Since the era of Pride ended, Asian MMA has seen its ups and downs. From Dream and Sengoku, to the smaller but long-running Shooto, Pancrase and Deep, the continent has always delivered interesting, albeit not always widely viewed, events. The latest powerhouse to emerge from across the Pacific comes in the form of ONE FC. In just eight events, the promotion has risen to lay claim to being the top promotion in Asia. Now, in its ninth event, emanating from the Mall of Asia Arena in Pasay, Philippines, ONE FC delivers what may be its most intriguing event yet.

The card is surprisingly well stocked from top to bottom. It features the conclusion of the promotion’s bantamweight grand prix, plus two title fights atop the card. In the grand prix final, Kevin Belingon will look to further heighten Team Lakay’s rising reputation when he faces off with Japanese veteran Masakatsu Ueda. Meanwhile, Bibiano Fernandes and Koetsu Okazaki will vie for the 135-pound division’s interim belt and Team Lakay’s Honorio Banario seeks to defend his featherweight strap against grizzled vet Koji Oishi.

But the list of interesting fights doesn’t end there. ONE FC is shining a light on flyweights, with Rey Docyogen squaring off against UFC veteran Yasuhiro Urushitani.

Other notable names are also featured on the card, with Eduard Folayang clashing with UFC vet Kamal Shalorus and former UFC heavyweight champion Tim Sylvia meeting former King of the Cage kingpin Tony Johnson.

The event’s main card will be available via live pay-per-view internet stream at at 8 a.m. ET on May 31, with the preliminary card streaming for free beginning at 6:30 a.m. ET.

For this event, The MMA Corner moved the round table out of the room, swept the floors and strapped on the gloves for a one-on-one sparring session between writers Rob Tatum and Bryan Henderson, who share their opinions for eight key bouts from the card.

FlyW: Rey Docyogen (10-1) vs. Yasuhiro Urushitani (19-6-6)

Tatum: Unlike the UFC, ONE FC has embraced the 125-pound flyweight division, rather than burying it on the undercard. And at this event, it features a UFC veteran in Yasuhiro Urushitani taking on one of the division’s most promising prospects in Rey Docyogen.

Urushitani’s Octagon journey would best be described as forgettable as the 36-year-old was stopped by Joseph Benavidez and then outworked by Brazilian John Lineker. Even so, the Japanese fighter is still largely considered a top-10 or top-15 fighter. In fact, many felt his UFC release was premature. The veteran packs heavy hands for the weight class and has faced a who’s who of competition over his 12-year career.

Docyogen, meanwhile, ran through his first 10 opponents, stopping eight of them━four by strikes, four by submission. However, the Filipino faltered, badly, in his first real test against Shinichi “BJ” Kojima in February. The submission loss was the first of his career, but it proved that his ground game still had room to improve.

Although Docyogen won’t have to deal with a grappling expert in Urushitani, he’s still at a significant experience and level of competition disadvantage. Expect the fight to be a very entertaining back-and-forth affair, but Urushitani will simply be too much for Docyogen. Look for the Japanese fighter to get back in the win column with a unanimous decision victory.

Henderson: Level of competition is a big question mark for all of the top fighters from Team Lakay, and Docyogen is just one of many from the team to receive a big upgrade in competition on this card.

Until his fight with Kojima, Docyogen had been competing against prospects with only a handful of fights under their belts. Even the most accomplished foe he has beaten was nothing but a debuting fighter when he met up with Docyogen.

Urushitani prefers to strike, but he’s been a decision machine throughout his career, with 18 of his fights, including 14 of his wins, ending on the scorecards. The 36-year-old is on a downward slide in his career, but prior to his two UFC losses, he had only lost one time since 2004. He’s also faced some of the best fighters Shooto has offered up in that time.

Docyogen still has a bright future ahead of him in the flyweight division, but this will be a learning experience for the well-rounded fighter. Urushitani will get the better of him on their feet and is savvy enough to avoid danger on the mat. It’ll be another fight that goes the distance for the Japanese fighter, and I have to second Rob’s prediction that Urushitani emerges with the unanimous nod.

