Bout Preview: Nguyen And Yokota Hit The Road To Gafurov’s Title

A possible ONE Featherweight World Championship title eliminator as analyzed by ONE Championship by ONE Championship lead commentator and Fox Sports Presenter Steve Dawson.

2016 was good to Martin Nguyen (7-1). It needed to be, because 2015 had been something of a trial.

Inactive until September, his first fight came at desperately short notice as a replacement opponent for arguably the best pound-for-pound fighter on the ONE Championship roster, Featherweight World Champion Marat Gafurov. As most observers expected, Nguyen fell to the champion in short order.

If ever a loss was forgivable though, it was this one. Everyone associated with the sport knew that he had saved the day by taking the fight, and one way or another, payback would be his.

Part of that came less than two months later when he was given another opportunity against Edward Kelly. At the time, his first-round TKO win did not generate many plaudits, but in retrospect it should have. Kelly had a stellar 2016 with three wins from three since then, and that can only serve to make Nguyen’s win stand out even more.

In April last year, Nguyen took on Li Kai Wen of China, and give the fans another first-round win to purr over. But it was not until August until the Aussie universally got the credit we now all know he deserves.

Taking on Christian Lee — the younger brother of ONE Women’s Atomweight World Champion Angela Lee — whose high-energy style was exciting everyone who had the pleasure of seeing him in action, Nguyen was in some eyes playing the stepping stone. Without going quite that far, I filed a preview story that predicted Nguyen would lose.

The 27-year-old proved me wrong with his third successive first-round win of the year, projecting himself onto a list of potential challengers for Gafurov’s title in 2017.

That road begins in Jakarta on 14 January at ONE: QUEST FOR POWER against Kazunori Yokota (25-6-3). The Japanese fighter is making his second appearance in the ONE cage, with his first also against Gafurov.

He got into the fifth minute of the round two in that May 2016 title challenge before being submitted, and is therefore looking for a rematch, just like his opponent.

Prior to Gafurov, Yokota beat Masakatsu Imanari by decision, which is perhaps more impressive than a stoppage win, as it means that his submission defense must have been on point against his compatriot, who is a fearsome leg-lock specialist.

Although he eventually succumbed to Gafurov, Yokota seemed at ease in defending Gafurov’s high-level submission attack. When the finish came though, it came quickly, with Gafurov surprising the Japanese veteran rather than out-muscling him on the canvas.

In the first half of the fight. Yokota certainly showed good hand speed in the standup, and Nguyen must watch out for that element of his game. For the Sydney-based fighter to beat Lee to the punch though, was quite a feat, because speed is the young Singaporean’s big asset.

For this reason, I think Yokota’s biggest weapon in the standup would not be good enough to stump the Aussie. The punch that led to Nguyen’s win over Lee was one of the most destructive left hooks of the year, and provides more for Yokota to worry about than anything else.

That he finished things with a devastating choke that rendered Lee unconscious seals the deal for me. I pick Nguyen to win.

Steve Dawson is ONE Championship’s lead commentator, a Fox Sports presenter and an author of sporting biographies. He can be found on Twitter & Instagram as @Gulasahi and on Facebook as Steve Dawson.