On Friday, May 26, ONE Championship returns to the Singapore Indoor Stadium in Kallang, Singapore, for ONE Championship: Dynasty of Heroes.
Angela Lee makes the second defense of her ONE women’s atomweight title against Brazilian striker Istela Nunes Soares in the evening’s main event. Lee, who is still just 20 years old, is undefeated in her seven-fight professional career. The challenger, Nunes, is also unbeaten in her career while mostly fighting in her native Brazil.
Ben Askren, another undefeated champion, looks to defend his ONE welterweight title in the co-headliner opposite Malaysia’s Agilan Thangalapani. Askren returns after more than a year away from the sport. All six of Thangalapani’s wins in his undefeated career have come inside the ONE cage.
The stacked fight card also features former ONE strawweight champ Dejdamrong Sor Amnuaysirichoke against hometown prospect Adrian Matheis. The next challenger to the ONE welterweight title could be decided when Brazilian knockout artist Luis “Sapo” Santos clashes with former PXC welterweight titleholder Zebaztian Kadestam. Filipino flyweight Geje Eustaquio would like to avenge his split decision loss to Thailand’s Anatpong “Mak” Bunrad in a rematch of their 2016 bout. In addition, the fight card showcases a grappling special attraction featuring former ONE lightweight kingpin Shinya Aoki and one of the world’s top no-gi grapplers, Gary Tonon.
Angela Lee puts her ONE atomweight title on the line against challenger Istela Nunes. Does Lee continue to best everyone put in front of her, or is the striking threat from Nunes enough to take out the undefeated champion?
Lee has exemplified martial arts since she began her professional career as an 18-year-old in May 2015. Just two years after her pro debut, she is considered to be one of the better female fighters in Asia and one of the biggest stars in ONE Championship. She has fully embraced both roles in her young career, which includes endless media and events, along with high-level training at Evolve MMA in Singapore. However, Lee made a few changes for this camp, including moving back to Hawaii to train at her family’s gym, United MMA. The move is a change of pace for Lee, who burst onto the scene with six wins in a little less than a year to begin her career. After taking nearly an entire year off in 2016, she returned with some new skills in her destruction of Jenny Huang at ONE Championship: Warrior Kingdom in March.
Her challenger, Nunes, trains out Paraná Vale Tudo gym with other top Brazilian female fighters Mariana Morais, Priscila de Souza and Maria Oliveira Mota. After racking up five wins on the regional circuit in Brazil, the 24-year-old made her ONE debut against former title challenger “V.V.” Mei Yamaguchi at ONE Championship: Heroes of the World. Nunes was able to use her size and strength advantage to topple the top-10 atomweight, a fighter who gave Lee a run for her money in one of the best fights of 2016, a little over a year ago at ONE Championship: Ascent to Power.
Nunes does bring some challenges to the table for the undefeated champion. The Brazilian started training Muay Thai at an early age, much like Lee, who grew up training with her parents, who are taekwondo black belts. Nunes picked up 52 victories and a few local titles in her Muay Thai career before moving to MMA in 2015. She is an athletic striker who likes to mix her aggressive attacks with an outside, counter-striking game. Her kicks and knees are her best weapons, as evidenced by her left head-kick knockout of Karoline “Mão de Pedra” Martins Moreira in 2016. Nunes is still learning the ground game, but her wrestling is already a strong area because of her years fighting in the clinch under Muay Thai rules. One thing that Nunes brings to the table that some of Lee’s past opponents haven’t is her size. Nunes is a natural strawweight who has fought both larger and smaller opponents in her career. Lee’s past two opponents have been natural atomweights with a much smaller stature than the champion.
