Let's be honest with ourselves: this is probably not what ONE Championship envisioned for its big stateside debut.
That doesn't mean there wasn't a silver lining, but, yeah.
The Singapore-based MMA promotion passed a major milestone Wednesday with ONE on TNT 1, broadcast on B/R Live and the Bleacher Report app as well as basic cable. It loaded the card accordingly with UFC championship transplants Demetrious Johnson (30-4-1) and lightweight kingpin Eddie Alvarez (30-8-1). It sprung for a billboard in Times Square. The stars were coming out to play.
But the MMA gods can be rather fickle, and they were in some kind of mood in Singapore.
(Note: TNT and Bleacher Report are both owned by Turner Broadcasting System.)
The headliner pitted Johnson against reigning ONE flyweight champ Adriano Moraes (19-3). It was a little strange to see Johnson in the challenger's role given that, you know, he dominated the UFC's 125-pound division for nearly six years and is on a short list with Henry Cejudo for the best to ever do it in that weight class.
Accordingly, Moraes' massive underdog status coming in said more about the challenger than the champ, who had successfully won or defended the ONE flyweight strap six times. According to statistics provided during the broadcast, the 31-year-old Brazilian holds records for the most wins and finishes in ONE flyweight history. He's one of the most dangerous jiu-jitsu practitioners in the promotion, with a cache of submissions at his disposal and nine tapout wins to his name.
He didn't need any of that Wednesday.
As you might expect, the action was fast-paced from the start, even when neither man was landing significant offense. Johnson switched stances and worked low kicks while Moraes circled and attempted to find the range at which he could use his length (5'8" to Johnson's 5'3") to land from long distance. An extended ground sequence was exciting but essentially ended in a stalemate, though the advantage may have shaded slightly toward the champ.
The fateful exchange came in the second, when Johnson rushed in to close the aforementioned distance. Moraes caught him coming in with a right uppercut that dumped Johnson on the canvas. As Johnson attempted to scramble up, Moraes sent a heavy left knee straight into the middle of Johnson's grill—unlike in the UFC, knee strikes to downed opponents are legal in ONE—and followed with a few coffin-nail ground strikes that forced the referee to stop the contest. The TKO came at 2:24 of the second round, and it was the first knockout loss of Johnson's pro career.
"I grew up watching DJ fight," the thoroughly likable Moraes told broadcasters in his post-fight interview. "He's a legend, bro. I knew exactly his game. He's a grappler like me, but me and my team did the perfect strategy for him. He came forward with the punches, and I got him with the uppercut. I don't know what to say, bro! I'm so excited."
Make no mistake: Johnson is the most credentialed fighter ever to grace the ONE roster. Surely ONE officials were hoping to see Johnson get a win and install himself as its star champion, one who could grace many a marquee in the coming years. It was surely a bit deflating to see its prized acquisition go down so unceremoniously.
On the bright side, though, ONE's homegrown champion just showed that he, and by extension ONE, can hang with the big boys. Moraes is still in this prime at 31 and just made one heck of a name for himself. It's just that it's still nowhere near as big as Johnson's, even after Wednesday. Will Johnson be back? Will there be other chances? Of course. But coming up short at ONE's big coming-out party still has to sting.
"I'm going to have to go back home after the fight and see where I made a mistake," a magnanimous Johnson said in his post-fight interview. "Adriano's big, and I was trying to get to him. But it's part of the game, man. You're in this game for so long, and it's bound to happen one of these days, right?...Congrats to Adriano Moraes. He's a great champion and a great dude."
The evening's weirdness wasn't confined to the headliner bout, though.
In the main card opener, Alvarez faced the promising but green Iuri Lapicus (15-1). About a minute into the first round, Alvarez had Lapicus on the ground and in trouble and went to work with punches and hammerfists. One of the blows appeared to accidentally find the back of Lapicus' head, and the referee stopped the action and promptly disqualified Alvarez. Just like that. All it took was 62 seconds.
Alvarez watched in anguish as Lapicus was taken out on a stretcher. This couldn't have been how anyone wanted to kick off the broadcast.
Although head injuries are obviously nothing to trifle with, it should be noted that UFC fighters routinely receive more leeway on these kinds of strikes than was provided by ONE. For example, there could have been a warning issued or a point deducted, especially since on replay only one strike appeared to land to the back of the head, and it was entirely inadvertent and not particularly brutal (relatively speaking). Where's instant replay or a second pair of eyes when you need them?
"They put two guys in a cage," Alvarez, fighting back tears and wishing the best for Lapicus, said after the fight. "...The ref's here to do it, and he did his best job. So the call's the call."
ONE is a solid promotion with lots of capable fighters on its roster. There will be other chances on other days. I've seen more good ONE cards than I can count, dating back well before the TNT/Bleacher Report broadcast deal.
But the facts have to be stated, and the fact is this was just one of those star-crossed cards. It happens. If anyone had forgotten how chaotic MMA can be, it just gave us all another refresher course.