While all ONE Championship athletes go out and give their all inside the cage, there are just a handful who have shown the true championship quality over the past twelve months. These competitors have gone above and beyond their personal limits, delighting fans with spectacular performances.
They have captured the imaginations of fans in their home countries and fans from all over the world. They have motivated, captivated, and inspired.
Here is the Fighter of the Year in ONE Championship in 2016, as well as the runners-up.
Is there anyone who had a better year in 2016 than Eduard Folayang? The Filipino lightweight veteran has come full circle as a mixed martial artist, completing his journey from standout contender to realizing his dream of becoming an MMA world champion.
The 33-year-old former school teacher appeared thrice inside the ONE Championship cage, beginning with a comprehensive wrestling performance against Japanese star Tetsuya Yamada in January.
It was an impressive victory for Folayang, who showed the world what he had worked on the years prior when he spent time shuffling back between the Philippines and the United States to improve his wrestling game.
Then in August, Folayang overcame the incredibly durable Australian warrior Adrian Pang. Pang stepped into the cage against Folayang and performed as advertised, catching Folayang’s best shots right on the chin, not even flinching the entire way through despite being knocked down repeatedly.
Folayang clobbered Pang with every strike in his arsenal, but it still wasn’t able to deter the forward-moving Australian. That’s more of a testament to Pang’s overall toughness than Folayang’s finishing ability. Regardless, Folayang was able to pull away for the comprehensive unanimous decision victory which was well-earned.
And then it all came to a satisfying conclusion when last November in Singapore, Folayang took the challenge to compete for the ONE Lightweight World Championship held by Japanese MMA legend Shinya “Tobikan Judan” Aoki.
Aoki was never expected to lose, having gone unbeaten for the last four years. The grappling wizard had held the ONE Championship belt since lifting it from former champion Kotetsu Boku in 2013, and his stranglehold on the title was one of the most dominant in the promotion.
So for Folayang to negate Aoki’s grappling prowess and get the TKO victory in spectacular fashion via flying knee and ground strikes was truly magical. It was a special moment for Folayang and Filipino fight fans from all over the world. Every punch Folayang landed on Aoki when they were pressed up against the cage in the final moments of the bout was celebrated with cheers.
Now the new champion, Folayang will look to defend the belt he had worked so hard for in the new year.
20-year-old Angela Lee fought twice in ONE Championship this year, and they were two of the toughest fights in her young career.
Since making her professional mixed martial arts debut in May of 2015, Lee was thrust into superstardom. Asian fight fans and the media were hooked immediately.
And how could you resist? Lee is strong, beautiful, and immensely charming. Her fighting skills at such a young age have shown incredible potential and her work ethic is as high as any fighter on the roster.
Lee’s first five wins as a professional MMA fighter have all come by submission. That’s a tremendous accomplishment for any fighter, and she topped that with ONE Championship’s first-ever Twister submission to boot. In less than a year’s time, Lee had already become a household name in Singapore.
This past February, Lee took on another big challenge in the form of American Rebecca Heintzman. Although Heintzman’s wrestling ability gave her a tough challenge, Lee’s grappling was on point that night. Lee’s ability to threaten with various submissions in precarious positions was simply too much for Heintzman to overcome. The result was a second round submission via neck crank, Lee’s fifth straight.
Then came May, fighting in front of her adoptive hometown crowd of Singapore, Lee challenged Japanese MMA veteran Mei “V.V” Yamaguchi for the inaugural ONE Women’s Atomweight World Championship.
It was a back-and-forth title fight for the ages, and one that was recently named ONE’s Fight of the Year. The two women went to absolute war, bombarding each other with damaging combinations while engaging in a highly-technical ground battle. It was raw talent versus experience, and in the end, not a single person was left in their seat.
Confetti rained down to the applause of a packed Singapore Indoor Stadium crowd. The sight was truly mesmerizing as Lee was crowned ONE’s first women’s champion.
Upon making his ONE Championship promotional debut in 2014, Marat “Cobra” Gafurov showed Asian fight fans exactly what he was capable of in dealing with an extremely tough and dangerous fighter in “Ruthless” Rob Lisita.
Lisita was billed as a quick finisher, and looked to spoil Gafurov’s first foray into the ONE Championship cage. But it was quickly evident that the Russian fighter was on a completely different level, choking out Lisita just a minute into the very first round.
The victory sparked the arrival of a new featherweight contender for the title, held at the time by Mongolian stalwart Narantungalag Jadambaa. Gafurov eventually went on to win the ONE Featherweight World Championship in November of 2015, figuring in an absolute classic against Jadambaa that turned out to be one of the top fights of that year.
In 2016, however, Gafurov would appear in two tough title defenses that earned him a spot on this list.
In May, Gafurov took on Japanese fight veteran Kazunori Yokota. Yokota had over 30 professional fights on his resume with an incredible 13-fight, five-year win streak by the time he challenged Gafurov for the title. In contrast, Gafurov had only been in 13 professional MMA bouts at the time.
