Some combat athletes don’t like interim titles and, for that matter, many fans and purists don’t either.
It’s understandable. See: in an ideal world situation where one man rules over a combat promotion’s division, there should be a very clear pecking order and such a hierarchy goes down to the roots of our biology as a competitive species.
But the reality is, champs often face injury, forced out of action for long periods of time, and can’t defend their titles. Hence the promotion letting contenders duke it out for a permanent shot at being next in line to the champ; sort of like a perennial number 1 contender status when the champ does get his health back.
Still, the argument that interim belts are “fake” belts can often hold water when the trash talk starts flying and the question of a unification bout with the “real” champion comes into play: who holds the true title?
It’s a sticking point for the winner, making them all the more eager to get a piece of the division’s kingpin.
Having said all that, there are now two championship belts concurrently enshrined on the trophy shelf of Cordillera’s Team Lakay. One is Geje Eustaquio’s ONE flyweight title captured last January, then unified against Adriano Moraes just last June when he became the undisputed division kingpin. The second and most recent ONE title is held by bantamweight Kevin “The Silencer” Belingon, which he won last Friday, July 27, when he beat Martin Nguyen.
Belingon’s win was historic in the sense that Team Lakay is the only MMA team in ONE Championship’s seven-year existence to hold the most belts under their aegis.
In February 2013, Honorio Banario defeated compatriot Eric Kelly for the inaugural Featherweight World Championship. In November 2016, Eduard Folayang pulled off a major upset victory over Japanese submission legend Shinya Aoki to capture the Lightweight World Championship. Eustaquio came next, then Belingon.
At the Reign of Kings fight card at MoA Arena last Friday, Kevin “The Silencer” Belingon vs Martin “The Situ-Asian” Nguyen was slated as the main event with much anticipation.
And quite a few logistical issues, too. Apparently, seating and ticketing snafus left a few thousand or so fans still lined up outside the venue when the gates closed. Pity, some of them had even come from the provinces.
We’d already laid out likely predictions a few days previous to fight night, outlining how this title fight might just be a barnburner or a snoozefest depending on how cautious or eager either fighter would be to please the crowd or play smart to capture gold.
It turned out to be a mix of both, ending in a 5-round decision.
It must be said beforehand that with the inclusion of the kickboxing ONE Super Series, you never really know if the promotion will be bringing a cage or a five-rope ring to the venue. Apparently it depends on whether there are more MMA fights or more kickboxing fights, so last Friday (with only 2 kickboxing matches) everything was held inside a cage.
Previous to the fight, Belingon had clarified his thoughts on vying for an interim belt and stated that he just really wanted to fight someone like Nguyen.
“I took this challenge against Martin Nguyen,” said the Baguio native, “despite having a guaranteed shot at Bibiano Fernandes already, because I wanted to prove that I never back down from any challenge no matter how big or small. Beating Martin will be huge for my career. He is a two-division world champion at both featherweight and lightweight. If I defeat him, I just beat a two-division world champion. Think about that for a second.”
Meantime, the 29-year-old Vietnamese-Australian was honest in his assessment of Belingon and that he was chasing his own dragons to slay: namely a third championship belt.
“In general, [Team Lakay] all fight the same way,” Nguyen said. “This is my third fight with a guy from Team Lakay, so the way I prepared for that first one is how I’ll be preparing for every other fight. Kevin is a complete mixed martial artist. Yes, he’s known for his striking, but he’s proved to the world he can also wrestle. I feel my advantages, to be blunt, have to be my championship round experience and my gas tank.”
How did “The Silencer” from Baguio capture the belt? Throughout the fight everything that was expected from the two fighters came into play. Except one: a more hesitant and patient Kevin Belingon.
For Nguyen, the tools of the counterstriker are always like a retail business that relies on 3 things: location, location, location. Like a matador to the bull, Nguyen displayed a mastery of distance and evasion, angling in and darting out before Belingon could catch him with a flurry of hooks. Playing it always tactical, slipping most of Belingon’s powerful hooks that came up short.
The Situ-Asian’s effective attacks included a whipping front kick to the head that would often slide past the guard of Belingon and make his head snap back. There was also a complex series of feints designed to lull the enemy. One of these clever strategies was takedown feints: changing levels that are intended to fail and following through with an uppercut from below, the real point of the sequence.
Nguyen also employed the same strategy he’d used to win against Eduard Folayang, something that Wushu Xanda stylists with spin attacks are prone to: slipping inside the blind spot and into the pocket, attacking the vulnerable head with an overhand. Nguyen connected with these a few times but Belingon anticipated them.
Still, Nguyen bided his time and attacked with an occasional blitz to see if he could catch The Silencer sleeping. But the chance never came and Nguyen realized that, by round 4, he had lost the last 3 rounds on the scorecards.
He struggled valiantly to dig himself out of the hole but the chance to capitalize on a clean killshot never presented itself. That inability to make openings cost Nguyen a third belt.
A few groin shots marred the fight, including a hook from Nguyen that caught Belingon in the middle of a high kick that landed flush on the cup. Pray you never feel a strike in the jewels like that.
There were also moments from the two fighters where they’d drop their hands after the 10-count snap and start walking to their corners, waving at each other as if agreeing to halt before the bell even rang. WTF, guys?
Belingon, as we mentioned, was a more patient bull that night but still a bull in a China shop, nonetheless. His striking was signature, heavy handed, and his output immense—a stark contrast to Nguyen’s minimalist one-two combo of jab-overhand or cross-uppercut style.
The Silencer tried to go full automatic with his guns and his best blitzes but trouble was, with his short reach, he always needed to fight on the inside—reminiscent of Wanderlei Silva’s preferred close-quarters fight style that relied on clinches and specifically on the opponent’s willingness to brawl. With a third belt on the line, Nguyen was simply too smart to be goaded into that fracas.
Surprisingly, Belingon hit him clean quite a few times with clean uppercuts and body kicks, but Nguyen ate them like chicken dinners and proved way tougher than his rangy, lanky build suggested. Overall, speed was on Belingon’s side even if he needed to know when to pull the trigger better. He scored the first three rounds easily in his favor with aggression, cage control, and his much improved takedown defense that kept the fight standing.
What won him the fight was Belingon’s dominant and relentless forward. He simply outpointed the Aussie with aggression and fortitude. With 25 minutes of war and a unanimous decision, Belingon killed three birds at once: he got his hand raised to capture an interim belt, added Team Lakay’s fourth title under ONE Championship, and clarified the pecking order of the bantamweight division.
Hierarchy full established, the results also concretized Nguyen’s decision—recently announced on his social media—to stay at lightweight and featherweight and defend his belts rather than have another go at bantamweight gold.
“Marami pang surrpises [ang Team Lakay]. That’s what we’ll reveal in the match against Bibi [Fernandes],” said Belingon at the post-fight scrum, an Igorot head scarf on his head, already setting his eyes on the next step: a unification bout with the bantamweight kingpin from Brazil.