BW GP Final: Kevin Belingon (11-2) vs. Masakatsu Ueda (17-2-2)

Henderson: ONE FC has provided Team Lakay with an international stage on which to showcase its fighters. Along with Rey Docyogen, Eduard Folayang and Honorio Banario. Kevin Belingon represents the Filipino fight camp on this event’s main card. Belingon has earned his place here by advancing to the finals of ONE FC’s bantamweight grand prix. On the other side of the bracket is Japanese standout Masakatsu Ueda.

Belingon was a perfect 9-0 when he first entered ONE FC. The promotion lined him up opposite Masakazu Imanari and Soo Chul Kim in his first two appearances, and on both occasions Belingon lost. Imanari submitted him in just over a minute, whereas Kim edged him on the scorecards. The Filipino fighter has since recovered with back-to-back TKO victories over Yusup Saadulaev and Thanh Vu.

Ueda represents a return to the level of competition Belingon experienced against Imanari. Ueda is a former Shooto 132-pound champion who holds wins over Eduardo Dantas, Jens Pulver and Kyoji Horiguchi. He has also fought to draws with Takeya Mizugaki and Marcos Galvao. He’s gone the distance in 12 of his 21 fights. Ueda is a Bellator veteran, losing to Travis Marx in his sole appearance with the organization.

Belingon’s previous fights against top competition did not go well, and the same can be expected in this fight. He’s certainly done well in representing Team Lakay and advancing to the finals of the tournament, but he will struggle to overcome Ueda’s wrestling and grappling base. Ueda may not be as persistent with his submission attempts as Imanari, but he can certainly finish fights on the ground, as evidenced by his four submission wins.

Belingon will look to chop Ueda down with leg kicks, but Ueda will eventually put Belingon on the mat. That’s where the Shooto veteran truly outshines his Filipino foe. Ueda will wait for Belingon to make a mistake, then lock in a submission for the win.

Tatum: It’s hard to argue with Bryan’s assessment of this fight. Belingon is certainly the type of fighter that the promotion wants to get behind and he has the potential to be a star, but this is a terrible match-up for the Filipino.

Ueda’s grappling attack is not the most eye-pleasing, but it’s highly effective. Once the Japanese fighter gets a fight to the ground, there’s not much his opponent can do under his smothering top control. As Bryan pointed out, he has a solid submission game, but more often than not, he’s content to ride out a decision with positional control.

What really hurts Belingon’s prospects of winning this fight is the fact that Ueda’s relentless takedown attack will neutralize his kicking game. As soon as the Team Lakay product unleashes his first kick, expect Ueda to latch onto a single and score with a trip takedown. From there it will be rinse and repeat.

Ueda takes home the tournament win with a lopsided decision victory.

Interim BW Championship: Bibiano Fernandes (13-3) vs. Koetsu Okazaki (8-2-1)

Tatum: This fight could be described as an unfortunate mismatch, especially if you are Koetsu Okazaki. Sure, the 33-year-old Japanese fighter is in a title fight━even though he’s coming off a loss━but he’s facing one of the elite bantamweights in the world in the Brazilian, Bibiano Fernandes.

Okazaki does possess a heavy right hand━it earned him the Shooto featherweight belt━but the fact his fights tend to see the scorecards is the equivalent of swimming in a shark tank when facing someone like Fernandes.

Fernandes may be the fastest 135-pound fighter on the planet, as his nickname “The Flash” might indicate. The Brazilian’s stand-up technique has grown leaps and bounds under the tutelage of Matt Hume, but it’s his world-class submission arsenal that should be the most concerning for Okazaki in this one.

Okazaki has struggled with high-level grapplers, as evidenced by his loss to Masakatsu Ueda, nearly getting submitted in his title fight with Shuichiro Katsumura, and succumbing to a rear-naked choke against Hiromasa Ogikubo last May.

All that adds up to Fernandes dominating this fight from the opening bell. Look for Okazaki to swing for the fences, get taken down and quickly submitted, handing Fernandes yet another championship belt for his mantle.

Henderson: Fernandes has three losses on his record. Two came early in his career against Urijah Faber and Norifumi “Kid” Yamamoto, and his most recent defeat came via decision against Hiroyuki Takaya. I’d be willing to venture that Fernandes has grown enough as a fighter to where he would defeat the former two in rematches. Takaya, meanwhile, has the right skill set to give “The Flash” a hard time, and it’s a skill set that I doubt Okazaki can duplicate.

