Five Boogeyman Rivalries in ONE

Rivalry Image via Strawberry Branding

MMA is arguably the most unpredictable sport out there. Statistics and money ball tactics mean nothing inside the cage. Leaving a lot of room for upsets and hijinks. But every once in a while there come match-ups that no amount of randomness can overcome. Some fighters simply meet people that consistently have their number and can’t seem to beat. These are five boogeyman rivalries in ONE.

Narantungalag Jadambaa and Marat Gafurov

Marat Gafurov consoling Narantungalag Jadambaa
Marat Gafurov consoling Narantungalag Jadambaa via ONE Championship.

When Narantungalag Jadambaa made his promotional debut at ONE: Honor and Glory he looked like he stepped straight out of Tekken. He’s cut like a statue and judging by his opponent’s reactions he hits like one too.

The First Mongolian Champion

From the moment he stepped into the ONE cage there was a definite feeling that he would fight for the title. He did that three months after his debut. Koji Oishi won the belt just the year before and that was all the time he’d have with it.

Jadambaa looked absolutely solid in that fight, in terms of both physique and performance. He bullied Oishi for a full five rounds to win the fight and take the belt. As far as we know, Oishi hasn’t fought again since.

Jadambaa was unstoppable, a solid barrier that can’t broken and would most likely break anyone in front of him. It looked like he would reign as Champion for a long time. Until Marat Gafurov came along.

Unlike Jadambaa, Gafurov had to work a bit more to get his shot at the title. He made his promotional debut two months after Jadambaa won the belt, finishing Rob Lisita, Ev Ting, and Martin Nguyen on the his way to the top. All three fights ended in the first round.

Gafurov was set to be Jadambaa’s first title defense at ONE: Dynasty of Champions, just shy of a year after he won the belt.

Into the Cobra’s Coils

When comparing the two fighters, it’s always striking how overwhelming Jadambaa is to Gafurov. He was a mountain of muscle that seemed to big for anyone human to overcome. But the Russian was a different kind of scary.

All throughout his entire MMA career, starting in 2010, Gafurov has only finished his fights one way – Rear Naked Choke. Both men knows what the other’s game plan is. The only questions is if Jadambaa’s neck is too thick for Gafurov’s arms to wrap around.

Gafurov took his time in trying to answer this question. Jadambaa did well to defend the takedowns in the first round and survive to fight on to the enter the championship rounds.

The fight ultimately ended in the fourth round when a visibly exhausted Jadambaa swung and missed with an overhand right. A combination of fatigue and momentum was enough for the then champion to fall to his knees on his own.

Gafurov immediately jumped on his back, locked in the RnC to sleep Jadambaa and become the new ONE Featherweight Champion.

The Last Defense

Jadambaa and Gafurov would rematch at the co-main event of ONE: Defending Honor. The Mongolian had to go through the first Lightweight Champion Kotetsu Boku and knockout Eric Kelly in 44 seconds on his way back to the top.

This time, Gafurov didn’t play around. Halfway through the first round Jadambaa lost his balance while throwing a kick and the Champion jumped all over him.

Gafurov locked in the rear naked choke late in the round to sleep Jadambaa once more. Two victories, with exactly the same technique, with exactly the same result.

After this defense, Gafurov lost the title to Martin Nguyen and moved up to go to Lightweight.

Gafurov’s rear naked choke is just a puzzle Jadambaa cannot solve regardless of his grit and strength. It’s a complete defeat that Mongolian will most likely never have the chance to avenge. Possibly cheating him out of an enduring legacy and become a living legend to his native Mongolia akin to other hometown heroes Aung La Nsang and Eduard Folayang.

Honorio Banario and Koji Oishi

Koji Oishi standing over Honorio Banario to cement one of the most dominant boogeyman rivalries.
Koji Oishi standing over Honorio Banario via Sherdog.

Honorio Banario was one of the first fighters ONE had on its roster and got a relatively easy path to the belt in comparison to what athletes have to go through today.

The First Featherweight Champion

Banario got a shot at the title after wining against journeyman Andrew Benibe who was 5-4 at the time, knocking him out in the third round. He was matched up against the much better Eric Kelly who was undefeated at 8-0, going through Mitch Chilson, Bae Yong Kwon, and Jens Pulver on his way to the title.

