Despite the completely unpredictable nature of MMA, more often than not, one combatant is picked over the other as the favorite to win a bout.
However, no matter how many perceived advantages one athlete has over the other, or how much more popular that person is, the fact remains that a bout is only won on Fight Night. And sometimes, the competitor that was not supposed to win prevails.
There is a reason everyone loves a good underdog story, where an ordinary David takes down Goliath against all odds, as it creates some truly special moments that show anything is possible as long as you try.
Looking back at the past year, here are five of those moments in ONE Championship.
#1 Eduard Folayang defeats Shinya Aoki via TKO (Punches) at ONE: DEFENDING HONOR, 11 November, Singapore
33-year-old former school teacher Eduard Folayang entered the ONE Championship cage opposite Japanese MMA legend Shinya Aoki as the underdog in every sense of the word, and he left it as champion.
Is there a better underdog story than the one Folayang authored in Singapore? Folayang was not expected to do what he did against the legendary grappler, let alone capture the ONE Lightweight World Championship belt in the process.
The odds were stacked against the Filipino wushu champion. For starters, Aoki had not lost in nearly five years, not since he had joined the promotion. He was riding a nine-fight winning streak and was one of the most feared and revered submission specialists in the entire world.
Since it was a title fight, Aoki also had five whole rounds to work his magic. The question was never how Folayang could possibly pull off an upset, it was always how long he would be able to last against a grappler the caliber of Aoki. Aoki was expected to win as he always has, whether by some amazing submission or by clear-cut unanimous decision.
Folayang had other plans. What ensued was a classic performance from the Filipino MMA veteran, one that he will cherish for the rest of his life. Aoki had no answer for Folayang’s striking mastery, after it became evident that at the very least Folayang had the confidence and ability to defend against Aoki’s Brazilian jiu-jitsu.
From his exciting second round comeback and takeover, to his scintillating third-round finish via flying knee to ground and pound, Folayang has earned this year’s Upset of the Year honors, in what will go down in history as one of the crowning moments of Philippine MMA.
#2 Martin Nguyen defeats Christian Lee via Technical Submission (Guillotine Choke) at ONE: HEROES OF THE WORLD, 13 August, Macau
Highly-touted featherweight prospect Christian Lee was on a roll, having won his first five bouts as a professional in emphatic fashion. Not many could stand and trade with Lee, who was gifted with superior speed and power. Coming into the bout with Australia’s Martin Nguyen, it was no surprise that many had pegged Lee to be the slight favorite.
Yet the question remained — was he ready for a fighter the caliber of “The Situ-Asian”? As it turned out, fans needed less than one round to discover the answer.
Nguyen entered the bout on a mission. He wanted to prove to the world that he was never to be counted out, and that he was the top contender to Marat Gafurov’s ONE Featherweight World Championship. More importantly, he wanted to prove that Lee had a long way to go before he could be ready for the big leagues. He was right.
After a brief feeling out process, Nguyen and Lee traded strikes at the center of the ONE Championship cage. It was an epic contest of the young lion taking on his more experienced senior, and it ended with a tremendous finish.
In the end, Nguyen did exactly what he said he was going to do and that was to finish Lee and derail the youngster’s hype train. The Australian fighter knocked Lee down on more than one occasion, and latched on to a devastating guilltine choke.
Lee tried his best to wriggle free, but to no avail. Nguyen was not letting him get away. To Lee’s credit, he never gave up, not even tapping out when he was supposed to.
#3 Edward Kelly defeats Jordan Lucas via Submission (Rear Naked Choke) at ONE: UNION OF WARRIORS, 18 March, Myanmar
Team Lakay warriors have made steady improvements over the past few years, particularly in the grappling department, where they have had a perceived lack of skills.
Grappling has always been a bane amongst Filipino MMA fighters, and although the Philippines has such a rich martial arts culture, the emphasis has been predominantly focused on striking. As such, any improvement in grappling is easily noticeable, as was the case with Kelly’s showcase of technical ability.
