ONE Fighting Championship has a business marketing plan with budget that rivals a small country’s GNP. The promotion started out by making grand promises. With “Pride of a Nation” held almost a year after their inception, all of them were fulfilled. This past week ONE FC hosted only their fifth event, and yet it was held in the country with the largest MMA fan base, in the most historic fight venue with the most live viewers in attendance, and with the most international MMA superstars ever assembled in SE Asia. That’s a lot of ‘mosts’ to be throwing around, but after having been fortunate to attend three ONE FC events in three different countries I can say that it’s warranted.
I was fortunate to attend this ONE FC event in Manila and experience it from start to finish, from behind the scenes to the live show itself, and now I will share it with you. The way ONE FC puts together an event is highly professional and impressive. From the show’s big production value to the attention it pays to its fighters in accommodation and on-site medical care, ONE FC sets the bar for MMA in Asia. If they fully utilize the network of fighters they have put together and ramp up the number of events across Asia as promised, ONE FC will be the future of the sport.
I took an early morning flight from Hong Kong to Manila to make it in time for final workouts. Flying over the Philippines, I could see some of the devastation that recently occurred from flooding. Every square inch of reasonably dry land is covered with housing, so heavy rainfall has got to be cause for concern. Jens Pulver later announced that he’s holding a fundraising campaign to help the flood victims through his website JensPulver.com. I urge you to help if you can.
At the airport, the ONE FC “royal treatment” started – I was picked up by a van sent by the promotion. My name was on a list after Jens Pulver and Tim Silvia which made me feel like a celebrity. This was my first time in Manila and the ride to the hotel was my first taste of the city, accompanied by Santana on the radio. The streets are choked with colorful jeepneys alongside new Toyotas. Everything seems to be a juxtaposition of old and new, dirty and clean, haphazard and ordered. We passes villages made out of nothing more than corrugated roofing, and enclaves that looked like celebrities’ hidden retreats. There were 5-story high billboards for fashion at the Mall of Asia looming over a river at a shanty town. And there were exhaust soot-covered signs for bespoke tailoring on the fronts of buildings that looked like hourly hotels.
I stayed at Discovery Suites in a sweet suite about ten times the size of my Hong Kong prison cell flat. It had every amenity for a long stay (except for a bottle opener, which I realized after buying a couple of Red Horses – rung room service, crisis averted). Soon it was time for the weigh ins which were in the hotel’s gym (the Red Horses came after, not before). It was the kick off to the whole event, and the feeling was electric, and very top-notch. The place was mobbed with reporters, coaches, and the who’s-who of the Filipino fight scene. I found a little spot at the corner of the mats so I could get some good shots of the packed room and the ten thousand photographers. There probably weren’t that many, but it sure felt like it.
CFC Bantamweight Champion Gustavo Falciroli came out first, with shockingly blue hair. He was bouncy and quick, looking like his weight cut had gone well. When he spoke to the media, he said he’d been working out with the Australian national wrestling team. Gustavo was very happy and explained that his blue hair is in homage to the Australian flag, as he’s just recently been granted citizenship. I could hear a guy from the mainstream media asking someone if the fighters were supposed to wear bike shorts, and why didn’t Gustavo have scars all over his body. Hopefully they’re a little more educated after this event.
Then his opponent, DREAM Bantamweight Champion Bibiano Fernandes took to the mats for a five minute grappling seminar. The BJJ black belt was so immersed in his ground work that he had to be prompted to show the media a little stand up. He did it in spades. His boxing coach started with a one-two combination to which Bibi said “No one-two. Pop pop pop pop!” Even through his weight cut, he still looked intense and powerful.
Jens Pulver came out next, and along with his brother holding pads for him, got the audience enthused. He looked very powerful throwing his right hook and hinted about what he had in store for his opponent. Eric Kelly came out after him, and the hometown media crowd expanded by double, giving him resounding applause. He looked like he was having a tough weight cut, but after watching him throw some incredible kicks and some very hard combinations, I changed my mind about how it was affecting him.
