The grand prix format is something we saw a lot more in the early days of MMA and kickboxing and slowly but surely it seems to be making its way back to the forefront of combat sports. It gives us the opportunity to see the matchups we want to see and pits the best against the best in a winner takes all tournament.
There are no rankings to decide who gets the next crack at the title, no financial and contractual disputes over the chances of a big fight being made, it’s a sure-fire, all action format and a fan friendly one at that. ONE championship are leading the charge in eastern combat sports as of present, and with the help of some recent marquee signings and an already bulletproof super series roster, the Asian giants have put together a trio of grand prix’s which are all set to conclude this October in their landmark 100th event.
Over two parts, I will be diving into the ONE flyweight and lightweight grand prix’, I will be following the journey of our finalists and tucking into the juicy matchups which have us all pondering at the question, who will be deemed worthy of that coveted gold strap?
In the first part we will tuck into the men’s flyweight grand prix. Pound for pound legend Demetrious Johnson was signed by ONE in a historic trade deal with the UFC last year, packing his bags for Asia as ONE’s welterweight king Ben Askren headed the opposite way. Although Demetrious had just recently lost his flyweight title at UFC 227 after a 6-year reign, ONE looked to cleverly capitalize on his international recognition as an all-time great, forming this flyweight grand prix with him as a driving force. The tournament would see him against the very best One have to offer, which, as we saw with Sage Northcutt and Eddie Alvarez in their debuts, aren’t to be underestimated. Naturally MMA fans expected DJ to go in there and wipe the floor with every last one of them, but it has to be said, that certainly wasn’t the case, once again displaying the true underrated caliber of ONE athletes.
In the first round of the tournament, Demetrious was pitted against explosive Japanese limb thrower, Yuya “Little Piranha” Wakamatsu. “Piranha” looked sharp, certainly giving DJ a tough scrap and dishing out more damage in 2 rounds with his lethal boxing and vicious counter striking, than a lot of the guys in the UFC inflicted over a full fight. In true Demetrious Johnson fashion though, he found a way round Yuya’s pop filled leather throwing, blending his clinch work and striking expertly before mixing in a takedown halfway through the second. This was the beginning of the end for Yuya, Demetrious bossed him against the cage, scored a few mat returns with a couple of sub attempts sprinkled in. Eventually Johnson locked in a tight standing guillotine, lowering his level but increasing the crank to force the tap. Demetrious got to experience first hand how hungry these ONE competitors are to prove themselves against glorified western talent. He got the job done but it certainly wasn’t without adversity.
Round two of the tournament saw DJ pitted against another strong Japanese opponent in Tatsumitsu Wada. Wada is a 34-fight veteran and is well versed in all aspects of the game. Wada secured a fairly dominant quarterfinal victory over 2012 Greco-Roman wrestling olympian Gustavo Balart in his first outing of the tournament. Like the Yuya fight, Demetrious didn’t get off to a flying start, conceding back mount for in and around 3 minutes of the first round. Wada is very strong in clinch and grappling exchanges and managed to see out the round on top after a couple of brief stints with Demetrious in his guard. What happened next, I hear you ask? Well, you guessed it, Demetrious comes back with a cracking 2nd and 3rd round performance. Demetrious put on a dominant display of mixed martial arts and saw out a unanimous decision victory after eventually finding his flow in the 2nd.
The greats adapt on the fly and overcome adversity, forming a superbly polished game in all areas of the arts which allows them to find a route to victory against most guys they face, Demetrious is one of those greats. The way he has and continues to mesh together his all-round combat skillset, implementing it in a consistent and cerebral manner is beyond comparison in the flyweight division. Defeating the man is a tall order for any combatant, but if someone in this tournament was going to take him out and shock the world, Team Lakay product Danny Kingad is that man.
