It is a warm afternoon in Singapore. The thunderheads that rolled over the city all morning have dispersed, and the sidewalks have been dried by the kind of glaring sunlight you expect from a place that teeters on the equator like a tightrope walker. To my left, a pair of ONE Championship ring girls are dancing on a stage, hyping up a growing crowd of eager fight fans, who stop and take pictures before filing into the Singapore Indoor Stadium for ONE: HEART OF THE LION.
Inside, the 12,000-seat stadium is filling up. Fans shimmy down the aisles and into their seats, arms full with bags of popcorn and cups of beer. I can’t hear what these fans are saying, but I’m confident many of them are chattering about ONE Championship’s new signings: Demetrious Johnson, Eddie Alvarez, Miesha Tate — maybe even Sage Northcutt.
With almost no warning, and with many fans still at large, the first fighters begin their walks to the cage. One is Cambodia’s Meas Meul. The other is Indonesian Dutchman Anthony Engelen. Like all ONE Championship fighters, both enjoy personalized walkouts with unique hype videos playing on screens around the stadium.
Once the two fighters have reached the cage, and the referee has waved the action on, the stadium goes dead quiet — no woos, no cheers, nothing. Just the sound of four bare feet on the canvas.
39 seconds later, Meas is crumpled on the canvas like a used napkin. The referee is pushing Engelen away, and the Indonesian Dutchman puts his hands in the air to signify that he knows the fight is over; that he has no objection to the stoppage. Silent mere seconds ago, the stadium is now buzzing with shocked oohs and ahs.
Once the initial excitement of Engelen’s blitzkrieg knockout win has subsided, the undercard action resumes. Other fighters make their walks to the cage. Each is framed by entirely unique pre-fight hype video. All of their faces are contorted with nearly identical looks of focus and determination.
By the time grappling savant Garry Tonon walks out to the cage, the stadium looks nearly full. Some seats remain empty, but many of those, it seems to me, are probably occupied by the throngs of fans I encounter milling about the other parts of the stadium, ordering beers, stocking up on stadium snacks, participating in various promotional events.
As I walk back to my seat on press row, coffee in hand, Garry Tonon’s fight with Sung Jong Lee is well underway. Somewhere out in the crowd a presumably drunk, presumably Australian man is hollering pro-Tonon cheers with enough volume that everybody in the stadium can hear him clearly. Spurred on, perhaps, by this show of support, Tonon completes a takedown, and moments later, latches onto a guillotine choke. After a brief struggle, he coaxes out the tap and the stadium once again explodes with cheers.
Tonon’s impressive victory marks the end of the ONE: HEART OF THE LION undercard. With the first phase of the card completed, I take full advantage of my media pass and the hospitality of the ONE Championship team, and take a walk backstage to see what’s going on behind the scenes of this mammoth show.
In one of the warmup rooms backstage, I see several of the fighters yet to compete; stretching, going through their final, quiet moments of preparation before they make their walks to the cage.
I also spot several fighters who have already fought, including Scotland’s Andrew Miller, who was vanquished by an Alaverdi Ramazanov uppercut in an undercard Muay Thai bout. He’s watching the fights on the projector screen, taking a moment by himself after a tough loss.
Elsewhere backstage, the promotion is hosting media scrums with several of its biggest stars. One such star is the former UFC and Bellator lightweight champion Eddie Alvarez, who has been a fixture of the ONE: HEART OF THE LION fight week festivities.
As Alvarez partakes in a small scrum with some visiting Japanese reporters, he encounters a familiar face in Shinya Aoki. The pair have fought twice before, and could very easily cross paths again in ONE Championship’s newly announced 2019 Lightweight Grand Prix.
Despite their history, and the possibility that they might collide again in the near future, they greet each other like old friends, exchanging handshakes, hugs and smiles. Alvarez reminds a reporter of the outcome of their first two bouts.
“He submitted me, first round,” he says, referencing his first fight with Aoki, enunciating for the Japanese reporters huddled around him.
The lack of posturing and tension between Alvarez and Aoki is not surprising. ONE Championship outwardly discourages these things and instead implores its athletes to act with integrity and humility at all times. ONE Chairman and CEO Chatri Sityodtong has been repeating these buzzwords — and many others — all week.
“Integrity, humility, honor, respect, courage, discipline, and compassion,” the martial artist turned CEO has rattled off repeatedly.
Sometimes it can sound a little corny, like a Kung Fu movie cliché. Yet to a fighter like Alvarez, who has had to swap trash talk with the likes of Conor McGregor in the past, Sityodtong’s attitude toward bravado and verbal warfare is a welcome change. He’s been saying so all week.
Miesha Tate, who recently joined ONE Championship as an executive and color commentator, feels the same way. Plenty familiar with pre-fight trash talk thanks to her rivalry with Ronda Rousey, she says that ONE’s approach to this sort of drama was a big part of the reason she joined the promotion.
“I love the fact that ONE Championship appeals to the true martial arts fans and the true martial artists,” Tate says, mere hours after she disembarked her flight from North America. “It’s not about who has the biggest mouth, who can talk the biggest trash, it’s about who can get in there and fight the best and put on the best performances.
