UFC 235 was a strong card and the UFC will undoubtedly have more stacked events as 2019 progresses, but ONE Championship is entering a bid for Event of the Year with its March 31 card in Tokyo.
It's as stacked as anything on the slate and could be a seminal moment for the promotion as a major player moving forward.
A New Era is so named because it is just that. After acquiring Eddie Alvarez and Demetrious Johnson, ONE will use its name value to help bolster a card with not one, not two, not three but four title fights on the bill. Its seven-fight main card will mark a night that cannot be missed for fight fans.
If fans were waiting for a possible competitor to the UFC, here is where you need to check in. ONE Championship is making its case to be seen as an elite organization.
Want a spoiler as to how amazing A New Era is? This event is so stacked with talent, grappling ace and top prospect Garry Tonon is stuck in the middle of the prelims and we can't even get to it with this preview. It's a remarkable event.
How does the card shake out? Well, let's break down the can't-miss action of ONE Championship: A New Era.
- Lightweight Championship: Eduard Folayang vs. Shinya Aoki
- Strawweight Championship: Xiong Jing Nan vs. Angela Lee
- Middleweight Championship: Aung La N Sang vs. Ken Hasegawa
- Bantamweight Championship: Kevin Belingon vs. Bibiano Fernandes
- Flyweight Grand-Prix: Demetrious Johnson vs. Yuya Wakamatsu
- Lightweight Grand-Prix: Eddie Alvarez vs. Timofey Nastyukhin
- Kickboxing: Yodsanklai Fairtex vs. Andy Souwer
- Flyweight Grand Prix: Danny Kingad vs. Andrew Leone
- Flyweight Grand Prix: Tatsumitsu Wada vs. Ivanildo Delfino
- Flyweight Grand Prix: Kairat Akhmetov vs. Reece McLaren
- Mei Yamaguchi vs. Kseniya Lachkova
- Garry Tonon vs. Anthony Engelen
- Muay Thai: Rodtang Jitmuangnon vs. Hakim Hamech
- Muay Thai: Cyprus Panicos Yusuf vs. Mohammed Bin Mahmoud
- Kickboxing: Hiroki Akimoto vs. Joseph Lasiri
- Kickboxing: Yoon Chang Min vs. Bala Shetty
The Main Event: Eduard Folayang vs. Shinya Aoki
The main event to ONE Championship's biggest event to date will feature a lightweight title rematch.
On November 11, 2016, Eduard Folayang beat Shinya Aoki by TKO to win the ONE Championship lightweight title. It signaled a changing of the guard. Aoki, a longtime Japense standout, was beaten soundly by the next generation and a new face of the promotion.
Nearly a year to the day later, Folayang was knocked out by Martin Nguyen. However, after suffering an injury in 2018, Nguyen forfeited the title allowing Folayang to regain it with a decision over Amir Khan.
Now, Folayang is on a three-fight win streak and a winner in 7-1 in his last eight bouts. But Aoki hasn't fallen off a cliff.
Aoki went up to 185 pounds to fight Ben Askren for the ONE welterweight strap. It was a decisive loss, but one that forced him back into a more natural weight classification. Since moving, he has won three straight fights all by first-round finishes. That is how he earned another title shot.
The main event is well-matched and an intriguing battle between two fighters who have shown the ability to come back from hardships.
Aoki, the only main to defend the belt twice successfully, is in a position to further his legacy. Regaining the title will cement him as a legend in eastern MMA. Few will have his kind of resume. Additionally, a win would give ONE Championship a perfect storyline to book the trilogy bout.
But Folayang will not go quietly into the night.
He has the chance to prove that the first fight was not a fluke, and he can show he is the man to beat at lightweight and will stay the face of the growing MMA promotion. He has everything to fight for regardless of the bullseye the title puts on his back.
As ONE Championship marches toward international prominence, this is a critical fight for the future.
The Co-Main Event: Xiong Jing Nan vs. Angela Lee
The strawweight championship is on the line in the co-main event as Xiong Jing Nan tries to stop history from occurring and successfully defend her title.
Angela Lee may have been the most mainstream fighter on the ONE roster prior to Demetrious Johnson and Eddie Alvarez's arrival. A talented, well-rounded prospect who has finished seven of her nine victories. She won the atomweight title in just her sixth professional bout and has defended it three times.
A staple of ONE Championship has been allowing its fighters to attempt greatness at higher weights. It's had a couple of double champions already. Lee is looking to add her name to that list and make a claim at being one of the best pound-for-pound women in the world.
This stage and this spot is tailormade for Lee to step into the spotlight and shine. The only misstep from ONE Championship may have been not making this fight the main event.
Lee has the most upside of any fighter on the roster from a crossover perspective. If she can make history as a double champion and remain undefeated, the world will take notice. A lot of fans already have.
For Jing Nan, this is an opportunity to break out from obscurity and show the world her talents.
The eyes are unquestionably on Lee and her shot at history, but toppling the undefeated phenom shows everyone watching the growing depth of the women's game globally. In addition, she steals a little of the promotional thunder that is behind Lee.
And that won't be lost on ONE Championship's brass, either.
Weili Zhang had, arguably, the biggest win in Chinese MMA history with her decision victory over Tecia Torres at UFC 235. Less than a month later, Jing Nan can take that claim with a victory over Lee. ONE Championship will revel in that claim too. This is a massive showcase for the defending champion.
The storylines behind this champion vs. champion bout are as interesting as anything on the slate regardless of promotion. Jing Nan vs. Lee should be dynamite, and the winner will see endless commercial benefit moving forward in 2019.