Kelly was undoubtedly the favorite due to his record and number of appearances in ONE before the title fight. The fight however would have an unsatisfactory ending.

In the fourth round Banario would connect with a left hook, opening a cut under Kelly’s eye. Kelly signalled to referee Yuji Shimada, obviously thinking that he was eye-poked. Shimada misinterpreting his intentions waved it off to end the fight.

Upon closer inspection of the replay, it was clear that Banario’s fist was closed and it was a legitimate strike.

Thus, Banario became the first Featherweight Champion of ONE.

Summertime Champion

Banario would reign as Champion for just over three months, drawing Koji Oishi as his first defense.

Many of those who don’t follow Pancrase had near zero idea of who Oishi was and how wide the gap between him and Banario actually was.

Before making his promotional debut in ONE, Oishi was already a thirteen year veteran in the sport. He spent most of his time in Pancrase, facing high level opponents like Carlos Condit and Nate Diaz, even becoming a Champion in that promotion.

From their resumes alone, the Champion didn’t seem to have any chance against the challenger. But for the last 30 seconds of the first round it seemed that MMA math was about to be proven wrong once again.

After getting dropped by Oishi with a right, Banario came back up with furious flurries, rocking the Japanese twice and pounding him until the bell rang. But the upset was not to be.

Oishi landed a single overhand right halfway through the second round and knocked Banario out cold, vindicating his superior experience.

The Start of the Skid

After the fight, ONE management chose to book an immediate rematch between the two later that same year at ONE: Moment of Truth. The fight however, would only cement what everybody already knew.

Team Lakay seemed to learn its lesson from the first fight as Banario was a lot more careful in the rematch and Oishi had less chances to break through with his power. In fact, referee Yuji Shimada had to warn them both halfway through the second round for inactivity.

It was easy to tell that the first fight gave Banario a psychological scar. No more were the vengeful flurries that almost won him the first fight. Just desperate punches to stave Oishi off for a few seconds after getting rocked.

It all came to ahead in the third round. Both men were measuring each other up, when Oishi threw caution to the wind and just went in for a right straight. The Filipino was already out on his feet, but Oishi finished the job with a right hook that left no doubt as to who the better man was.

There were no improvements, there were no changes.

Unfortunately, Oishi would lose in his next title defense and retire from fighting soon after. Banario never looked the same and would go on to drop three more fights to form the biggest losing streak of his career.

Jenny Huang and Mei Yamaguchi

Mei Yamaguchi punching Jenny Huang
Mei Yamaguchi punching Jenny Huang via ONE Championship.

Jenny Huang was a legitimate top prospect in the Atomweight division by the end of 2016. But as she approached the gate to enter the top tier, she ran into its keeper and has yet to find the right keys.

The First Defense

Angela Lee had just come out of one best fights of 2016. Not only beating one of the most decorated women in Asian MMA, but also coming away as the first Atomweight Champion in ONE. The question as to who her first challenger would be was an easy one to answer.

Jenny Huang was undefeated fighter with a record of 5-0. The same record Lee had coming into the first fight with Yamaguchi. She successfully edged out Elena Pashnina in her debut, while finishing Amira Badr, Jeet Toshi and April Osenio on her way to the top.

Huang was getting better and more confident with every fight and most people were excited to see what she would bring against the Champion.

Unfortunately, she fell short against Lee as she succumbed to strikes in the third round. This allowed Angela Lee to complete her first title defense, and prove her belt wasn’t a fluke.

Huang needed a quick turnaround to get back in title contention. Who better than the only other woman to fight for the title?

Seeking a Redeemer

By the time Jenny Huang and Mei Yamaguchi first met at ONE: Light of a Nation, the Japanese was on a two fight skid. Recently dropping another Unanimous Decision to Istela Nunes.

There were serious question marks starting to form around Yamaguchi at the time, and if she fell a third time to Huang it might signal an end to her prime.

It was a fight between young confidence and veteran savvy. Most of the first round was a back and forth affair with Huang throwing all of her tricks at Yamaguchi.

From combinations to spinning kicks, the Chinese fighter did near everything in her book to dent her opponent. For her part, Yamaguchi weathered everything thrown her way and eventually got the fight to the ground in the second round.