Danny trains out of Team Lakay, a camp which at one point had 4 simultaneous world champions under the ONE banner. Not only that, Danny defeated both of the men DJ has faced in the first 2 rounds of the tournament. Danny only has one career loss which is to non-other than the current champ, the man all these guys are fighting for a chance to get at, Adriano Moraes. Folyang, Bellingon, Eustaquio they all have that renowned Team Lakay wushu striking base. One thing is for sure, it is super fierce, super intense and super dangerous for the man on the receiving end. Team Lakay throw an insane amount of power into every strike, every strike has bad intentions. The wushu spinning attacks are a big staple of Kingad and his team, that spinning back kick and spinning back fist are designed to generate as much power as possible and that power is directed toward your opponent in the hope of shattering jaws and populating floors. His striking may be the most prominent aspect of his game, but this man has an undeniable never say die attitude and will to win, his ground and pound is as powerful as they come, and he is super active when on the back foot. This man is a problem at 125 and at just 23 years of age, a win over an all time great would propel his career into the stratosphere.
Kingad would face, like Demetrious, a Japanese competitor in his opening bout. This man was former Pancrase flyweight champ, Senzo Ikeda. Ikeda utilises a lot of feints, tetchy movement and bounces in and out of range a lot. Kingad is one of those guys who is pretty awkward to strike against, yet very capable on the ground too. First off, this bout, as expected was back and forth. As long as the fight was on the feet it was a tear up, both guys were exchanging heavy shots in short bursts. Danny was mixing it up well with the takedowns, securing the dominant position to allow him to unleash heavy ground and pound. Instead Danny found himself in exciting scrambles which made for some very end to end grappling exchanges. The spring in Ikeda’s step seemed to fade in the 2nd and in the end, although it was a close fight, Danny was the more active of the pair and earned the unanimous decision. Ikeda just seemed to want to go blow for blow, Danny adjusted accordingly, adding his grappling into the mix to edge out a sweet display of nail-biting action.
For his next fight we saw a change of opponent for Danny in the semifinal. Kazakhstani bulldozer, Kairat Akhmetov was forced out of the grand prix due to injury, thus the man he defeated, Aussie grappling standout Reece Mclaren, was given a 2nd chance. Yes, it was nice to see Reece given a lifeline after all seemed lost, but one of the favourites had just been forced out of the tournament, so who knows what would have happened had Kairat been able to continue? Things like that happen but the show must go on, it presented Danny with a new obstacle to overcome, a new puzzle to solve. Yes, they may both be grappling heavy combatants, but it still posed an interesting test for a 23-year-old who is very much a student of the game.
The semi final matchup with Reece went ahead, a battle tested Aussie who was looking for a place in the finals with the odds stacked against him. There is something about Danny as to where he seems to attract back and forth wars, it’s what the fans want to see, and this scrap did not differ from that what so ever. This time it was Danny conceding takedowns and having to channel his warrior spirit to fight back from adversity. Reece was hungry, staying very aggressive with his wrestling, attempting to control Danny on the mat and score vital points. That’s what the issue was though, controlling Danny for 3 rounds. The Phillipino sensation was staying very active from his back, throwing up submission attempts, strikes and sweeps, grabbing hold of any opening he could with both hands. It certainly was a thriller in Manila. However, the striking was where Danny capitalised and didn’t just attempt damage from the guard. His wushu expertise came into play as per usual, he landed the more significant strikes on the feet, blasting through with his spinning attacks and lunging in with those hammer hands to cause accumulated damage. Throughout the fight Kingad stayed consistent with the heavy leg kicks too, striking hard and fast in true Team Lakay fashion. A grueling contest to say the least and a very good performance from both guys. Mclarens resurgence will have to wait, Kingad booked his place in the grand finals with a tough split decision victory. Can team Lakay capture flyweight gold once again?
So, there we have it, the ONE flyweight grand prix final is set. On one hand we have the greatest flyweight of all time in Demetrious Johnson, a man who has mastered the art of … well ... mixed martial arts. A man who can seamlessly mesh all arts into a masterpiece, a man who has defeated some of the best flyweights in world MMA with his lightning speed and technical mastery. A man who embodies greatness. He conquered western MMA, but can he replicate that success over in the East? Then on the other hand we have a Phillipino warrior 10 years his junior, a young man from Team Lakay who aspires to be a world champion. Kingad has the opportunity to not only defeat the biggest and best name in flyweight history, but also earn a rematch with the current champ in Adriano Moraes, the man who took the belt from his teammate and friend, Geje Eustaquio. This is a narrative we are coming to be all too familiar with in MMA nowadays … A young hungry lion chasing greatness, against an accomplished veteran who is looking to define an already decorated legacy. The stage is set but the question is, who will prevail in their quest for a shot at ONE gold?