It was a downright nail-biting affair.
In the end it took everything that Kevin "The Silencer" Belingon had to wrest away the bantamweight crown from Brazil's "The Flash" Bibiano Fernandes at ONE Championship's Heart of the Lion event held last November 9 at the Singapore Indoor Stadium.
How did Belingon, long known to be a technical brawler, edge out Fernandes in a split decision victory?
See, Fernandes is virtually the only champion that ONE Championship's bantamweight division has ever known, undefeated since 2010 and riding an 11-fight win streak that already included Belingon in 2016, when The Silencer tried to scale the division’s mountain and was efficiently, unceremoniously kicked down the line with elite jiu-jitsu and a first-round kimura.
Belingon had paid a dear price to get this rematch after capturing the interim title against Andrew Leone with the spinning kick heard round the world last April. He even had to battle it out against a marauding two-division champ Martin Nguyen, trying to capture a third belt at The Silencer's expense.
On fight night Team Lakay knew that Fernandes' cage craft and takedowns were close to perfect, that a submission was always imminent on the ground.
What was the game plan to bring down the grappling beast from Brazil?
Attack the body, feint with blitzes, and defend the takedowns. All night if need be.
The Silencer showed his cards early when he began peppering his punches with body kicks. There was a turning point in round 2, when Fernandes worked his magic, a single leg entry forced Belingon against the cage and became a double leg blast and boom Belingon was on his back just like that, trying to stay calm against the grappling tide. Belingon scrambled out of two very nearly locked-in armbars, likely with too much strength and not enough technique that those famed guns of his will likely be killing him today. Effective ground and pound for good measure knocked some of the wind out of Fernandes and had him playing it off with a crazy smile—Rampage Jackson was wearing that same kind of maniacal grin before Wanderlei Silva shut out his lights in Pride FC.
Distance control only got you so far with Fernandes who sharpens his swords with the likes of former UFC champ Demetrious Johnson at the fabled AMC Pankration, but Belingon played it the best he could with lateral movement whenever he got too close to the cage. Sometimes he was even able to deny those takedown attempts, but those were few and very far between. More often than not he'd end up on his back. Then it was a matter of staying relaxed and biding his time whenever he did get taken down.
Much credit must go to Ali Heydarabadi, Team Lakay's wrestling coach, for the light-years improved scrambles and grappling counters that kept Belingon's game on the feet.
On the stand-up Belingon trusted his toughness, and made sure to execute his strikes with power and snap. Even though he was slowing down by the third round, his tactics against Fernandes enabled him to land body shots set-up with head strikes and those deadly spinning back kicks that are the signature attacks of their Wushu kickboxing background.
Rinse. Repeat. And add plenty of patience to pick your shots with care. Above all, do not to get into a slugging brawl with someone called "The Flash."
By the end of 5 rounds we had Belingon only slightly ahead on the scorecards by our reckoning, with more damage and aggression, but Fernandes certainly had way more takedowns and cage control since he always went forward and spent plenty of time on top.
But who knew how the judges had scored it? Especially since ONE Championship uses the Global Rule Set for MMA, which scores the entirety of the fight rather than each round.
When the split decision victory came, Belingon was ecstatic and Fernandes was bewildered.
There is a credible argument for a rematch with that outcome, after such a five-round barn burner full of suspense and drama and much chewing of nails as Pinoys round the world poured in their reactions to the fight.
Belingon's win means there are now three undisputed and concurrently reigning champs from Team Lakay along with Geje Eustaquio (Flyweight Champ) and Joshua Pacio (Strawweight Champ). That trophy case in Baguio must be glittering with that much gold right now.
"The game plan was to knock him out. We saw [a weakness] in his previous fight. I kept on giving him everything, but he has good defense," said Belingon in his post-fight interview.
Other notable fights on the card included the co-main event where Singapore's Christian "The Warrior" Lee beat down Japan's Kazuki Tokudome for a TKO win in the first round. Meanwhile Anthony "The Archangel" Engelen opened the undercard with a high kick from hell to KO Cambodia's Meas Meul in just 39 seconds of the first round.
Official results for ONE: Heart of the Lion:
ONE Bantamweight World Championship bout: Kevin Belingon defeats Bibiano Fernandes by Split Decision (SD) after 5 rounds
Catch Weight bout (72.0kgs): Christian Lee defeats Kazuki Tokudome by TKO (Strikes) at 3:07 minutes of round 1
ONE Super Series Kickboxing Catch Weight bout (71.0kgs): Giorgio Petrosyan defeats Sorgraw Petchyindee Academy by Unanimous Decision (UD) after 3 rounds
Women's Strawweight bout: Tiffany Teo defeats Michelle Nicolini by Unanimous Decision (UD) after 3 rounds
Lightweight bout: Adrian Pang defeats Kota Shimoishi by TKO (Doctor's Stoppage) at 5:00 minutes of round 1
ONE Super Series Muay Thai Featherweight bout: Jo Nattawut defeats George Mann by Unanimous Decision (UD) after 3 rounds.
ONE Super Series Muay Thai Bantamweight bout: Alaverdi Ramazanov defeats Andrew Miller by Knockout (KO) at 0:57 minutes of round 1
Featherweight bout: Garry Tonon defeats Sung Jong Lee by Submission (Guillotine) at 2:04 minutes of round 2
Strawweight bout: Dejdamrong Sor Amnuaysirichoke defeats Himanshu Kaushik by Submission (Rear Naked Choke) at 4:45 minutes of round 2
ONE Super Series Muay Thai Bantamweight bout: Muangthai P.K.Saenchaimuaythaigym defeats Panicos Yusuf by Unanimous Decision (UD) after 3 rounds
Bantamweight bout: Shuya Kamikubo defeats Muhammad Aiman by Unanimous Decision (UD) after 3 rounds
Bantamweight bout: Xie Bin defeats Hisyam Samsudin by Submission (D'arce Choke) at 3:19 minutes of round 1
Featherweight bout: Anthony Engelen defeats Meas Meul by Knockout (KO) at 0:39 minutes of round 1