ONE Fighting Championship: "Kings & Champions" is set for the Singapore Indoor Stadium on Friday night (April 5, 2013) and, for the first time, the main card will be broadcast live all over Asia by Star Sports. For those of you elsewhere, the first two fights are free and the entire show can be purchased here for $10 USD.
I already previewed the bottom half of the card here, so below is an analysis of the final five fights which feature some of the biggest names on the ONE FC roster including Shinya Aoki, Melvin Manhoef and Masakatsu Ueda. The lightweight title will be on the line in the main event and a spot in the final of the Bantamweight Grand Prix is at stake with both semifinals set to go down on Friday night in Singapore.
This fight has been a year in the making and features two fighters who are both superstars in their respective cities. Arnaud Lepont (9-2) is a larger than life Frenchman who has developed a real fan following in his adopted home of Kuala Lumpur while Eddie Ng (5-1) is a quieter character but is extremely popular in Singapore.
They were originally set to face off last June at ONE FC: "Return of Warriors" but Ng damaged his shoulder and has been out of action ever since. Lepont beat his replacement, Brian Choi, but lost to another Evolve MMA fighter in the shape of Shinya Aoki last time around.
There has been a lot of hype surrounding Ng but not too much chance to judge whether it's justified because he won his first ONE FC fight in 45 seconds and his most recent in 43 seconds. There is no question that the Hong Kong native has a very solid ground game and natural power (watch him KO an opponent from inside the guard here) but this fight with Lepont will be chance for him to show exactly why experienced trainers and training partners are speaking so highly of him.
Lepont is tenacious, tough and experienced. He's had twice as many fights as Ng and his greatest assets are his heart and determination. The Frenchman has a habit of coming from behind to win fights that are seemingly already lost. I think Ng is the more technical of the two and Lepont will try to test him by doing his utmost to turn this into a long, drawn out brawl.
Ng's shown he can finish fights in an instant and has the capacity to take Lepont out fast, either with a strike or a submission. Lepont might need to weather an early storm if he wants to stay in the fight long enough to take Ng into deep water, which I think he needs to do if he is to have any chance of winning.
Kevin Belingon (10-2) made a stuttering start to his ONE FC career but found form in quite spectacular style when he blasted through Yusup Saadulaev in the opening round of his Bantamweight Grand Prix quarterfinal fight. That win puts him into the last four and the Filipino will be a strong favourite against Thanh Vu (3-1).
The Vietnamese Australian fighter is still something of an unknown quantity because three successive opponents pulled out of his last ONE FC fight after either getting injured in training or failing a medical meaning that matchmakers had to find an 11th hour replacement.
Vu easily overcame Mohd Fouzein at ONE FC: "Return of Warriors" but after only a minute of action it's difficult to assess his skill set. Belingon is agile, explosive, athletic and has power and speed as well as excellent cardio. His takedown defense looked suspect in the loss to Soo Chul Kim but he addressed the issue and easily stuffed the takedowns of Sambo practitioner Saadulaev last October.
Belingon will be the shorter fighter and Thanh Vu might be able to use his height and reach to good effect but I expect the Filipino to have a noticeable advantage in terms of speed. If the URCC champion can avoid the takedowns and use his footwork to land strikes, low kicks in particular, while making the taller fighter miss I think he will win a decision.
If Vu can get his hands on Belingon and get the fight to the ground then he will be in his element as I'm told he placed highly at some grappling competitions in Australia. I think this fight will come down to how well the Filipino executes his gameplan, he showed against Saadulaev that his striking, takedown defense and ground and pound is world class but his decision making in the loss to Masakazu Imanari was dreadful and if he makes a mistake of that magnitude then Vu is definitely good enough to punish him for it.
I really haven't seen enough footage on Vu to accurately assess his abilities but I've been very impressed with what I've seen of Belingon. I think he's a very talented fighter and I expect him to build on his win over Saadulaev by booking a spot in the ONE FC Bantamweight Grand Prix Final.
Jens Pulver's recent performances have been respectable, he's 5-3 in his last eight fights and carrying a modicum of momentum but this is a major step up. Masakatsu Ueda (16-2-2) has only lost two fights in his entire career and he's been consistently going up against highly-ranked opposition.
Pulver (27-17-1) seems to have regained something of a spring in his step since signing for Asia's biggest MMA organization and, whereas he has been guilty of taking some opponents lightly in recent years, he would love nothing more than to cap a glorious career by winning the ONE FC Bantamweight Grand Prix and has been training very seriously for this fight.