A pissed-off looking Tim Silvia came out as part of the final match set to appear. He boxed a little bit and then basically said “Can I go now?” As if in consolation to the crowd, Andre Arlovski came out in an “I Love the Philippines” t-shirt and asked what he was supposed to do, very humorously. After some shadow boxing and questions, he stood for pictures and screamed “This is Sparta!”
All that being done, I headed to the nearest 7-11 to check out the famous Filipino beers. I discovered that chips are to a Filipino what spam is to Hong Kongers: a seemingly simple food product can be construed, condimented, and constructed in unfathomable ways, resulting in a mind-boggling array of choices. Cheers to my fellow chip lovers! I couldn’t pick just one. But this was by far my favorite: vegetarian bacon-flavored chips. Now everyone can enjoy the goodness of bacon anytime, any place.
Thanks to local Manilan Anton Tabuena of BloodyElbow.com I was able to get a taste of real Filipino cuisine that night. We had sisig (which he delicately described to me as “pig face”), polabo (like spaghetti marinara, but with thick glass noodles), la-ing (minty, oily, yummy spinach-like dish), and more chips drizzled with pesto. Except for Anton’s constant reminding that I was eating “pig face”, it was a tasty meal.
WEIGH INS AT SMART ARANETA COLISEUM
I’ve been to two big sports arenas in Asia, Saitama Super Arena in Tokyo and now Smart Araneta Coliseum in Manila. While Saitama looks like a spaceship trying to cleverly conceal itself and Araneta looks like a giant circus big top, they have something in common in that these huge arenas are both plunked down right in the middle of thriving urban centers. When approaching them, you don’t have time to take in the magnificence of the structure, you kind of just turn a corner and – whoa – there it is. Our media convoy entered an inside private parking area, then once inside – like in some James Bond movie – a huge metal door was slid open for us to some secret inner sanctum. ONE FC for the win via whoa factor.
Past vans and stacks of production equipment, we entered the coliseum through a passageway that led directly to the fighters’ entrance. It was pitch black, the only light coming from the massive LED viewscreen, so it took a moment for my eyes to adjust and take in the scene. And for a moment, I got butterflies in my stomach. I couldn’t even see up into the recesses of the upper boxes. The LED screen was just being hoisted up, so by standing next to it I realized that it was huge, about three meters high. The cage was already installed and I headed straight for it, drawn by some unnamable force. Okay, he was named Loren Mack, Senior Manager of PR. Loren got his start with the WEC and went on to Zuffa’s flagship UFC so his experience and professional credentials are pretty solid.
Our media entourage made its way through the coliseum to the green entrance where the weigh ins were being staged. A cover of “War Pigs” was blasting which instantly put me in the mood to see some face offs. But there aren’t too many exciting ones of those in Asian MMA where the bushido mentality is strong, and many fighters come from backgrounds of athletic competition in which adversity between players isn’t encouraged or warranted. Only Tim Silvia and Andre Arlovski got a little interesting, with both fighters refusing to walk away from each other. Even the ONE FC boss stepped in between the two in an effort to separate them. He was dressed in a light suit, black shirt and dark aviators – Victor Cui is the Tony Montana of MMA. Perhaps if his jacket had flared to reveal a couple of .45s strapped under each arm, he might have been able to push the heavyweights apart. The only other heated scene was when Phil Baroni took his clothes off and rubbed his butt on one of the Korean round girls, then got into a pose down with Rodrigo Ribeiro.
The crowd of media and onlookers was in the hundreds, which was an extremely encouraging sign of the progress of MMA in the Philippines. They crushed the stage and each other too. All the fighters made weight, all the media mobbed the Korean round girls from ROAD FC, and all the hype was turning into reality. Once the weigh ins were over, several of the fighters milled about and answered questions. Seems like ONE FC benefitted in more ways than one when another MMA card was cancelled.
The next step for the fighters was a run-through. As we again entered the stadium, I heard one fighter say “Whoa”. They listened diligently to the directions of where to stay at warm up, how to enter, how to leave and get post-fight medicals done (there was a separate room for each corner), and finally the operations room. When it was said that this was where payments would be made, the entire group, sullen from weight cuts, shared a common smile. While testing out the cage, I was able to get a candid shot of four Gracies in one frame. In Beijing once, I was also able to get four. Next time, I’m aiming for five. The full album from the workouts and weigh ins can be found here, on the Facebook page.