“To me, that speaks to my heart. That’s why I got into martial arts.”
Tate says she’s impressed with her first glimpses of a live ONE Championship show, too.
“It’s incredible,” she says with a smile as kickboxing icon Giorgio Petroysan makes his walk to the cage in the heart of the stadium. “It’s really incredible.”
Having spoken to Alvarez, Tate, and Aoki, I decide it’s time to head back in the direction of the cage. In the hallway, I pass a closed door, and am that told long-time ONE bantamweight champion is warming up on the other side of it.
“He’d kill me,” I’m warned by a member of the ONE staff when I hint that I’d like to peek my head in.
I could feel the Brazilian star’s pre-fight intensity radiating through the door.
As I settle back into my seat among the many Thai and Filipino reporters on-scene, “The Doctor” Giorgio Petroysan is performing the kickboxing equivalent of open-heart surgery on his opponent Sorgraw Petchyindee Academy. The Armenian-Italian seems to be operating on entirely different level than the Lumpinee Stadium champion, and the fans are loving it. They are growing progressively louder. Whether that’s because of the excitement of the card, the beer, or a frothy combination of both, I can’t say.
The ONE: HEART OF THE LION co-main event, which pitted ridiculously talented 20-year-old Christian Lee against Japanese veteran Kazuki Tokudome, drives the fans to an even louder frenzy. Lee and his sister Angela, who is the reigning ONE women’s atomweight champ, now call Hawaii home, but they have both have lived in Singapore in the past and have not broken their allegiances to the Southeast Asian city-state. Lee reminds the crowd of his ties to the host city shortly after smashing Tokudome to a first-round TKO, and gets just the response you’d expect.
Next up, it’s the main event, which pits long-time bantamweight champion Bibiano Fernandes against current interim champion Kevin Belingon.
Belingon is introduced first. The screens around the stadium brighten with a video detailing “The Silencer’s” difficult upbringing in the Philippines, and once again, onlookers are reminded of Chatri Sityodtong’s mission to build martial arts heroes. Sityodtong’s comments on this topic can sometimes sound a bit syrupy, but as Belingon’s pre-fight promo plays, I spot the ONE Championship boss gazing up at the Jumbotron from cage-side, looking sincerely interested in what he’s watching.
When the video ends, Belingon walks out to the flashes and crashes of pyrotechnics, and the chants of the many Filipinos in the building.
Next, it’s Fernandes’ turn.
Like Belingon, he gets an in-depth introductory promo highlighting his journey as a martial artist, and when the video is over, he too makes his march to the cage, disappearing here and there behind pyrotechnic flashes and wisps of lingering smoke.
And finally, with both fighters in the cage, there is nothing left to do but fight.
Just as it’s difficult to imagine a better opening to this card than Anthony Engelen’s 39-second execution of Meas Meul, it’s hard to imagine a better ending than Fernandes and Belingon’s five-round war.
For twenty-five chaotic minutes, the two bantamweight stars swap submission attempts and heavy artillery, dazzling the crowd through momentum shift after momentum shift, and closing out an incredible night with one of the year’s best fights.
In the end, as anyone who watched the event or checked the results online knows, Belingon won the fight by split decision, ending Fernandes’ longstanding reign and capturing the ONE bantamweight title for himself.
As Belingon is announced the winner, the entire cage is swallowed by a nebula of golden confetti. It’s a spectacle unlike any other you’ll see in combat sports, and it is so much more impactful than the simple bellowing of “and new!” The building shakes with the “KEVIN, KEVIN, KEVIN” chants of the many Filipino fans in the crowd, while Fernandes stands off to the side of the cage, visibly disappointed with the outcome of the fight.
After Belingon gets a moment on the microphone, Fernandes is given the same opportunity. The Brazilian is pure class.
“I accept the loss, but I thought I won the fight,” he says in his post-fight interview with Mitch Chilson. “I won’t say nothing, I want to go home and watch the fight. Guys, thank you so much for coming. Kevin Belingon is a great champion.”
With that, Fernandes and Belingon leave the cage and head into the back corridors of the stadium, where so many top fighters have walked over the course of the night. All around me on press row, laptops are closing and camera bags are zipping shut. A clear signal that the fun is over.
It has been an incredible night, highlighted by incredible fights and appearances from some of the biggest names in MMA. There is an excitement hanging in the air, as if, after 88 exciting events, ONE Championship is finally finding its groove.
I know I’m not the only one feeling this way.
“All of these guys that I grew up watching, whenever I come fight, they’re going to be there,” ONE: HEART OF THE LION undercard fighter Muhammad Aiman told me the day before the fight. “Even though it’s still new, I’m excited for what’s coming.”
This comment from Aiman really sums up the vibe of the night and of the larger ONE: HEART OF THE LION fight week. There is so much happening here, so much on the go, and when it’s all combined, it gives you the feeling that the future could be blindingly bright for Singapore-based promotion.
It really is hard not to get excited about it.
This article first appeared on BJPENN.COM on 11/15/2018.