Lee had a tough fight against one of those atomweights, the aforementioned Yamaguchi, who is still the best fighter Lee has ever fought. Yamaguchi presented some problems for Lee with her high level of striking, including a moment in the third round when Yamaguchi floored Lee with an overhand right. Lee was able to survive the blow and subsequent ground-and-pound on her way to a decision victory to win ONE’s atomweight title. Lee’s relentless pressure and submission attacks were enough to overcome the damage she took in the third frame, one of the best rounds of 2016. Lee showcased her improvements in her striking in her title defense against Huang. Lee was able to swarm Huang with punches and get the previously unbeaten prospect out of the fight in the third round with strikes on the ground.
Lee will have a distinct advantage on the mat against Nunes, a relative newcomer to grappling. Meanwhile, the Brazilian will have a distinct advantage if this fight stays upright. Nunes does have her own defensive liabilities on the feet, but she has continued to cut down on her mistakes. Nunes is likely to want to play an outside game, which could also potentially open her up for a takedown if she doesn’t move herself off the cage. Lee has a knack for pressuring her opponents to take them where they don’t want to be. Nunes absolutely doesn’t want to be on her back. Lee not only has a long list of submissions in her arsenal, but she is a relentless striker from the top position and makes full use of ONE’s rule set, which includes knees, elbows and punches to a grounded opponent.
Lee is a more than 3-to-1 favorite leading into this difficult match-up. The path to victory is clear for both fighters. We won’t find out until fight night if Lee’s bold move to train at her family’s gym in Hawaii instead of with the high-level strikers at Evolve MMA will pay off, but I do believe Lee will showcase her well-rounded skills on the way to victory on Friday night.
In the ONE welterweight championship bout, Ben Askren returns to the cage for the first time in over 14 months, and for only the second time in the last two and a half years. Will the long layoff affect Askren’s performance, or is this just another day in the wrestling room for the unbeaten champion?
Askren hasn’t been in the cage very often over the past few years, but the high-level wrestler has stayed active during his time away from the sport. He has been coaching and competing in the sport he truly loves above all else, wrestling. This sport will be key for Askren to make a successful defense of his ONE welterweight strap.
Askren is still undefeated in his MMA career with big victories over current Bellator welterweight champ Douglas Lima, former Bellator titleholder Andrey Koreshkov, and UFC veterans Jay Hieron, Nick Thompson and Lyman Good. Askren was once considered to be among the best welterweights in the sport, regardless of promotion. However, when Askren was snubbed by the UFC over his “boring” style, the two-time NCAA Division I national wrestling champion signed with ONE. Askren has fought just four times since, but he remains a top welterweight. However, his inactivity and lower level of competition has caused Askren to slip in most MMA rankings.
Agilan Thangalapani, referred to as Agilan Thani by the promotion, is young in his professional MMA career. The 21-year-old has dominated his competition en route to an undefeated six-fight mark. Thani made his professional debut against Reant Feriza Rainir at ONE Championship: Age of Champions in March 2015. It took just 80 seconds for the Malaysian prospect to vanquish his more experienced opponent in his debut. Thani has finished all five of his subsequent opponents. He has yet to fight past the second round in his professional career. In fact, he has gone the distance just once, during his 2014 run to the Malaysian Invasion MMA amateur welterweight title.
Thani actually shows plenty of similarities to Askren’s game. Clearly, Thani is not quite as elite of a wrestler as Askren. However, Thani is a massive welterweight with a clear strength and size advantage over most of the division. The only opponent to offer resistance was James Kouame, who was able to take Thani down for the briefest of moments only to be reversed a few seconds later. Thani doesn’t look menacing or overpowering at first glance, but he has been able to take all of his opponents to the mat with relative ease. He uses his aggressive striking to get inside and trip, throw or take opponents to the ground. Thani is ultra-aggressive when the fight hits the canvas. He consistently looks to improve position and find a home for his powerful ground-and-pound.
Thani has a very tough task at hand. He won’t be able to rush into the clinch like he has in the past. Askren’s inactivity inside the cage could play into Thani’s hand, but we won’t know how sharp Askren is until fight night. “Funky” will need to make use of a jab to the body and head to keep his aggressive opponent at the end of his punches. Thani will likely look to switch up his striking and wrestling attacks, and Askren may benefit by trying to take a defensive approach in the early rounds.