I arrived at the coliseum about two hours before the fights were set to begin. There were already people milling about, and even a few passersby stopping to check out the banners of the fighters that were posted. Inside the coliseum, final light checks were being done, and site staff were being briefed. There was a horde of waiters for the VIP area getting instructions and a horde of pretty girls getting instructions… for what, I never quite figured out.
The fights were set to start at 7:30. The entire media section was scrambling for internet access which wasn’t happening, and those of us planning play by plays were getting frustrated. The fights started one hour late which might have left us secure knowing we could get on the net, but most of the press never did. Later I found out that there was a technical problem in the coliseum which involved the live stream and the wireless access at the same time. I never got online, although a few others did. I stopped letting it bother me when I realized I could go and sit with friends in different parts of the coliseum and get a great overview of the fights from various angles. The biggest problem I had with the late start was the late end, well after midnight. The crowd stayed until Eduard Folayang versus Felipe Enomoto was over, then began to trickle out.
There are two things I’ve disliked about the ONE FC production: the theme song and the cage announcer (no, I don’t mean Lenne Hardt, I mean the William Shatner of emcees, Mark Richmond). Ironically, some fans – those new to MMA – have complained about Lenne’s voice, mostly saying it’s incongruous to the un-Japanese, straightforward production of previous events. My personal professional background leads me to pay particular attention to audio details.
ONE FC, thank you for winning me over. In the expanse of the Araneta coliseum on a fantastic sound system, the theme song playing at the start of the night did create an anticipatory mood and I found myself “DUN dada dun DUN dada dun”ing along with it. And then a bit into the fights I found myself thinking, “Hey, this new announcer guy’s good, who is he?” Only to realize that it was the same Mark Richmond! Nice how the production has begun gelling together.
Lenne’s triumphant crescendos blended seamlessly with the epic mood lighting and fighter walkouts and it was obvious that the Manila crowd knows, loves, and is affected by her charisma. And her mistake of calling Jens Pulver “Lil Devil” instead of “Lil Evil” will go down on the highlight reel of the funniest bloopers. She even tweeted about it after.
The first fight of the night was Andrew Benibe versus Honorio Banario, which started to a house about 80% capacity. Without the SRO areas in use, I estimated it to be about 8,000-9,000 people. This was a very game match between two very good and enduring young men. Honorio stunned the crowd with his incredible striking and kicks, utilizing the ruleset to the fullest with a stomp attempt and soccer kicks. Lenne Hardt was cage side clapping for them. Banario finished strong like a rock ’em sock ’em robot for a knock down on the tough chin of Benibe getting Yuji Shimada‘s stoppage.
Fight number two was Mitch Chilson versus Shannon Wiratchai in a first round that saw Chilson dominating with a huge slam and nice work against the cage. At the start of the second, Shannon started trying to reverse the tide. Mitch was backing him up when Shannon floored him with a right that came out of nowhere with everything on it. As Mitch was rising, Shannon ran in and threw a kick to the head but Mitch still stayed up while Horitaka Oshiro jumped in to stop the fight. He gave the win to Shannon, and Mitch’s coach Chatri Sityodtong went feral on him for the early stoppage. Oshiro got boos the rest of the night. The fight was later overturned to a No Contest and the Open Guard rule of waiting for a ref’s approval for kicks to a grounded opponent was dismissed.
In Phil Baroni versus Rodrigo Ribeiro, The NYBA came back into form with a stunning and powerful right cross and a dominating barrage that included soccer kicks until the ref called it a night for Ribeiro, giving Baroni a much-needed win and apparently a much-needed round girl, who he carries out of the cage. Later, Ribeiro’s coach Chatri tweeted to the Bad Ass that he was Baroni 2.0. I love this sport!
Next up was Nicholas Mann who faced the first of three Gracies, Gregor Gracie. Both fighters tested each others’ range until Gregor got the action against the cage and a battle of knees ensued. Gregor ended it all quickly with a takedown transitioning to get an arm, and Nicholas tapped out in the first.
