Since Kotetsu Boku and Soo Chul Kim won the Lightweight and Bantamweight Championships respectively in ONE: Rise of Kings, the promotion has risen to incredible heights.
Its roster boasts a large number of international stars. Its events regularly attract a viewership that would break records anywhere else. All while staying out of any controversial drama that plagues other promotions.
The ONE Championship belt is now among the most prestigious accolades in Asian mixed martial arts. Similar in stature to Rizin and Brave.
With the glamour and promise of a better life given by holding that belt, competition inevitably gets stiffer. As a result, some truly talented martial artists may never be able to get a chance to achieve it.
In this article, we’ll be looking at six top-tier fighters that may never become a ONE Champion.
This list will look exclusively at MMA, as the Muay Thai and Kickboxing belts are all too recent.
Luis “Sapo” Santos – Eye Poke of Destruction
Luis Santos is a Brazilian Jiu-jitsu and Judo black belt with a 60-9-1 MMA record back in 2015. Thirty-six of said wins were by knockout, while another eleven came via submission.
He was a scary opponent for anyone with a skill set and experience few can match.
The Main Event of ONE FC 26: Valor of Champions featuring Santos against the undefeated Ben Askren promised to be an instant classic. Unfortunately, the MMA world was robbed of what could have been a defining fight in the weirdest way possible.
ONE’s Inexperience Exposed
The first two minutes of the fight were riveting. Santos stuffed every takedown Ben threw at him. The champion had nothing going for him and was getting schooled by the challenger.
Every analyst agrees that this was turning into the biggest challenge in Askren’s career. But at the 2:46 mark of the first round, Sapo went down in pain, hands covering his eye.
Replays clearly show Askren’s thumb goes into Santos’ right eye. Referee Olivier Coste, however, disagreed. He didn’t believe there was an eye poke, didn’t call the doctor to confirm it and ended the fight as a No Contest because Santos refused to fight.
The entire fight, from the eye poke to the refereeing, was such an embarrassment, that ONE doesn’t have it on their YouTube channel.
Slain by the Hotel Breakfast Buffet
A rematch was scheduled for November of the same year at ONE: Pride of Lions. The heavily-promoted fight banked on the controversy of the first fight to sell. Unfortunately, Santos repeatedly failed to make weight and it was called off.
The closest Santos got to another shot was a title-eliminator with Zebastian Kadestam at ONE: Dynasty of Heroes. He lost that fight via knockout in the third round and has been up and down ever since.
Currently, the belt is with Kiamrian Abbasov, a man he’s beaten in the past. But at forty years old, Santos is running out of time to build his case.
Considering his latest loss was due to injury from a takedown, he might already be thinking about hanging up his gloves.
Agilan Thani – Lost Soul After Choke
Let’s keep the Welterweight train going. The third warrior slain by the Funky one. Agilan Thani was unstoppable with an undefeated record on his way to challenge Ben Askren for the belt at ONE: Dynasty of Heroes.
Unfortunately, the champion showed everyone the enormous gap between him and Thani with a Triangle Choke in the first round.
It’s not a stretch to think that this was too much too soon for the young contender, as he’s hasn’t been the same since that defeat.
Among the other Askren victims, he’s the only young gun that’s yet to bounce back. Zebaztian Kadestam and Shinya Aoki both became champions, while Nikolay Aleksakhin is 7-1 in Russia since ONE: Global Rivals.
You also can’t help but compare him to other fighters that lost to champions but quickly torched the rest of the division on their way back up. Tiffany Teo, Danny Kingad, and Koyomi Matsushima to name a few.
He won against two men that have yet to get a win in ONE and lost against the two people who eventually become champions. His struggle against fighters in their 40s (Akiyama and Okami) also dim his prospects of moving up the ladder.
At only 24, Thani still has a lot of time to improve himself, and being one of the few stars from Malaysia should give him the motivation he needs. However, he needs to start winning convincingly.
At this rate, people would rather see Sexyama fight again than him.
Ken Hasegawa – Wrong End of Fight of the Year
A fighter that not many outside Japan knew much about, Ken Hasegawa did the rounds with Titan FC, Deep, and Rizin. His greatest achievement was becoming the Deep Megaton Champion.
In an interview with MMA Weekly before the fight, Ken said his mental strength would be his greatest weapon in the fight.
Not many knew what was going to happen when he met Champion Aung La Nsang at ONE: Spirit of a Warrior. Boy did the crowd at Yangon that night get a treat.
ONE Championship’s Undisputed Fight of the Year
Ken Hasegawa that night, was, without a doubt, the hardest fight Aung La has ever had since becoming champion. They went back and forth, taking the fight everywhere for near the full five rounds.
Both fighters were visibly on their last legs near the end of the fight. They were driven by nothing more than sheer will before Aung La landed the uppercut that ended it all.
It was ONE’s best fight of 2018 by a mile. It was, in fact, so good, that the rematch became one of the main selling points of ONE: A New Era.
