Collision course: Kingad and Johnson set for ONE Flyweight Grand Prix final
The presence in the final of Johnson, arguably the greatest flyweight of all time and the jewel in the crown of ONE’s recent off-shore signing blitz, will come as a surprise to absolutely no-one.
Standing opposite him is Filipino juggernaut Kingad, a perennial contender with a justified reputation for controlled chaos.
The two will square off at ONE: ‘Century’ in Tokyo to determine the tournament winner. It will be a textbook case of the new kid on the block against the wily stalwart, with both competing for a title shot with one of the MMA world’s most coveted belts at stake.
The tournament was likely designed as a vehicle to integrate Johnson into the division at his new promotional home without rocking the boat. In theory, it’s allowed the prolific American a clear pathway to work his way to the title on merit, resisting what would have been a completely justified urge to throw him directly into a title bout.
At the same time, it’s taken advantage of the extra global attention generated by Johnson’s highly publicised move to prove the calibre of their roster. The former UFC champion has provided the ultimate litmus test.
And while ‘Mighty Mouse’ has displayed plenty of the skill and craft that earned him his status as one of the sport’s greatest ever practitioners, it’s been far from simply a platform to shine a light on Johnson.
Let’s take a closer look at each finalist’s respective route to the tournament showpiece.
Kingad’s run to the top has captured the essence of what’s made the Team Lakay stud one of the division’s biggest draw cards.
The hard-nosed Ikeda was in the midst of a four-fight win streak when he stepped inside the cage against Kingad, and the contest delivered on expectations.
Both set a frenetic early pace as they exchanged striking salvos, before Kingad stole the impetus with a takedown, before locking in a body triangle and threatening from the back.
Kingad established dominance with a slew of leg kicks in the second stanza to put him on top. The final round saw the pace ramp back up as the fight transitioned back and forth from mat to the feet.
Ultimately Kingad landed the more telling shots as the fight waned, and all three judges awarded a straightforward unanimous decision in the Filipino’s favour to stamp his ticket to the semi-final.
He was met on his home soil in Manila by Australian Reece McLaren, who re-entered the tournament after his quarter-final opponent Kairat Akhmetov was forced to withdraw due to injury.
But ‘Lightning’ looked every inch a worthy semi-finalist as he pushed Kingad to the brink through the course of their three-round tussle at ONE: ‘Dawn of Heroes’.
Kingad established himself early on the feet and found success with his counter-striking, before the contest went to the mat and momentum swung with it, as McLaren strung together a series of choke attempts that brought the best out of the Filipino’s submission defence.
Conscious he was likely trailing on the scorecards, Kingad came out in the second firing out of both barrels, finding his target consistently as McLaren battled to manage the pressure.
As a razor-close third round wound to a close, Kingad landed a takedown, advanced straight to side-mount and unleashed a flurry of elbows that proved critical in clinching a split-decision victory, as thousands of his compatriots roared in deafening approval.
On that same night in Tokyo back in February, the eyes of the combat sports world were trained on Johnson’s quarter-final match-up with another local in Wakamatsu, a match-up that doubled as the marquee acquisition’s promotional debut.
Wakamatsu spoke at length about being undaunted by his high-profile opponent, and his early approach suggested exactly that as he poured the pressure on.
But Johnson withstood the early salvo from the game Wakamatsu, before catching the Japanese fighter during a scramble and sinking in a deep standing guillotine choke to illicit the tap.
Another game Japanese opponent awaited Johnson on semi-final night in Manila in Wada.
The former Deep champion, buoyed by a decision win over Gustavo Balart in his quarter-final, brought the heat from the opening bell. He shot out of the blocks and immediately took advantage of his significant height and reach advantage to out-muscle the American, who was forced to battle hard to defend a rear-naked choke attempt.
‘The Sweeper’ was likely ahead the scorecards going into the second round, when Johnson’s adjustments saw him much more effective as he closed the gap on the larger Wada and landed consistently inside.
He carried that momentum with him into the third and final round. Johnson ramped up the intensity to a level Wada couldn’t sustain, using his grappling prowess to dictate terms on his way to a unanimous decision victory.
What can we expect to see in Tokyo? Brace yourself for a high-octane contest from the get go.
Make no mistake, Johnson will enter as a raging favourite, as you’d expect for an all-time great world champion.
The American’s otherworldly blend of expertise in all facets of martial arts fueled by a seemingly bottomless gas tank is akin to something Johnson himself would create as a character in one of his beloved video games.
It would be no hyperbole to say that a Kingad triumph would represent one of the greatest upsets in combat sports history.
How would that happen, you may ask? Johnson has proven vulnerable in the early rounds since joining ONE, and a more clinical finisher may have found a way to better capitalise on those early holes that both Wakamatsu and Wada exposed.
‘The King’ also has the kind of measured recklessness that could ask some difficult questions of Johnson, and he has the sort of height advantage that helped Wada pose the former UFC flyweight champion all sorts of problems..
But Johnson was patently unhappy with his performance in that semi-final, and a fighter as savvy and experienced as he is will be going to painstaking ends to make improvements. He may be undefeated under the ONE Championship banner but ‘Mighty Mouse’ will be well aware that Asian fans have yet to see him operating at the electrifying peak of his powers
And while Kingad may be able to hang in the stand-up exchanges, expect to see Johnson go to his grappling early and often. It is a gameplan that probably represents the most simple path to victory.
That would begin the next phase in Johnson’s raid on Asia. The man who still holds the UFC record for consecutive title defenses (11) would take some dethroning, should he go on to win the flyweight title as expected.