“The Ferocious” earned a much-needed victory over previously-unbeaten Australian Jordan “Showtime” Lucas, winning by rear-naked choke submission midway into the first round of a scheduled three-round featherweight bout at ONE: UNION OF WARRIORS.
It was Lucas’ highly-anticipated ONE Championship debut. The 22-year-old previously served as the Brace bantamweight champion, and was expected to have a strong showing, even against a seasoned veteran like Kelly. Plus, Kelly had only won three of his past four bouts in ONE at the time.
However, Kelly had obviously been putting in the hours in the gym. Kelly executed his gameplan to perfection, overcoming a spirited performance by his younger opponent. He weathered the storm Lucas unleashed upon him from the opening bell, negated the Australian’s ground game, and turned things around with offense of his own when the opportunity presented itself. He grabbed a hold of Lucas’ neck and just did not let go.
Kelly had predicted before the bout that he would finish Lucas by knockout, but instead Kelly put his grappling prowess on full display against the youngster. It was Kelly’s biggest win at the time. The Filipino was in dire need of a solid victory over a tough opponent, and he got that against Lucas.
#4 Reece McLaren defeats Muin Gafurov via Unanimous Decision at ONE: GLOBAL RIVALS, 15 April, Manila
Being part Filipino, Reece “Lightning” McLaren was looking to make a home for himself in Manila, and he did just that, surprising observers and fans alike with his thoroughly dominant victory over highly-regarded Tajik fighter Muin Gafurov.
McLaren was not favored to win when he came into the fight against Gafurov, who was expected to come away with a breakthrough performance. After all, the Tajikistani had put together a 10-fight win streak, including a victory over former ONE Bantamweight World Title challenger Toni Tauru.
It was McLaren, however, who turned heads when the cards were read. This was despite the fact that just one bout prior, McLaren came from behind to upset Filipino bantamweight standout Mark Striegl, giving fans a taste of what he was capable of.
This time, McLaren would prove his credentials. He wowed spectators with his effortless transitions, as he battered Gafurov with a dominant top game. McLaren showed impeccable grappling skills, and once he latched onto Gafurov, it became increasingly difficult for his opponent to break free.
Gafurov was baffled throughout, at a loss on how to overcome McLaren’s intricate web of mat and cage control. In the end, McLaren edged Gafurov out in nearly every category to take the unanimous decision. It was an upset that fans could see coming, but could not believe until they saw it with their own two eyes.
#5 April Osenio defeats Ann Osman via Submission (Guillotine Choke) at ONE: UNBREAKABLE WARRIORS, 2 September, Kuala Lumpur
Battling a fever that drained her of energy on fight night, Team Lakay warrior April Osenio stepped into the ONE Championship cage as the overwhelming underdog to hometown hero Ann Osman in Kuala Lumpur.
While Osman was obviously the more experienced fighter, Osenio’s intent to make her mark on the ONE Championship women’s strawweight division was not to be denied.
Osman was always going to be a tough opponent, there is no disputing that. The Malaysian sensation has competed against some of the toughest women in ONE Championship, but moving down to strawweight, Osman faced new challenges.
Despite Osman coming into the cage in the best shape of her career and owning a perceived grappling advantage, Osenio played the role of party-spoiler with her virtuoso submission victory. Osenio delivered her most impressive performance yet, submitting Osman in the first very round.
From the opening bell, Osenio and Osman wasted no time striking and immediately went into the clinch. The two then scrambled continuously on the mat, trading positions on numerous occasions. It was a technical display that belied how far women’s MMA has come in just a few years.
It was fun while it lasted. To the dismay of the Kuala Lumpur crowd, Osenio caught Osman in a guillotine choke and forced the tap. Coming into hostile territory, defeating a fan-favorite in front of her countrymen, and besting her opponent at her own game is a tall order. Yet it was all in a day’s work for Osenio.