The bumpy road to the ONE Lightweight Grand Prix final
ONE Championship’s Grand Prix season will soon come to a head, with all three finals to be contested as part of its ground-breaking double-header in Tokyo on Sunday.
Arguably the most captivating tournament of the three has come in the lightweight division, which has undergone a sea-change of substitutions among a slew of stunning knockouts and back and forth battles.
Injury has decimated the tournament at every stage, and with all of the rubble cleared, two fighters have been left standing with Christian Lee and Saygid Arslanaliev set to face off at ONE: ‘Century’.
Much like fellow marquee acquisition Demetrious Johnson – whose announcement aligned with his own – Alvarez entered the competition as an odds-on favourite and given his pedigree, justifiably so.
But ‘The Underground King’s’ promotional debut didn’t go to script. With the eyes of the combat world trained on Tokyo, he fell victim to a devastating first-round knockout to Russia’s Timofey Nastyukhin.
However an injury to Natsyukhin paved the way for Alvarez to re-enter the fray, an opportunity he grabbed with both hands by beating hardened former champion Eduard Folayang via first-round submission.
Less then a month out from the final, in a cruel twist of fate, Alvarez himself was forced to withdraw with an injury of his own.
That sets the scene for a considerable overhaul of the tournament format, with current champion Lee answering the SOS and stepping in as Alvarez’s replacement.
Now it’s a case of two young and hungry rising contenders in a match-up that promises action aplenty and where a finish inside the distance is almost guaranteed.
While one side of the bracket has been fraught with withdrawals, there has been no such issue on Arslanaliev’s side.
In fact, his opponent’s have barely been given a chance to gather their thoughts before falling victim to his ultra-high pressure and lethal striking.
Two fights, two first round knockouts. A better statement you could not make.
The Turk of Dagestan descent has been on a tear since his arrival at ONE, leaving a wake of knockout victims behind him to stamp himself as a potential star.
He’ll need every bit of that exceptional talent against Lee. ‘The Warrior’ has cut his teeth with ONE Championship, and has been ear-marked for greatness ever since his professional debut at just 18 years of age.
So, how did we get this far?
Arslanaliev entered the Grand Prix off the back of a stunning opening round finish of fellow entrant Nastyukhin, a feat that made plenty of fans and fighters alike sit up and pay attention.
He carried that momentum with him into the ring in his first-round match-up with hard-nosed veteran Ev Ting, who he needed only 30 seconds to dispatch in brutal fashion with a stinging overhand right in Singapore.
That victory set-up a semi-final bout against Amir Khan in what shaped as an intriguing clash of striking aficionados.
But again, the Singaporean proved no match for the rampant Arsalanaliev. ‘Dagi’ worked his way in with some heavy leg kicks, before expertly chaining a slew of takedown attempts together to bring Khan to the mat.
Khan managed to work his way to his feet under a barrage of elbows and short hammer fists, where Arslanaliev continued his relentless pressure with a huge right hand, then a string of heavy uppercuts that crumpled Khan to the canvas.
Arslanaliev had his hand raised, and booked his ticket to the final in emphatic fashion.
Once predominantly seen as simply the younger brother to former dual-division world champion Angela Lee, ‘The Warrior’ has well and truly shed that tag with his performances over the past two years.
While there were clearly plenty of flashes of brilliance in his earlier bouts , the foibles of youth and inexperience would often come back to bite him at times when he seem on the verge of cracking the division’s elite.
But in the space of six months, Lee has reeled off three of the best performances of his fledgling career.
First came the second-round finish of Kazuki Tokudume in November. Then the first-round dismantling of Edward Kelly in January.
In May, came the coup de grace. The 21-year-old gave an emphatic indication of just how far his talents had evolved with his shock win over Japanese grappling sensation Shinya Aoki in May, a victory that justified the promotion’s belief in their golden child.
Despite the injury chaos that has transformed this tournament, we’ve ultimately ended with a finale that’s arguably as intriguing as any we could have envisioned at the outset.
What began as a way to spotlight Alvarez may well end as a coming out party for two precocious talents in a duel that’s anyone’s for the taking.