Askren should look to circle off, change levels and keep Thani guessing. Thani is likely to take an aggressive approach, which is why Askren should look to counter wrestle. If Askren tries to fend off the younger fighter, he may find himself in more trouble than he needs to be in. Don’t be shocked if Thani surprises Askren in stretches. However, Askren’s measured approach to takedowns and top control will earn him a victory against a tougher-than-expected opponent.
With a win, Luis “Sapo” Santos certainly has a case to get the next title shot at the ONE welterweight strap. If Askren defends his title, will the promotion attempt to make a rematch between the two rivals?
Sapo is currently one of the top contenders in the ONE welterweight division after winning three of his four fights under the promotional banner. His victories include first-round stoppages of Bakhtiyar Abbasov and Rafael Silva, plus a decision win over Igor Svirid in his most recent outing. His only setback inside the circular cage came against Askren in a controversial 2015 bout that ended in a no-contest. Askren poked Sapo’s right eye during a wrestling exchange. The referee, Olivier Coste, didn’t see the eye poke and thus believed Santos was playing up the injury. After some debate inside the cage, the replays showed that Sapo was indeed poked with Askren’s left thumb. Sapo was given a recovery period, but he decided not to continue after discussing the matter with his corner. What was even more controversial about the bout, however, may be how the fight was playing out in the early going. Sapo was all over Askren with hard knees to the body, kicks to the legs and attempted soccer kicks when Askren couldn’t score the takedown he so desired.
The rematch was scheduled for ONE Championship: Pride of Lions, but the bout was called off following the weigh-ins during a circus-like lead-up to the fight. Sapo missed weight for his scheduled 170-pound title challenge, which garnered much disdain from the promotion and Askren. ONE CEO Victor Cui was ready to call Santos “completely unprofessional” following the cancellation. Askren turned down the fight for the final time after Santos couldn’t hit a certain weight before the scheduled bout was supposed to take place. However, the promotion failed to detail that Sapo, who cuts upwards of 30 pounds during fight week, was flown in for the fight just 48 hours before weigh-ins. The bout was scheduled just one month before ONE made drastic changes to its weight-cutting policies following the death of Yang Jian Bing.
Santos has since come to better terms with the promotion. The weight-cutting system benefits a fighter like Sapo who was used to cutting a tremendous amount of weight. Since the canceled bout, Sapo has won two straight and since cemented his place as one of the top fighters in the welterweight division. If Askren can get by the current No. 1 contender, the next fight to make for both men is pretty clear. A rematch between Sapo and Askren is the best fight ONE could make inside its welterweight division.
There could be a few hurdles that could squash a potential fight, though. Askren hasn’t been on the best terms with the promotion either at times in his tenure. He has publicly voiced his objection to ONE Championship putting Angela Lee’s title defense above his own. No matter what happens this weekend, the best fight the promotion could make is the rematch between Askren and Sapo.
Fight Card Predictions
Women’s AtomW Championship: Angela Lee vs. Istela Nunes
Lee by submission
WW Championship: Ben Askren vs. Agilan Thani
Askren by decision
WW: Zebaztian Kadestam vs. Luis “Sapo” Santos
Santos by decision
Grappling: Shinya Aoki vs. Garry Tonon
Tonon by submission
StrawW: Dejdamrong Sor Amnuaysirichoke vs. Adrian Matheis
Dejdamrong by knockout
FlyW: Anatpong Bunrad vs. Geje Eustaquio
Bunrad by decision
LW: Amir Khan vs. Rajinder Singh Meena
Khan by decision
Women’s StrawW: Tiffany Teo vs. Rebecca Heintzman-Rozewski
Teo by knockout
Women’s AtomW: Rika Ishige vs. Nita Dea
Dea by knockout
Catchweight (152 pounds): Lei Chen vs. Jeremy Meciaz
Chen by decision
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