As with all combat sports, the attention in Asian MMA is mostly focused on world champions and established stars, and for good reason.
These are elite athletes who have given their all in the cage, and won fans over with incredible performances after countless sacrifices, hard work, and dedication.
However, there are times when you look at an up-and-coming athlete, and just know that there is something special about the youngster that makes you want to follow the course of their career.
Here are the top 5 ONE Championship athletes to look out for in 2017.
#1 Danny Kingad (4-0), Flyweight, Philippines
Newcomer Danny Kingad is only two fights into his ONE Championship career, but he has already had some spectacular moments inside the ONE cage.
His first appearance in ONE was against Malaysian fighter Muhamad Haidar, whom the 21-year-old Kingad stopped just a little over two minutes into the first round. The win was certainly impressive. In fact, it was so impressive that Kingad earned himself an abrupt step up in competition.
At ONE: AGE OF DOMINATION, Kingad took on veteran mixed martial artist Eugene Toquero. Despite being only his second fight for the promotion, Kingad was tasked with facing one of the top contenders in his division. Toquero was a man who had nearly stopped former ONE Flyweight World Champion and current Interim title holder Adriano Moraes.
Fortunately for Kingad, his confidence shot through the roof. Kingad stepped into the cage with Toquero, expecting an even striking matchup. Instead, he ended up dominating both the stand-up and grappling aspect of the fight.
The victory came in the form of a smooth and swift armbar that forced Toquero to tap almost instantly. Toquero has competed for years in the promotion, and nobody else had beaten him that comprehensively.
At his best, Kingad is a complete mixed martial artist, and at such a young age, is poised for a highly successful career. His dominance over Toquero just shows that what he lacks in experience, Kingad more than makes up for in pure potential.
With the victory, Kingad put the entire division on notice. Look for Kingad to have a tremendous 2017, facing some big names in what could be a breakout year.
#2 Jenny Huang, (5-0), Women’s Atomweight, Chinese Taipei
Flying largely under the radar, Jenny Huang has been slowly on the rise as a fighter to watch out for. She made her ONE Championship debut in mid-2015 after having just one professional bout under her belt. No one knew what to expect from the female warrior, but she certainly has achieved enough to be placed on this list.
The 25-year-old Huang owns a black belt in judo, so to say that her primary strength is grappling would be an understatement.
After winning a razor-thin split decision in her ONE Championship promotional debut against Elena Pashnina, Huang has put together a string of highly-impressive submission victories. And while that in and of itself is a tremendous feat, there is one that stands out among the rest.
At ONE: AGE OF DOMINATION, Huang faced Team Lakay’s April Osenio in a battle of promising young stars. Osenio, who just recently upset Malaysia’s Ann “Athena” Osman, came into the bout as a slight favorite, and with the hometown advantage to boot.
Osenio appeared on her way to victory, cruising to a satisfying and thorough performance. She was faster, stronger, and more powerful than Huang. She also had amazing submission defense, thwarting any attempt by Huang to latch on to a rear-naked choke.
Osenio was poised to win, which is what makes Huang’s come-from-behind upset victory even more compelling.
After Osenio had successfully bridged into a position reversal, winding up in Huang’s guard, Huang went to work. Huang smoothly employed a high rubber guard, transitioning into an omoplata before switching to a gogoplata that forced Osenio to tap. This impressive win marked the first-ever gogoplata in ONE Championship history, and just one of a handful in professional MMA.
Which is the better finish, Huang’s gogoplata or ONE Women’s Atomweight World Champion Angela Lee’s twister? Maybe this is a matter to be settled in 2017, in a possible matchup of two great female fighters.
#3 Saygid Guseyn Arslanaliev (4-0), Lightweight, Turkey
22-year-old Saygid Guseyn Arslanaliev is a bonafide star on the cusp of a spectacular 2017. He is barely just four bouts into his professional mixed martial arts career, and many are already hailing Arslanaliev as one of the most devastating finishers in all of ONE Championship. In fact, Arslanaliev has spent less than five minutes collectively inside the cage in his entire professional career.
While he has yet to face any big, notable names, the feat is still very impressive. Arslanaliev has some of the heaviest hands in the business, stopping his first three foes with punches. But that is not all, as he has proven he can grapple too.
In his most recent bout, Arslanaliev finished opponent Haolan Jietebusibai via standing guillotine, at the center of the cage, in dominant fashion.
No opponent has even come close to surviving just one round with the Dagestani. He fought three times in 2016, and aced all his tests with flying colors. 2017 should see Arslanaliev step back inside the ONE Championship cage against tougher opposition.
Lightweight is a very deep division at ONE. There are a plethora of veteran fighters who could use their experience to offset Arslanaliev’s physical advantages. Veteran fighters like Kotetsu Boku, Vincent Latoel, and Rob Lisita would be great matchups for Arslanaliev in the near future.
#4 Istela Nunes (5-0) Women’s Strawweight, Brazil
A relative newcomer to ONE Championship, Brazil’s Istela Nunes, 24, came into the promotion with an unblemished 4-0 clip. New female talent at ONE Championship is a valuable commodity, and ONE Women’s Atomweight World Champion Angela Lee is constantly on the lookout for new challengers.
Nunes, who defeated the highly-regarded Mei Yamaguchi last August, may have done just enough to earn a shot at the Women’s Atomweight title.
Yamaguchi, as many recall, battled Lee for the inaugural women’s title last May in what was recently named ONE Championship’s Fight of the Year for 2016. The two fought to a close but unanimous decision, which Lee ended up taking.
Against Nunes, however, Yamaguchi was far from her usual self. Her lackluster performance had much to do with Nunes, as the 24-year-old femme possessed a complete set of mixed martial arts skills which includes high-level grappling and striking, completely neutralizing the Japanese champion.
2017 could be the year that Istela Nunes fights for the ONE Women’s Atomweight World Championship. If a title shot fails to materialize, however, there are a lot of other compelling bouts to be made for the Brazilian. No matter who Nunes ends up facing, the bout will be a surefire hit.
#5 Ahmed Mujtaba (6-0), Featherweight, Pakistan
Does 23-year-od Ahmed “The Wolverine” Mujtaba have what it takes to become the best Pakistani fighter in ONE Championship? Bashir Ahmad, widely known as the godfather of Pakistani MMA, paved the way for fighters like Mujtaba to step onto the world stage of the sport.
A featherweight, the undefeated Mujtaba has the physical traits to wreak havoc in his division. Impressively, he’s won five of six bouts via thrilling finish, including four submissions and one knockout.
In his last bout, Mujtaba thoroughly defeated highly-regarded Singaporean prospect Benedict Ang. Mujtaba was faster, stronger, and more precise with his overall game compared to Ang. Scoring an upset on your opponent’s home turf in your first time out in the ONE Championship cage speaks volumes of your talent.
The future looks bright for the young fighter from here on out. 2017 could be a phenomenal year for Mujtaba who competes in one of the busiest divisions in ONE Championship. Featherweight has deep talent and a lot of guys willing to fight anytime, anywhere.
Mujtaba certainly has the skills to hang with the best and has proven as much with his performance against Ang. He has made his presence known, but where Mujtaba goes from here is completely up to him.