Expectations were high when Kevin Belingon made his ONE FC debut because he was 9-0 and, unlike some of the other prospects emerging from the Philippines, had already been tested against good level foreign opposition.
Things didn't go to plan against Masakazu Imanari when he was submitted almost instantly and things did not get much better when he took on Soo Chul Kim who simply outwrestled him, putting the 24 year old on his back for three frustrating rounds.
People were wondering what all the fuss was about and when it was announced that he would be facing top ranked Russian wrestler Yusup Saadulaev in the opening round of the ONE FC Bantamweight Grand Prix the response was one of general pessimism with regards to Belingon's chances of success.
At ONE FC: 'Rise of Kings' Belingon didn't just win, stopping Saadulaev with ground and pound early in the opening round, but he finally got to showcase his skill set in front of an international audience. For the Filipino this was the biggest relief of all,
"I am very happy to get the victory but I want the glory to go to Team Lakay coaches and to all the Filipino people who believed in me even though I lost, that win was for them. Before I did not perform to my best for ONE FC and I am happy that people got to see the real 'Silencer'."
Belingon's nickname is 'The Silencer' because he is generally a man of few words, preferring to do his talking inside the cage although in the aftermath of his victory he was uncharacteristically expansive.
There is no doubt that he did not perform to his full potential in his first two ONE FC fights but he thinks he knows exactly what went wrong,
"Against Imanari I went to soccer kick him but then I remembered I had to wait for the referee to signal so I stopped and he grabbed my leg, I am glad ONE FC has changed that rule now. Before the fight with Soo Chul Kim I was cut in training and so it was difficult to work on wrestling and we had seen his fights before and were expecting a stand up fight, I was not expecting him to try and take me down all the time and I was not prepared for that."
This time around Belingon's preparation was perfect and whereas Kim was able to take him down seemingly at will Saadulaev, a decorated wrestler, was continually frustrated in his efforts to put the URCC flyweight champion on his back. He was left clutching at thin air on a couple of occasions as Belingon used his athleticism and agility to slip through the Russian's grasp.
According to the URCC flyweight champion and Wushu veteran this was the game plan going into the fight,
"We knew he was good in wrestling and good on the ground so we worked on avoiding the takedowns and on using my striking and Wushu. I thought if I could keep the fight standing I would win but I ended up on the ground in side control and so I used my ground and pound and finished the fight with punches on the ground."
Belingon, who like almost every other member of Team Lakay attended the University of the Cordilleras in Baguio, has finished a few fights with ground and pound but is equally adept at striking. He says he is comfortable fighting everywhere and can adapt his style to suit different opponents,
"Coach Mark Sangiao helps me to decide what to do in every fight, sometimes I like to go for takedowns but sometimes I just use my striking. I am always aggressive, it doesn't matter what is happening in the fight I always want to land a lot of strikes because I am very confident in my cardio, that is the Team Lakay way."
Training at altitude in the hills of Baguio gives the Team Lakay fighters an advantage when they fight in cities such as Singapore, Manila and Kuala Lumpur which are all at sea level. Belingon, along with team mates like Honorio Banario and Eduard Folayang, is renowned for his stamina and he says this has been key to his success,
"In the URCC I fight 10 minute rounds and sometimes before even 20 minute rounds so if the rounds are only 5 minutes I can be very confident that I will not get tired. I like to keep moving when I fight and to do lots of striking and if you have this style it is important to have good stamina."
There is still one more quarterfinal match up to be announced but at present the three semi finalists are Jens Pulver, Masakatsu Ueda and Belingon. The Filipino put on a bit more muscle in preparation for his last fight but normally walks at 135 lbs and could easily cut to flyweight but he says he is happy where he is,
"At Team Lakay we have a lot of flyweights and Rey Docyogen and Geje Eustaquio are already signed with the ONE FC so if I try to fight flyweight as well I think that is too many. Fighting bigger fighters is ok for me, I will see who I am fighting in the semi finals all the fighters in the tournament are very strong but that is good because I want to fight strong fighters."
Regardless of what happens in the semifinals Belingon has at least proven that he can compete with the best in the world as a bantamweight against. By beating Saaduleav so emphatically 'The Silencer' has silenced the critics who suggested he was too small to fight at 135 lbs and would not be able to replicate his early success on the international stage.