From there she slowly but surely advanced her position. Eventually getting Huang’s back and locking in a rear naked choke to end the fight.

Needing a Fight

The rematch between the two was something of a blessing for Huang and not so much something she deserved. After their initial encounter Yamaguchi went on a bit of a hot streak. She beat Gina Iniong, Jomary Torres, Ksenia Lachkova, and Laura Balin.

Huang on the other hand took a turn for the absolute worst. She lost two more times to Gina Iniong and Jihin Radzuan, forming a four fight skid. Fortunately, ONE: Century Part 2 was looking for someone to stand opposite Yamaguchi and Huang didn’t hesitate to step up. So the rematch was set.

Huang definitely tightened her striking immensely in this rematch. Most of her tricks are gone, favoring more efficient shots probing Yamaguchi’s defenses with leg kicks. But nothing’s changed on the ground, as soon as the fight goes to Yamaguchi’s wheelhouse, Huang can only survive.

The only real improvement from Huang’s end is that she wasn’t finished. Only losing to Yamaguchi via Unanimous Decision.

There’s a small controversy surrounding this fight as there are some people who believe that Huang should have won the fight. But since it was done in Japan the nod went to Yamaguchi.

Most of it seems to stem from the commentary of Steve Dawson and Gianni Subba who were all in for Huang to win. In fact, neither of them said a word when Dominic Lau announced that Yamaguchi won.

I watched the fight again with the sound off and there was no question in my mind that Yamaguchi took this fight. Yes the leg kicks were bothering the Japanese fighter and Huang was active in punching up from her back. But you can’t be put on your butt the number of times Huang was and and eat the amount ground and pound Huang did and expect to win.

Christian Lee and Martin Nguyen

Martin Nguyen carrying Christian Lee
Martin Nguyen carrying Christian Lee via ONE Championship.

Prodigy is the only word that describe Christian Lee. He’s probably what you would get if you made Jon Jones asian and kept him away from cocaine. He’s lanky, has a strong wrestling base, and can ground and pound people to death. Unfortunately, he ran into Martin Nguyen.

The First Title Run

When Martin Nguyen first met Christian Lee at ONE: Heroes of the World in 2016, he was in the midst of his first real title run. This was after losing to Marat Gafurov for the interim title while Jadambaa was struggling with VISA issues.

Before this fight Nguyen gave Edward Kelly the third loss of his career, and smacked down another rising star in Li Kai Wen.

Lee on the other hand was torching the Featherweight division, looking just as unbeatable as his sister. He was on an undefeated run, finishing David Meak, Mahmoud Mohamed, Anthony Engelen, Cary Bullos, and Rocky Batolbatol.

All of those fights ended in the first round. Nguyen would be the first real test of Christian Lee’s meteoric rise.

A Rude Awakening

Looking at the fight again, it seems Nguyen is simply better in every aspect of the game than Lee. He’s stronger, more experienced, and had more aggressiveness with what he wants to execute. There’s also a few seconds where there is a direct comparison between their chins.

At 1:22 into the first round, Lee rocks Nguyen with a left and the Situ-Asian immediately retreats. Lee chases him down to capitalize with a flurry. But as things calm down slightly, Nguyen throws a left of his own at the 1:14 mark and Lee drops.

Nguyen capitalizes, locking in a guillotine choke until Lee passes out. Christian Lee got a taste of his own medicine and was finished in the first round.

Nguyen would go on to challenge Martin Gafurov for the Featherweight title and Eduard Folayang for the Lightweight title, winning both belts in 2017.

Missed Chances

The devastating loss fortunately didn’t have much of an effect on Christian Lee as he quickly got back to his winning ways. He kept doing what he was doing and torched the Featherweight division on his way to the top.

The fighters caught up in his path to glory were Jianping Wan, Keanu Subba, former champion Kotetsu Boku, and Kazunori Yokota. All fights ended in finishes.

The stage was set for Nguyen/Lee rematch, only this time it was for the Featherweight belt at ONE: Unstoppable Dreams. Because Nguyen chose to fiddle around in different divisions, this fight was going to be the first defense of his title.