Ueda is very well rounded, he doesn't have any obvious weaknesses and he is also an extremely patient and methodical fighter, which seems to be a trait among Japanese mixed martial artists. A southpaw with a very fast left kick, he doesn't throw many combinations, or take risks looking to finish a fight, preferring instead to bide his time and bait his opponent into making an error.
A former UFC Lightweight Champion, Pulver took his ONE FC debut on relatively short notice and after winning the first round against Eric Kelly faded badly in the second stanza. He dropped the Filipino a couple of times and has sharp boxing skills but the challenge against Ueda will be to get into punching range.
It will be interesting to see how Pulver's stamina holds up because, even with a proper training camp under his belt, getting down to 135 pounds must put some strain on his 38 year-old body. I expect Ueda to use that kick to soften Pulver up and then wait for him to either tire or over-commit to a strike before shooting for a takedown.
If Pulver could win, it would set the stage for a fairy-tale ending to his fighting career but the odds are stacked against him. For me, Ueda is the overwhelming favorite to win the ONE FC Bantamweight Grand Prix and I would expect him to prevail in this encounter by way of either a decision or a late stoppage or submission.
Melvin Manhoef vs Brock Larson
This is as straightforward a striker vs grappler match up as you are going to get and Brock Larson said as much when I interviewed him yesterday. Melvin Manhoef (27-9-1-1) is as dangerous a striker as they come in the MMA game and has 25 KO / TKO wins to prove it, including brutal first round stoppages in his last two fights.
Larson (37-7), on the other hand, is a jiu-jitsu black belt with a strong wrestling background and 26 submission wins to his name. He might not be the best grappler in the world but he is certainly one of the most effective in MMA terms and that could be bad news for Manhoef, who is not renowned for his ground game.
Manhoef once knocked UFC heavyweight contender Mark Hunt out cold in under 18 seconds and is, for me, the most dangerous striker in the middleweight division by some distance. He has only been submitted six times in 38 fights but Larson is understandably confident that if he can take the Dutchman down he will be able to put his grappling to good use.
One factor which I think will play in Manhoef's favor is that Larson is moving up in weight and looks like he will be considerably the smaller of the two come fight night. Regardless of the difference in stature in all probability one man is either getting submitted or the other is getting KOed.
Manhoef will be very wary of his opponent's wrestling prowess and if he can stuff the first couple of takedowns then Larson's night is likely to end suddenly and violently. The American is every bit as effective on the ground as his opponent is striking and one successful takedown could be all he needs to finish this fight.
Kotetsu Boku (20-7-2) is the champion but Shinya Aoki (32-6-1) is the overwhelming favorite because he very rarely loses a fight and is without doubt the best lightweight competing in Asia at the moment. While there won't be too much money riding on the lightweight titleholder I definitely wouldn't write him off because he has the skill set to defeat the DREAM Lightweight Champion.
Striking will never be Aoki's strong point. He has showcased much improved stand-up in recent fights and the move to Evolve MMA seems to have worked out well, but for as long as the fighters are on their feet he is vulnerable and Boku has the tools to take advantage of that.
Boku is small for a 155-pound fighter but is very light on his feet, has good lateral movement and will spring forward periodically and unleash a sledgehammer of a right hand, as Aoki's team mate Zorobabel Moreira discovered to his cost at ONE FC: "Rise of King."
Aoki doesn't lose often but when he does it tends to be by KO or TKO and if Boku can keep it standing he believes he has heavy enough hands to end it. It's not a total mismatch in striking terms though, Aoki is also capable of hurting Boku particularly with knees and kicks, but he doesn't have the same sort of one-punch KO power.
Where Aoki has a clear advantage is in the grappling department, he's got 21 submission wins to his name and while there's no question that Boku hits hard he's only ever won seven fights by KO / TKO. That means that the challenger has got many more potential paths to victory than the champion because he could win by decision, submission or even, and this is less likely, KO / TKO.
Boku, by contrast, isn't going to get the submission and he's unlikely to win a decision because, while he undoubtedly has the ability to knock Aoki out, I don't think he will be able to consistently outstrike him for a concerted period of time. It's possible an overhand right from Boku could shock the world for a second successive fight but it's not probable, a far more likely scenario is that Aoki wins by either submission or decision.