ONE: A NEW ERA in Japan on 31 March will be one of the most-watched and significant martial arts events of the year.
The show marks the first time ONE Championship has staged an event in Japan, and athletes from all over the world will be in action.
While many countries will be represented, the Philippines will have the most champions competing.
In total, ONE Championship has two active Filipino World Champions — ONE Bantamweight World Champion Kevin Belingon and ONE Lightweight World Champion Eduard Folayang — who will both be defending their titles on the card. In addition, flyweight standout Danny “The King” Kingad is also on the card in a quarter-final bout of the ONE Flyweight World Grand Prix.
The other Philippine World Champion, Brandon “The Truth” Vera, is Filipino-American and holds the ONE Heavyweight World Title. But he’s not on the Japan card.
Still, ONE: A NEW ERA is set to be perhaps the greatest display of Filipino mixed martial arts in history. Both Folayang and Belingon will be battling more than just the opponents in front of them.
Belingon has quite the task on his hands.
He will face a man who is arguably the greatest competitor in ONE Championship history, Bibiano Fernandes. The bout will be the rubber match in the series between them, and it represents an immediate rematch for Fernandes after Belingon took his title via split decision at ONE: HEART OF THE LION in November 2018.
Fernandes easily submitted Belingon in their first meeting back at ONE: DYNASTY OF CHAMPIONS 5 in January 2016. Belingon battled his way back to a World Title shot with six consecutive victories, including a unanimous-decision win over Martin Nguyen in July 2018 at ONE: REIGN OF KINGS.
The 31-year-old product of Team Lakay has worked hard to establish himself as more than just a striker.
He leaned heavily on his improved submission defense and wrestling in preparation for his rematch with Fernandes last year. He will almost certainly have to tap back into that area of his game if he hopes to defeat him a second time and win the series. Belingon will have age on his side.
Fernandes will turn 39 years old the day before ONE: A NEW ERA. At some point, we have to expect Fernandes to show his age.
Considering he lost the last match, it wouldn’t appear he has room for slippage against Belingon. Still, there is something to be said for the pressure that comes with facing a legend once, let alone three times. Fernandes will fight with all of his being to regain his title and prove his superiority.
If Belingon can turn him away, he will have solidified himself as the king of the division, and the victory will definitively signal a new era for the ONE bantamweight division.
Eduard Folayang’s circumstances at ONE: A NEW ERA aren’t any less arduous.
He will be rematching Shinya Aoki, a man he knocked out in November 2016 at ONE: DEFENDING HONOR to capture the lightweight title to begin his first reign as a champion.
That victory took place in Singapore. It was considered arguably the biggest upset in ONE Championship history. When Folayang faces Aoki in the rematch, he’ll be doing it on the challenger’s home soil.
Aoki is a Japanese legend and the crowd is sure to be electric in favor of their hero. Beating Aoki in this environment will not be easy.
In the first matchup, Folayang was able to stop Aoki from keeping the battle on the ground. He made a dent in the champion’s defenses at the end of the second frame with kicks and punches to Aoki’s midsection.
The strikes appeared to have an effect of Aoki as he walked to his corner between rounds. When the third round began, Aoki tried to be more aggressive looking for a takedown, but Folayang timed this entry perfectly.
Folayang landed a jumping knee that stopped Aoki in his tracks. The champion wound up seated on the canvas and Folayang landed knees to his face and followed up with a barrage of right hands that forced the referee to stop the fight.
Ringside commentators all felt that had the bout been scored at the time of the stoppage, Aoki would have been called the winner. Folayang’s striking took the decision out of their hands and he became champion.
Since then, Folayang has lost and then recovered the belt. The battle with Aoki marks the first title defense of his second reign as champion.
Aoki won’t change his gameplan. Everything he does is predicated on getting the match to the ground where few can match his advanced submission skills. Perhaps the energy of the crowd can elevate him while also zapping Folayang.
The two men are very evenly matched from an age standpoint. Both are 35 years old, though Aoki has had almost twice the number of professional bouts in his illustrious career.
In many ways, Folayang may have more pressure on him than Belingon. He is expected to win, and for years he has been the most visible athlete at Team Lakay.
That said, Folayang is no stranger to big bouts and stakes. If there is anyone capable of rising to the occasion, it’s him.
With Belingon, Folayang, and Kingad in action at ONE: A NEW ERA, a lot is riding on Team Lakay putting on a great showing for the Philippines.
This article first appeared on BJPENN.COM on 3/15/2019.