Gafurov once again delivered. From the beginning of the match all the way to the end, it was obvious Gafurov had Yokota beaten on nearly every front. Yokota just could not get past Gafurov’s constricting style of grappling.
The Russian fighter was too strong and too intelligent for the Japanese veteran. Gafurov needed slightly less than two rounds to dispatch Yokota, and it was on to his next challenge.
Gafurov’s next bout in 2016 would end up being billed as the most epic rematch in ONE Championship history. After a gruelling four rounds in their first encounter, one that saw each fighter pushed to the absolute limit, Gafurov would lock horns once again with Jadambaa.
This time, Jadambaa promised fans that he would have a better gas tank and would have much more energy to deal with Gafurov’s technical mastery. Alas, the defending champion improved so much since their first battle that it wasn’t even close in the rematch.
Gafurov, being completely aware of Jadambaa’s strengths and weaknesses, needed less than one round this time to author his signature finish.
Gafurov currently sits at a perfect 15-0 as a professional. He is on a six-fight winning streak in ONE Championship with all of these wins coming by rear-naked choke, which is surely a world record.
The “Cobra”, as Gafurov is known, is poised to have another amazing year in 2017.
At 36 years of age and over 10 years of professional fight experience dating back to his 2004 debut in Brazil, Bibiano “The Flash” Fernandes has come a long way since once living inside the gym and fighting to feed his family.
Since making his ONE Championship promotional debut in 2012, Fernandes has remained unbeaten in nearly six years. The ONE Bantamweight World Champion Fernandes is still the promotion’s most dominant champion, with solid victories over his division’s best competitors.
That is a long time to go without a loss, and some say the Brazilian is due for one. 2016 came with the threat of two extremely talented opponents trying to take his title — the Philippines’ Kevin “The Silencer” Belingon and Australia’s Reece “Lightning” McLaren.
Against Belingon last January, Fernandes was to meet a dangerous knockout artist who had the ability to beat him to the punch in every exchange. Analysts predicted that Belingon would give Fernandes a hard time in closing the gap to land his takedowns. What they didn’t foresee, however, was that Fernandes had made incredible improvements to his stand-up.
Fernandes stood toe-to-toe with Belingon, giving as much as he got until it was time to drag the Filipino warrior into his world. On the ground, it was no contest. Fernandes masterfully executed a deep kimura that left Belingon no choice but to tap.
It was a surprisingly easy victory for Fernandes, who would spend the rest of the year on a break. Then December came along, and Fernandes saw himself returning to Manila, Philippines, where he had competed so many times already. This time, he would take on rising star Reece McLaren.
In what was perhaps his toughest fight to date, Fernandes went five full rounds against the young McLaren.
The 25-year-old Aussie gave Fernandes trouble throughout the entire bout, trading shots with the Brazilian warrior every minute of every round. McLaren’s BJJ black belt pedigree also meant that when the fight hit the mat, Fernandes was not simply going to power through him.
In an epic third round, McLaren broke Fernandes’ nose with a blinding punch. The champion, for the first time in a long while, stared adversity right in the face.
There are absolutely no words to describe the sheer tenacity and grit Fernandes had shown throughout five rounds against McLaren. Fernandes had finally been tested and pushed to the limit.
Much credit goes out to McLaren, who has also made his name known as a legitimate bantamweight threat, but the champion prevailed in one of his toughest tests to date.
The only non-champion on this list, Malaysia’s Ev “E.T.” Ting has had an eventful year, emerging victorious over two of the best fighters in his weight class.
The 27-year-old Malaysian-Kiwi sensation from Auckland, New Zealand, has made Kuala Lumpur his fighting home, building a strong case in the past 12 months to be next in line to face either ONE Featherweight World Champion Marat Gafurov, or newly crowned ONE Lightweight World Champion Eduard Folayang.
Last January, Ting took on one of the Philippines’ top fighters in “The Natural” Eric Kelly. Kelly, who was one of the top contenders for the featherweight title, was billed as the favorite in this matchup, having owned a better fight resume. But Ting made sure he wasn’t going to lose on home soil.
Fighting in front of his hometown crowd in Kuala Lumpur, Ting put together a fine performance against Kelly, outlasting the Filipino warrior to win by guillotine choke submission two minutes into the third and final round.
After going two rounds with Kelly in a back-and-forth affair with each fighter having their moments, Ting would put the finishing touches on “The Natural” to the delight of the packed Stadium Negara. Once Ting latched onto the choke, fans knew there was no way he was letting go.
In September, Ting made the decision to try his hand one weight class above where he currently competes. Waiting for him at lightweight was the reinvented Rob “Warrior of God” Lisita, who remained as dangerous as ever.
What transpired next was one of the most exciting bouts of the year. Yet those who expected Lisita to come out swinging like he always does were shocked to learn that Lisita would enter the bout with a more-calculated approach.
Surprisingly, Lisita made use of his wrestling skills to drag Ting down to the mat easily for the first couple of rounds. Ting had to dig deep, and pull out all the stops to claim victory from the tough-as-nails Australian.
In the end, Ting did enough to get his hand raised, and proved that he has the heart of a champion to go along with the skills needed.