Kim Soochul versus Kevin Belingon was not the spiders-on-a-hotplate action I’d anticipated. Kim frustrated Belingon for two rounds with a good game plan of takedowns and ground control, taking Belingon’s tough kicks and working some GNP inside his guard. The biggest thing Kim exposed is Belingon’s lack of jiujitsu, which hopefully will transfer back into the Team Lakay training program. Kim deservedly took the decision.
The second Korean on the card was Cha JungHwan against Igor Gracie. I was then sitting directly across from the media section and looking at the big screen, along with Korea Top Team. Coach Ha Dongjin told me that Cha’s BJJ is some of the best in Korea, which heightened my anticipation of the fight. Cha did not disappoint, throughout the first round he was dominant, escaped an arm bar effortlessly, cruised through a second that saw him get not one but two crucifixes on Igor, and rounded out the third with some GNP and sparing the Gracie what could have eventually become a defeat by submission as the ref stepped in to stop it.
Rolles Gracie versus Tony Bonello saw the much superior BJJ come out of the behemoth Gracie, with Bonello exploding a few times, and getting some positions that Rolles was able to reverse. Rolles didn’t do much with all his top mount positions until he finally decided to put Bonello away with an RNC in the third.
Jens Pulver versus Eric Kelly was an incredible fight by all accounts. The crowd knew and loved Jens at all the pressers, yet Kelly has become somewhat of a hometown hero. The fight started out with a first round war, both the legend and the prospect equally trying to knock the others’ block off. Pulver was the first one drop his opponent with a huge hook that he’d been training for, but Kelly recovered. In the second, Kelly timed a picture perfect midsection kick that sent Pulver to his knees. Smelling blood, Kelly went in and finished off Pulver by ref stoppage. It wasn’t a dirty barrage, and Pulver seems to still have a few more left in his bag. Fight of the night material from both men.
When the heavyweights throw down, it’s a real treat. Unlike the crisp and quick ‘thwap-thwap’ of the smaller guys, leather meeting face when the kilos rack up sounds like a sledgehammer hitting a side of beef. The inhuman power Tim Silvia was rocking Andre Arlovski with at the end of the first evenly paced back and forth round was a sight to behold. In the second, Andre sealed the deal with a combination that floored the giant, then followed it up with some very angry, and illegal yellow card-earning, soccer kicks. When Silvia said he couldn’t continue, the bout was ruled a No Contest.
Eduard Folayang versus Felipe Enomoto was the final of three unofficial bouts to determine the hierarchy out of three lightweights which includes Ole Laursen. For two rounds, Folayang wowed the hometown crowd with his superb striking, flooring and almost finishing Enomoto at the end of the second. Enomoto came back with a vengeance in the third, and still withstood Folayang’s barrage, but at the end it was Folayang with the decision to raise his record to 12-2.
While the crowd began filtering out after Folayang’s victory, Bibiano Fernandes and Gustavo Falciroli put on a stunning BJJ performance in the final fight of the night. Bibiano got all kinds of positions and submission attempts on Gustavo, however he worked his deep half guard and incredible flexibility to defend, counter, and even stalemate the DREAM champion throughout three rounds. Bibiano scored several knock downs in the fight and while Gustavo was incredibly resilient on the ground and standing, the decision went to Fernandes.
The press conference after the show was curtailed due to the late hour. They set up the riser, photographers bustled around, but the only fighter who came out was Eric Kelly. Then Victor Cui spoke about URCC founder Alvin Aguilar‘s crucial involvement in making the Manila card a reality and announced three title fights: Bantmweights Leandro Issa versus Sucheol Kim, Featherweights Eric Kelly versus Honorio Banario, and Lightweights Zorobabel Moreira versus Eduard Folayang. This card will take place in Singapore on October 6th with Shinya Aoki versus Arnaud Lepont taking the role of main event. Called “Rise of Kings”, it will see the inaugural belts for the promotion issued to the previously mentioned three weight divisions.
Personally, I’m looking forward to see what further events ONE FC has planned for the end of the year. I hope they ring in 2013 with market saturation, and fill up those cards with all the great, hard-working athletes already signed to the promotion. Bring on ONE FC 6!