On Saturday night in the United States, the UFC’s Octagon touched down in Philadelphia, a historic fight town that had somehow fallen off the promotion’s radar. It had been almost eight years between visits, this despite several talents boasting roots in the area. Under different circumstances, the show would have been a perfect main event landing spot for Eddie Alvarez, the former UFC champion who wears his Philly pride like an omnipresent tattoo.
Instead though, Alvarez was half-a-world away, in a Tokyo arena starting anew with the growing ONE Championship promotion. Over the last year or so, ONE has undergone a significant expansion, looking to export its polished presentation to the West. Since July 2017, the organization has raised $266 million in funding and recently began splashing some of that cash on fighters—including Alvarez, Demetrious Johnson and Sage Northcutt—that will help raise its global profile.
Its first event explicitly designed for that purpose came Sunday. ONE Championship: A New Era was billed as “the largest MMA show in history,” boasting four championship fights. But for most Western fans, those title fights were secondary attractions, if of any interest at all; for them, the event was about ONE’s recent acquisitions, Alvarez and Johnson.
The two most high-profile fighters ever to appear in the organization, they made their debuts on the same night, adding significant visibility to the event while announcing the organization as a player. At a time when barriers are continually added to MMA fandom—note the paywall behind the UFC’s new home on ESPN+, the newly announced double paywall behind UFC pay-per-views, and Bellator’s recent deal with online streaming service DAZN—ONE offers a live and free approach through the B/R Live app and on Youtube, though admittedly, the 5:30 a.m. ET Sunday start time stands as a non-starter for some.
Still, ONE has clearly illustrated that it will be a player for free agents going forward, and that it must be regarded as an industry threat at least to U.S. No. 2 brand Bellator, though its designs aim straight to the top.
They will need to be smart, but they will also need a little bit of luck along the way. Free-agent signings in MMA are notoriously unpredictable. Often, fighters don’t free themselves from long contracts until they are past their primes, and what is left is a name without the same in-cage firepower.
In that regard, Sunday’s results were mixed for ONE.
Alvarez’s debut didn’t go as expected. A sizable favorite against Russian Timofey Nastyukhin, Alvarez was upset, clipped with a left hook and then rattled against the cage until he crumpled to the ground. The TKO loss knocked him out of the organization’s lightweight championship tournament, ending his bid for title contention for the foreseeable future.
Where Alvarez failed however, Johnson found success. Looking refreshed in his first bout since the end of his long UFC flyweight championship reign, Johnson stopped Yuya Wakamatsu with a nasty standing guillotine choke.
If neither of those opponents sounds familiar, that remains part of ONE’s challenge going forward. To truly penetrate the U.S. market, the organization will have to add more recognizable names. (Its next major event, for instance, has a headliner pitting Martin Nguyen against Narantungalag Jadambaa). Still, the results should serve as a wake-up call that the promotion has talent comparable to either of the major promotions. Alvarez left the UFC as the No. 4 ranked fighter in the world. He knocked out the spectacular UFC Philadelphia headliner Justin Gaethje just over a year ago, yet Nastyukhin made short work of him.
Alvarez’s loss notwithstanding, for anyone who chose to try out ONE’s offerings for the first time on Sunday, it would be hard to imagine them coming away with anything other than a positive impression. There was plenty of action, with finishes in six of the seven main card fights, star power, flashy knockouts (Aung La N Sang over Ken Hasegawa), and a riveting late comeback (Xiong Jing Nan over Angela Lee).
Even if only one of ONE’s two major acquisitions walked away with a victory, both fights were buzz worthy, and all in all, it was a rollicking good night (or morning, if you were watching in the States).
To be sure, there is still plenty of work to do for ONE. Establishing a worldwide sports organization is no small feat, a task that has flummoxed far more established leagues and teams. From improving its roster and navigating foreign business climates to dealing with cultural differences and managing a schedule with conflicting global time zones, ONE is facing headwinds that will at times blow with hurricane force.
While the promotion’s ambition is evident, its future on the worldwide stage remains hazy. Yet unpredictability remains one of the key draws of MMA for a reason. Literally anything can happen. Last-second comebacks, unseen rises, mind-bending physics—we want to say we’ve seen it all, but something new always seems to come along. Still, there is one thing that fight fans cannot fathom: the possibility of a true challenger to the UFC. With its major event on Sunday launching what it hopes to be a bold new future, ONE Championship seeks to do just that. And as Nastyukhin reminded us against Alvarez, when it comes to MMA, anything remains possible.