On Aug. 29, in Dubai, ONE FC sophomore Ben Askren defeated reigning champion Nobutatsu Suzuki to win the promotion’s welterweight championship with a dominant first-round TKO victory. It was the fourth consecutive stoppage win of Askren’s undefeated 14-0 career. The proverbial “big fish in a small pond,” Askren appears to have very slim pickings in the MMA welterweight division outside of the UFC, Bellator and the World Series of Fighting.
Suzuki, despite having notched consecutive ONE FC wins over Brock Larson and Phil Baroni, was ranked in the high 80s going into his title defense against Askren. Needless to say, the matchmakers at ONE FC have their work cut out for them in finding a new challenger for the welterweight title. What options do they have? Well, let’s try to answer that question.
For completion’s sake, I will be using the exhaustive rankings provided by FightMatrix.com because I can’t seem to find any other comprehensive ranking list that goes down far enough. Here are some of the few options available according to FightMatrix’s welterweight rankings, beginning with the highest-ranked potential challengers:
No. 43-ranked Andre Santos, fighting out of Rio de Janeiro, has a 36-9 record going back to 2006, with wins over no fighters of note and a decision loss to current UFC fighter Hernani Perpetuo last year. He was very active in 2013, fighting a whopping seven times, but his last fight took place in October of that year, and there’s no telling what has kept him out of action since then.
At No. 52 is Gael Grimaud. The 34-year-old Frenchman was last seen in October 2013 in Cage Warriors, where he recorded a knockout win. His most notable victory is over former The Ultimate Fighter contestant Jesse Taylor, and his two notable losses were at the hands of current UFC fighter and TUF 19 standout Cathal Pendred and one-time Paul Daley knockout recipient Yuya Shirai. Grimaud currently has a fight lined up against No. 58-ranked Nicolas Dalby in the Cage Warriors promotion on Sept. 13, so if ONE FC was able sign the winner of that fight, it could make a little bit of sense.
Also from the Cage Warriors promotion, there’s Danny Roberts, currently ranked at No. 59. Roberts is currently riding a five-fight winning streak with the promotion with his last win coming against former Bellator fighter “Judo” Jim Wallhead in May.
Speaking of Bellator, former champ and TUF 19 washout Lyman Good, ranked at No. 67, also appears to be available. Good, of course, was the man Askren vanquished in Bellator to win his first MMA championship title in a dominating display of his trademark suffocating top control. Good’s last fight took place in the American-based Cage Fury promotion, where he was victorious over Matt Secor. Good should be available to be snatched up by ONE FC if need be, provided that he is healthy. A rematch between the two could prove to be a tough sell given Good’s embarrassing performance on TUF, but Good has something of a name and at least held a world title at one time. Such credentials just recently secured a UFC title shot for fellow former Bellator champ Joe Soto, so why not?
Askren wasn’t the only top fighter to pick up a win at ONE FC’s recent event. Polarizing Japanese standout Shinya Aoki defended his ONE FC lightweight title against former UFC and WEC fighter Kamal Shalorus. Given the dearth of decent lightweights outside of the promotions that tend to lock their fighters down, this was a surprisingly decent offering to the submission specialist, and by far the toughest opponent he has had to face since his embarrassingly one-sided loss to former Bellator champ Eddie Alvarez, whom he also holds a submission win over from earlier in his career.
Unlike the welterweight division, the aforementioned dearth of potentially available lightweight challengers is nowhere near as dire, and there are actually a few moderately valuable fighters that could be put up against Aoki in the future:
The no-brainer when looking at fighters already employed by ONE FC would be fellow countryman and No. 38-ranked Koji Ando, who is coming off a submission win over Rafael Nunes in his promotional debut in July. Ando has a 10-3-2 record and is currently on a four-fight winning streak.
The only potential challenger with a higher ranking than Ando would be 28-2 Russian fighter Alexander Sarnavskiy, who checks in at No. 36. Sarnavskiy has competed for Bellator in the past, but he also appears to be permitted to compete in other promotions abroad, which he has done in his last two fights.
Another possible match-up for Aoki could be T.J. O’Brien, coming in at No. 55. O’Brien was two-and-out in the UFC from 2010-11, losing to Paul Kelly and Cole Miller, but he has put together consecutive wins, the most recent one being over the notorious former UFC grinder, chiropractor and likely White House Christmas card recipient Jacob Volkmann.
Rounding out the short list of potential Aoki opponents is No. 51-ranked Nova Uniao lightweight Ronys Torres. Yet another two-and-out former UFC fighter, Torres has put together a decent record since his release in 2010 coming off losses to a then red-hot Melvin Guillard and the aforementioned chiropractor extraordinaire, Volkmann. Since said release, Torres has gone 14-2 and is currently on a three-fight winning streak.
To be perfectly honest, none of these options seem to be all that attractive or marketable, but this comes with the territory outside of all but the very top promotions. If ONE FC really wanted to pull out all the stops, it could always do a super fight between Aoki and Askren, which could be a quite compelling stylistic match-up, actually. Askren’s rudimentary striking skills (at best) and his desire to control fights via grappling would play directly into Aoki’s strengths, but ONE FC most likely will not want to tarnish either of its main attractions at this point (and Aoki may also be reluctant to go up to welterweight again after his disastrous first-round TKO loss to Hayato Sakurai left him in tears at Dream’s welterweight grand prix back in 2009). The promotion will probably be content to feed them warm bodies for the foreseeable future, more or less.