Middleweight Championship: Aung La N Sang vs. Ken Hasegawa
Shinya Aoki is not the only Japanese star set for a chance at redemption and glory in front of a home crowd. Ken Hasegawa has a similar opportunity against Aung La N Sang.
The two met last June at Spirit of a Warrior. An aptly named event as the two headlined and showed their heart in a five-round slugfest.
Sang ended up besting Hasegawa with a fifth-round TKO. The Japanese was unable to keep pace deep into the fight, but he does now have that experience under his belt. Hasegawa hasn't fought since that night, but Sang did defend the middleweight belt against Mohammad Karaki in October.
This particular title fight is getting overlooked in light of how stacked this card is, but anyone who caught their prior fight should be highlighting this as a potential Fight of the Night.
The biggest question entering the clash will be how much Hasegawa has learned from their initial meeting. Having not fought since then, he has had nearly nine months to dedicate himself to fixing the small mistakes that left him with gold. Sang has been more active, but the curse of a champion is that your opposition is able to prepare specifically just for you.
Fans are in for a special fight if these two replicate their first donnybrook.
Bantamweight Championship: Kevin Belingon vs. Bibiano Fernandes
The fourth title tilt of A New Era is a trilogy fight steeped in the history of ONE's bantamweight division
Bibiano Fernandes was seen as one of the best lighter weight fighters in the world when he signed with ONE Championship. He backed that up with two title wins, one interim, and seven championship defenses. One of those defenses was against Kevin Belingon in 2016. A first-round kimura loss for the challenger.
Belingon got back to work and won five straight fights to get a shot at the interim title against Martin Nguyen. Belingon won a decision and set up a unification bout against the longtime champion in November. Belingon got the decision nod but only narrowly as the judges were split.
Their third meeting will be a crucial test for Fernandes, who is now 38 years old and potentially at the end of the road as an elite fighter.
Father Time is undefeated. While he nearly retained, the tires definitely showed some wear and tear against Belingon. Getting his belt back would help to cement his legacy as a top-tier fighter even while never competing in the UFC.
Fernandes' presence and title reign helped establish ONE Championship as a promotion. It utilized his stature in the sport to elevate the organization. To be featured in this title fight back in Japan, his first time since Dream 18 in 2012, is as much a gift as anything else. They owe it to Fernandes. Can he capitalize?
As the first of four title fights, ONE Championship is setting the stage for a big night in the best way possible. Bouts with compelling stories help fans get invested in the fighters and the contests.
Fernandes' history and the two prior meetings with Belingon's comeuppance sell this fight.
Lightweight Grand Prix Quarterfinal: Eddie Alvarez vs. Timofey Nastyukhi
Welcome to yet another top MMA organization, Eddie Alvarez.
The "King of the Underground" has captured championships in nearly every major promotion he has competed in, and ONE Championship is next on the list.
Timofey Nastyukhi is not being given much of a chance in this fight. He is an afterthought to Alvarez's organizational debut.
Hurting the notion of a potential upset is that Nastyukhi suffered a TKO loss to Saygid Guseyn Arslanaliev in just 1:57 last September. Now he is going up against one of the true elite fighters in the world.
It's clear that ONE is setting up Alvarez for a big debut. And it should.
This is the only lightweight grand prix bout on the card, and the winner will go on to meet Lowen Tynanes, who defeated Honorio Banario in his first-round matchup. Tynanes is a 10-0 Hawaiian prospect with a solid overall game.
If Alvarez breezes as expected, his semifinal fight should be nothing but fireworks.
While this isn't a big-time bout, Alvarez's promotional debut and fighting style make it a can't miss.
Flyweight Grand Prix Quarterfinals
- Demetrious Johnson vs. Yuya Wakamatsu
- Tatsumitsu Wada vs. Ivanildo Delfino
- Kairat Akhmetov vs. Reece McLaren
- Danny Kingad vs. Andrew Leone
We could simply focus on Demetrious Johnson's ONE Championship debut much like we did for Eddie Alvarez, but with all four flyweight grand prix matchups taking place, we should talk about the whole bracket.
"Mighty Mouse" could arguably still be the UFC flyweight champion if there were different judges at UFC 227. The decision loss to Henry Cejudo was razor thin and contentious. Still, the parties decided to part ways instead of having a trilogy fight, and Johnson finds a new home where he may be able to discover true stardom.
Johnson is potentially the No. 1 pound-for-pound fighter on the planet and one of the greatest talents we've seen. As such, it's hardly a leap to say he is the favorite to win the grand prix and earn a title shot against flyweight champion Adriano Moraes.
But don't forget, flyweight in ONE Championship means 135 pounds and not 125—a fact well worth remembering.
Ivanildo Delfino is an undefeated prospect who could meet Johnson in the semifinals. His opponent, Tatsumitsu Wada, is 1-2 in ONE with losses to two of the competitors in the other half of the bracket. If those results matter, Wada isn't a major factor to win the tournament.
Danny Kingad should get by Andrew Leone unless he overlooks his opponent. Kingad is seen as a possible opponent for Johnson in the finals, but his semi-final opponent will be no cupcake.
The Kairat Akhmetov vs. Reece McLaren bout is the most well-matched of the quarter-finals. It could be a sleeper for Fight of the Night.
McLaren has performed incredibly well since 2014, with only three losses and all against top-tier competition. He is on a three-fight streak. Akhmetov is the former champion of the division and has a 25-2 overall record. This is the fight to circle for the first round of action.
Johnson's presence in the grand prix also puts eyes on the other competitors who have largely been overlooked on the world stage. There is plenty to digest. The American's bout is the only flyweight quarterfinal on the main card, so make sure to check out the prelims to watch the other three fights.