There’s nothing much to say about this fight to be perfectly honest. There was near zero play on the ground and the striking looked like karate point fighting.

I’ve never seen referee Yuji Shimada look so bored in a title fight. He had to warn both fighters multiple times for inactivity, even giving them both a yellow card in the third round just to force them to engage.

To summarize this fight, this was the best chance for Nguyen to lose his gold. Even including his loss to Gafurov, this was the worst version of Martin Nguyen as a Featherweight.

Lee was more confident and Nguyen was hesitating and missing with his shots. The only thing that the Champion had going for him was the strength in his take down defense and the power in his right hand. But that was enough to give him the majority nod.

Since then Nguyen returned to form, defending the belt from Naruntangalag Jadambaa and Koyomi Matsushima in emphatic fashion. Meanwhile Lee made the most of his opportunity at Lightweight and is now the reigning Champion in that division.

There’s a chance the two might meet again if and when Nguyen gets the itch to move back up and reclaim the belt he never lost against the man that lost against him twice.

Mei Yamaguchi and Angela Lee

Angela Lee suplexing Mei Yamaguchi towards a dominant boogeyman rivalry.
Angela Lee suplexing Mei Yamaguchi via The Strait Times.

The rivalry between Mei Yamaguchi and Angela Lee is a collision course of the established veteran and the fiery new comer. Experience versus potential, the systematic and the daring, the old order up against the young gun. New wave won both times.

The First Atomweight Champion

Before she made her promotional debut with ONE, Mei Yamaguchi was a force in Asian MMA. She’s fought in DEEP, Pancrase, Shooto, VALKYRIE, PXC, CageForce, and even a small promotion called Smackgirl. If it had a cage, Mei Yamaguchi probably fought in it.

On the other hand, Angela Lee was part of the Evolve quartet, along with Christian Lee, Alex Silva and Amir Khan, that ONE was pushing to promote the gym. Chatri Sityodtong for those who don’t know is also the CEO of Evolve MMA, so the promotion began as (though sort of still is) a kind of a vehicle for the gym.

But of the three of them, Angela undoubtedly has been the most successful. So when the ONE brass did convince Yamaguchi to sign with them, they were eager to test their rising star and see what level she actually was.

ONE’s 2016 Fight of the Year

The first Lee/Yamaguchi fight was on ONE: Ascent to Power for the inaugural Atomweight belt. It was a fight that deserved its main event status despite having Roger Gracie and a then undefeated Michael Pasternak on the card.

Lee came out firing in the first round, definitely shocking Yamaguchi with her powerful strikes and grappling savvy. It took a bit of time for the Japanese to get used to her opponent, but once she did she slowly advanced herself to a dominant position.

It was all Yamaguchi in the second round, as she used her experience to its full extent. She was reversing positions, establishing dominance, shrugging off armbars and even ended the round threatening a choke.

It was almost over when Yamaguchi dropped Lee with a straight right in the first second of the third round. Yamaguchi dropped ground and pound and even tried an armbar. But Lee – through sheer flexibility – escaped to reverse position.

The rest of the round was pretty much eaach fighter reversing the other to get full mount. They were both heaving for air by the end of it.

The last two rounds were pretty much the same and this fight had everything. Armbars, kneebars, toeholds, flash knockdowns, guillotine chokes, anaconda chokes, arm triangles, leg triangles, ground and pound, and slams. There is little wonder why Angela Lee became a legitimate star after this fight.

If it was against any other woman, Yamaguchi would have been crowned Champion. But in the end Angela Lee took the gold and has yet to let it go.

Truly Unstoppable

Since winning the title, Lee defended the belt twice against Jenny Huang and Istela Nunes. While Yamaguchi also went on a streak of her won beating Jenny Huang and Gina Iniong.

It was clear that these two were the best in the division, and that they were on a different level from everyone else. Their rematch was the only one to make at Atomweight.

Unfortunately, the second fight couldn’t hold a candle to the first. Not because it was bad, but only because the first one was too good. Lee had learned too much from their first fight and handled the Japanese veteran with her upgraded game.

Yamaguchi was able to execute her game to some extent but it wasn’t nearly enough to get one over Unstoppable.

Which of these rivalries was your favorite? Do you ever think they can rise up and avenge these losses? Let us know.

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