievable to me.”

Instead of fans screaming for a yokozuna on a Sunday in Ryogoku, they were roaring for Shinya Aoki, the Tobikan Judan (Master of Flying Submissions) in the main event, which was for Eduard Folayang’s lightweight title.

Aoki didn’t disappoint. The Japanese challenger got Folayang on the ground and made him submit with a triangle choke at the 2:34 mark of the first round.

Afterward, he was his normal, slightly peculiar self.

“I’ve become 35 and I’m doing what I love to do,” Aoki bellowed to the crowd. “Even though I’ve had some troubles I’m still able to fight. Aren’t you all kind of jealous of me? Still tomorrow, I’ll keep going.”

With portraits of sumo wrestlers who have won past bashos at the Kokugikan staring down from the rafters, ONE made its first foray into one of the most important fight markets in the world.

The organization turned up the star power for the occasion.

Demetrious “Mighty Mouse” Johnson, a legend in the sport, was victorous in his ONE debut against Yuya Wakamatsu, stopping the Japanese fighter with a guillotine choke in the second round.

“It exceeded my expectations,” Johnson said. “I grew up watching Japanese mixed martial arts. For me to come over here and compete in the flyweight grand prix in ONE Championship where it started, that format, I’m just blown away.”

Eddie “The Underground King,” Alvarez, another MMA great, wasn’t as fortunate in his first ONE bout, getting caught with a right and going down in the second round against Timofey Nastyukhin.

Atomweight champion Angela Lee suffered her first loss, after starting off 9-0, when she failed in her bid to take the straweight belt off Xiong Jing-nan.

Xiong showered Lee with punches at various points of the match. Lee, however, locked in an armbar late in the fourth round, only for Xiong to find a way to hold on until the bell.

“I’m Xiong Jing-nan, so I can’t lose,” she said afterward through a translator.

Xiong began to pound Lee again in the fifth before finally stopping the “Unstoppable” during the final round.

Bibiano Fernandes won the bantamweight title when Kevin Belingon was disqualified for illegal blows to the back of the head. Fernandes, however, refused the belt and the two will have a rematch at a later date.

“Bibiano is the champion on a technicality,” Sityodtong said. “He doesn’t want to win it that way, and he wants a rematch.”

In a rematch of the promotion’s 2018 Bout of the Year, an opportune and vicious right hand to the face allowed “The Burmese Python” Aung La N Sang to retain his middleweight title via a second-round TKO of Ken Hasegawa.

“That’s a metal pipe right there,” Sang said. “That’s a metal pipe. I’ve been working on that, and against a southpaw, the right is always there.”

While the event was a mixed bag for the Japanese fighters, Hiroki Akimoto and Senzo Ikeda each lost via decision, Sityodtong couldn’t have been more pleased with how the night went for ONE.

“Smashing success in every way of the word,” he said. “The fights were outstanding, athletes just unbelievable and I couldn’t have asked for a better night. But I’m telling you it’s only the beginning.”

Asked about the attendance at the venue, which holds 11,098, Sityodtong reported it was “100 percent full.”

The crowd was enthusiastic for much of the main card, which was streamed live in 140 countries, according to ONE.

ONE has grown by leaps and bounds throughout Asia since its founding in 2011. The company has become Asia’s largest fighting organization, but until Sunday had not broken ground in Japan, the home country of MMA.

ONE bills itself as a martial arts organization, rather than an MMA promotion, and it showed on Sunday, with muay thai and kickboxing also part of the event.