Aung La Punches his Way to Domination
Unfortunately, lightning doesn’t strike twice. Aung La took Ken down in Round 2 with a punch, erasing any all doubt as to who the champ is.
The first fight is more than enough proof that Ken has what it takes to become a ONE champion. But there are two things that are stopping that from becoming a reality.
The first is the fact that he has already fought for the belt twice and was decisively knocked out twice. There is no reason to book a third fight. His only chance is to wait for someone else to beat Aung La and challenge that person.
The second is both the Middleweight and Light Heavyweight divisions are the thinnest in the promotion. New blood of his and Aung La’s caliber is unlikely to arrive in the near future, sinking his chances.
Mei Yamaguchi – Can’t Spell “Stop” with “V.V.”
In a perfect world, Mei Yamaguchi should be able to call herself a ONE Champion. A Karate and Brazilian Jiu-jitsu black belt that’s only been beaten by three women in her entire ONE career.
Unfortunately, similar to Ken Hasegawa, her best chance at getting the gold was her first meeting with Angela Lee.
When they met at ONE: Ascent to Power, Yamaguchi was a veteran of both Deep and PXC with a 15-8 record. Lee, on the other hand, was a relative newcomer with a clean 5-0.
Yamaguchi literally had more losses than Lee had fights.
The Birth of a Legend
It was a David and Goliath story that brought everything it promised. A grappling masterclass on both sides and saw the eventual champion almost getting her arm broken at one point.
It was so good that it ranks as the 25th best fight of 2016. Not bad for the inaugural title.
Yamaguchi was a baptism of fire for Lee and is still the only woman in the Atomweight division that can take her the distance.
The initial plans for a rematch at ONE: Immortal Pursuit were cancelled after Lee had a car accident. Yamaguchi instead fought a surging Gina Iniong as an informal title-eliminator.
Yamaguchi won convincingly and the rematch took place at ONE: Unstoppable Dreams. An event that literally gets its name from Lee to welcome her back.
Sealing Yamaguchi’s Gatekeeper Purgatory
Many people were eagerly anticipating another barn burner that would push Lee to her limits. While Yamaguchi did display more skill and challenge than any of the other challengers, she still came up short.
Lee matched her on the ground and came away with the Unanimous nod that turned the champion into an untouchable queen.
Since that loss, Yamaguchi has beaten four other women who might have fought Lee, allowing the champion to explore other divisions.
In fact, her recent loss to Denice Zamboanga at ONE: King of the Jungle might be the best thing that can happen to her. If Zamboanga gets the green light to go for the gold and pull off the biggest upset in division history, it releases Yamaguchi from her role and actually lets her fight for a rematch.
If Lee wins, seeing Yamaguchi as ONE champion will probably never happen.
Amir Khan & EV Ting – Brothers of the Mid-Tier
There was a time from 2016-2017 when Amir Khan and EV Ting were in the same conversation as Eduard Folayang and Shinya Aoki at the top of the Lightweight division.
Khan was a legitimate finishing threat, with just one of his eleven career wins going to the judges. On the other hand, Ting was a perennial threat that’s only lost once in ONE before moving up in weight.
Unfortunately, while both Folayang and Aoki each won the belt twice, Khan and Tin would be denied the title by one or both of the former champs.
A Clear Division
Ting would get the first crack at the belt after Folayang pulled off the miracle upset over Aoki and put Team Lakay on the map. Many felt that Folayang was more beatable in comparison to the Japanese and fancied Ting’s chances.
Folayang, however, played it safe and began to employ the endurance-grinding style he’d be known for from 2017 onward. Ting might as well have fought a wall for the effect he had and came away from ONE: Kings of Destiny empty-handed.
Martin Nguyen would then hold up the division for a year as he defended the Featherweight belt and subsequently failed to make an impact at Bantamweight.
All four men got their shots after Nguyen suddenly vacated the Lightweight title and put them within striking distance of gold.
Ting was up against Aoki in a title-eliminator at ONE: Kingdom of Heroes and Khan was fighting for the title itself against Folayang at ONE: Conquest of Champions.
Needless to say, they both fell well short. Ting was submitted in the first round and Khan was thoroughly dominated for five rounds in what is arguably Folayang’s best performance to date.
Legacies of Almost
Since their latest title chances, they’ve not done particularly well. Ting is 1-2 and Khan is at 1-3 with all three losses coming via finish.
With the current reign of Christian Lee, there’s a distinct feeling of a changing of the guard in the Lightweight division.
Iuri lapicus, Pieter Buist, and Lowen Tynanes make up the new quartet with the champion. While the four titans that preceded them just seem to be hanging around the wings.
Both Aoki and Folayang can rest easy in this new era, confident in the fact that their respective legacies are more or less intact. Khan and Ting, on the other hand, might only see missed opportunities when they look back at their careers.
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