For 2016 to be the best year yet for Asian MMA, 2015 had to be the one that set the ground work. And it did.
From the crowning of new champions, to producing some of the most epic and memorable fights in the world, these past 12 months have been nothing short of a speeding train towards the promised land.
Legends such as Fedor Emelianenko and Sakuraba returned to the sport, while the addition of blue chip sponsors helped push the promotional wheel even faster.
Add in the always-exciting female division of the sport and it’s no wonder that the coming year, and ones after, is sure to bring joy to fans around the world.
Here’s a look at five of the reasons why 2015 was the greatest Asian MMA
1. The Crowning of New World Champions
Ben Askren, Shinya Aoki and Bibiano Fernandes were joined along ONE Championship’s champions’ row by the likes of some pretty heavy hitters. Brandon Vera, a veteran of the UFC, claimed the ONE Heavyweight World Championship this past December, while Thailand’s Dejdamrong Sor Amnuaysirichoke picked up the ONE World Strawweight Championship earlier in the year.
Also, Russian Marat Gafurov quickly went from holding the interim title to ONE Featherweight World Champion as he unified the belt with an epic clash with Mongolia’s Narantungalag Jadambaa, while Vitaly Bigdash presently holds the ONE Middleweight World Championship title belt and Kairat Akhmetov calls himself the ONE Flyweight World Champion.
Vera, who is regarded as a Filipino-American fighter, capped off his 38th birthday with a first round, 26-second knockout of Paul Cheng to win the inaugural heavyweight title. He made his ONE debut in 2014, running through Igor Subora in front of his home crowd at the 20,000-seater Mall of Asia Arena.
Amnuaysirichoke added to an already banner Muay Thai resume by scoring a technical decision vs. Roy Doliguez and winning the inaugural 115-pound title in May. All five of his pro MMA bouts have taken place under the ONE banner.
Bigdash claimed the title in October from Igor Svirid in a battle that immediately became a Fight of the Year contender, while Gafurov unified the belts with a November victory over Jadamba Narantungalag. Akhmetov earned the championship at 125-pounds when he bested Adriano Moraes in November.
2. Incredible and Memorable Battles
All the way back in the spring, fights that would be talked about for months and years to come were taking place in Asia. In front of over 5,500 screaming fans from the Putra Indoor Stadium in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Vitaly Bigdash and Igor Svirid met for the ONE Middleweight World Championship. After a back-and-forth first round that left everyone on their feet, Bigdash made an amazing comeback to win the belt with a thunderous and violent attack in the second round.
Adrian Pang, Ev Ting and Irina Mazepa also made spectacular impacts on the card with finishes via either strikes or submission. Angela Lee left her name in the history books when she locked up a twister on Natalie Hills from Singapore, while Marat Gafurov cemented his standing as the man in the featherweight division when he knocked off Jadamba Narantungalag in the fourth round with a rear-naked choke.
Other highlights included Dejdamrong Sor Amnuaysirichoke and Roy Doliguez battling for 25 minutes to become the first ONE World Strawweight Champion, while Shinya Aoki put on a display as only he can when he defeated Koji Ando.
3. The Return of MMA Legends
When you think about the world of mixed martial arts, one of the first names to come into the conversation is that of Fedor Emelianenko. The 39-year-old Russian recently made his return to the sport he once dominated in Japan, scoring a first round TKO victory over Jaideep Singh at the New Year’s Eve Rizin Fighting Federation event.
For “The Last Emperor,” the win was the 35th in his legendary career and first since a 2012 knockout of Pedro Rizzo. Japan has always been like a second home for Emelianenko, who holds wins over the likes of Olympian Satoshi Ishii, Hong-Man Choi, Mark Hunt, Mirko “Cro Cop” Filipovic, former interim UFC World Heavyweight Champion Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira and Kevin Randleman in the “Land of the Rising Sun.”
That same Rizin Fighting Federation event in Saitama also boasted the return of Kazushi Sakuraba. Following a four-year hiatus from the sport, Sakuraba returned and went toe-to-toe with ONE Lightweight World Champion Shinya Aoki. Much like Emelianenko, Sakuraba is considered an icon in Japan, having defeated notables Ken Shamrock, Randleman, former UFC Light Heavyweight Champion Quinton “Rampage” Jackson and Renzo Gracie in the country.
4. Blue Chip Brands Join the Cause
To become a global empire, you need the backing of major partners. Over the last 12 months, the Asian MMA community has found help from just about every place it has looked. Haier, LG, G-shock, Under Armour and Alienware are just a handful of the prime-time companies that have decided to become partners in the push to making the Asian MMA empire even bigger moving forward.
Under the watchful eye of Victor Cui, ONE Championship has grown into the largest sports media property in Asia, reaching over a billion homes and 75 countries. With so many big-time companies on board, Cui is able to reach out and search for the best fighters in the world. And, in return, he can offer up incredible compensation packages for said fighters. In the coming months, ONE and Wujie, a Chinese-based partner, will hold 10 back-to-back events across 2016. The two have already signed a multi-year agreement to broaden the sport in China.
5. The Rise of Women’s MMA
Thanks to Ronda Rousey, the world of female mixed martial arts has never been more important than they are right now. In Asia, that role of Rousey is being played by the likes of Angela Lee, Irina Mazepa and Lena Tkhorevska.
Lee and Tkhorevska put on quite the show in December, as the 19-year-old, nicknamed “Unstoppable”, claimed her fourth submission win in as many tries over Tkhorevska. It was a banner year to say the least for Lee, as she made her debut with ONE in May and promptly competed four times over the next several months. She also went 3-0 as an amateur, catching the eye of ONE Championship matchmakers.
Mazepa is on the opposite end of the age spectrum from Lee, but the 32-year-old holds a matching perfect record. The Russian flyweight kicked off her career with an October knockout of Ann Osman, following up in December with a decision over Ana Julaton. Osman and Julaton remain important keys to the success of the division, as well, moving forward.