Shinya Aoki is going to be headlining a ONE Fighting Championship show before the end of the year. After signing up Renato Sobral, Melvin Manhoef and Phil Baroni, the newest elite-level promotion to arrive on the MMA scene has now secured the services of the best lightweight not currently contracted to Zuffa.
Aoki has not left Dream but the Japanese promotion doesn't have a show scheduled right now so he has had to look elsewhere to find fights. And where better to do that than the biggest MMA show operating in Asia right now?
Once Aoki has got his rematch with Eddie Alvarez at Bellator 66 out of the way, he will need to sit down with ONE FC matchmakers and decide who he is going to face. One problem is that the Dream Lightweight Champion trains at Evolve MMA in Singapore so Zorobabel Moreira and Eddie Ng are definitely out of the equation.
Aoki is the No. 1 pound-for-pound fighter in Asia at the moment and is the latest big name to get on board with ONE FC. His first fight for them is certain to generate plenty of headlines. Here are some of the fighters who might be in contention to face him.
If ONE FC wants one of their own lightweights to face Aoki, then Folayang is the most obvious choice. He has an excellent MMA record of 11-1 and is a rising star in Asian MMA.
He has never beaten anyone as good as Aoki before, but sooner or later the time will come when he has to take on a consensus top ten lightweight. First Folayang has to get past Ole Laursen at ONE FC 3 this month but I expect him to win that fight comfortably.
Aoki vs Folayang would be a battle between two of the best in Asia and would also pit ONE FC's No. 1 lightweight against Dream's No. 1 lightweight which would be an interesting little sub plot.
Folayang is a superstar in the Philippines and Aoki is a superstar everywhere he goes. The Japanese fighter would be a big favourite but if it was up to me this would be the fight I would make.
Lightweights won't exactly be queuing up to take on Russian Rustam Khabilov after he manhandled middleweight Rodrigo Ribeiro at ONE FC 2 recently.
He is looking to drop down to 155 lbs and with a 13-1 record will be an early contender for the ONE FC lightweight belt. His style could cause Aoki some problems because he has very strong Sambo and knows how to put a man on his back and put a real beating on him.
Of course Aoki isn't bad off his back so that probably won't bother him. Aoki vs Khabilov would be a great fight and ONE FC could do a lot worse than put these two in the cage together.
Doo Won Seo fights for Road FC who are signed-up to something called the ONE FC Network, which means that any of their fighters would be free to face Aoki.
Since losing to Jake Ellenberger in 2008 Won Seo has won five straight fights with his last three wins all through stoppages due to strikes in the very first round.
He has also beaten three Japanese opponents in quick succession although it has to be said none of them are in Aoki's class. Won Seo is a Deep and M-1 veteran who has a loss to Aoki's friend and training partner Ryo Chonan on his record, but his career seems to have really taken off in the last few years.
If ONE FC is looking within their network to find suitable opponents for Aoki, then Won Seo would be a possible candidate.
Cage Fighting Championships in Australia are also part of the ONE FC Network and their lightweight champion Bernardo Magalhaes was all set to fight at ONE FC 2 but signed for the UFC instead.
The next man in line is 22-year-old Ben Wall, who is unbeaten in his MMA career with a record of 6-0-1. It is probably too early in his career to start talking about a fight with Aoki but if he stacks up two or three more wins it could become a realistic possibility.
Gustavo Falciroli did well at the last ONE FC event and it seems as if even though they are focused primarily on the Asian market, they will still find room for a few Australians on the roster.
Roger Huerta is based full time in Phuket and trains at Phuket Top Team, which has an affiliation with ONE FC. He is still only 28 and Bellator was sufficiently impressed to pay a million dollars for his signature in 2010. But since then he has lost five out of six fights.
After suffering a rib injury in his welterweight debut against War Machine, Huerta is dropping back down to 155 lbs and wants to compete regularly in 2012. A fight between him and Aoki would be a big draw; but after losing five out of his last six he probably needs to beat a few lower level opponents first.
Huerta is supposed to be back in action in May although no details have been announced. ONE FC doesn't have a show scheduled that month so it probably isn't with them.
Jamie Varner is a former WEC Lightweight champion and one of the most eligible free agents in the entire 155 lbs division. He holds a win over Donald Cerrone and is currently riding a two-fight winning streak.
If ONE FC wants to look west in order to find an opponent for Aoki, then Varner would be their best bet. He would probably pose more of a challenge to the Dream Lightweight champion than recent American opponents Rob McCullough and Rich Clementi did.
Varner is possibly the best lightweight out there who isn't tied down by a major organization and would be a very competitive opponent for Aoki.