Fernandes is levels beyond what Okazaki contended with and faltered against versus Ogikubo and Ueda. Fernandes makes lightning-quick transitions that won’t give Okazaki the time to look for a reversal. The only way Fernandes loses this fight is if he gets complacent and stands with Okazaki for long stretches. That’s not likely to happen. Instead, look for Fernandes to close the distance and take Okazaki’s back as soon as possible. From there, he’ll sink in a submission to claim the belt.

FW Championship: Honorio Banario (8-1) vs. Koji Oishi (23-9-10)

Henderson: Honorio Banario has become one of ONE FC’s top names in the short history of the company. Now reigning over the promotion’s featherweight division, Banario puts his crown on the line against longtime Pancrase fighter Koji Oishi.

If one thing is certain in this fight, it’s that Banario is in for a test. Through 42 fights, Oishi has gone the distances in 17 of his victories, five of his losses and, of course, all of his 10 draws. The 35-year-old made his pro debut at UFC 25 with a loss to LaVerne Clark (majority decision) and returned at UFC 53, where he didn’t even last two minutes before getting knocked out by Nick Diaz. However, beyond his UFC career, we see a resume littered with significant names in the win column: Satoru Kitaoka (majority decision), Chris Lytle (split decision), Nate Diaz (unanimous decision), Isao Kobayashi (unanimous decision) and Jon Shores (unanimous decision). The former lightweight King of Pancrase has also gone the distance in a loss to Kobayashi, fought to a draw with Maximo Blanco and lasted until the third round with Carlos Condit. If Banario’s cardio or skills aren’t up to snuff, Oishi will expose the Team Lakay fighter.

Banario’s endurance could have been called into question earlier in his career, when he usually ended fights in the first or second frame, but his last two outings, against Andrew Benibe and Eric Kelly, have gone into the third and fourth rounds, respectively. The bigger question for the champ is whether he can handle someone of Oishi’s experience and skill level. Thus far in his young career, Banario, who has never gone distance, has seen his toughest competition in the form of Eric Kelly, who he defeated via fourth-round TKO, and Bae Young Kwon, who submitted him in under a minute to hand him his first and only loss.

Both men are most effective in finishing fights with strikes, but Oishi’s tendency is to clinch with opponents and wear them down with blows to the body. Oishi has fought as large as welterweight in the past and should be the bigger fighter when these two lock horns. If Oishi can close the distance and secure the clinch, it could be a long night for Banario, who would prefer to stay on the outside and land hooks and kicks.

If Banario passes this test, he will certainly have made his case for being considered one of the better featherweights outside of the UFC. That’s a big if, though. Banario is accustomed to finishing opponents, but he’ll have a hell of a time ending Oishi’s night (Kobayashi even had to settle for a decision win). His one saving grace could be his speed, but he’ll be giving up size and experience versus Oishi, and the Pancrase vet could slow Banario with those body blows in the clinch.

I don’t think Banario is up to this challenge at this stage in his career. Oishi is a difficult opponent, even for the best fighters in the region. This one is almost assuredly headed to the scorecards, where Oishi will take a closely contested decision victory.

Tatum:This is absolutely the biggest test of Banario’s young career. The 23-year-old has yet to face anyone even remotely as experienced or talented as Oishi.

The good news for the young Team Lakay product is that Oishi has a lot of miles on his body with more than a decade in the sport and going the distance 27 times. The bad news? Oishi has already seen everything that Banario brings to the table.

For Banario to keep his belt, he’s going to have to get after Oishi early. The Japanese veteran has succumbed to strikes against Condit, Nick Diaz and Katsuya Inoue, and with so much mileage on his body, Banario needs to be the aggressor and try to overwhelm Oishi. If Banario is tentative and lets Oishi find the clinch, it’s going to be a long night for the Filipino.

Like Bryan, I am skeptical of Banario’s gas tank, as well as concerned about his level of competition. Oishi is far from an elite featherweight at this point in his career, but he’s been through far tougher tests in the cage than anything Banario has.

Unless Banario connects early, expect Oishi to wear down the young fighter and steal his belt with a decision win.

Quick Picks
HW: Tim Sylvia (31-8) vs. Tony Johnson (6-1)

Tatum: Despite what the fighter himself may believe, Tim Sylvia’s time in the sport is getting shorter by the day. And his recent performances against Satoshi Ishii (a unanimous decision loss) and Andrei Arlovski (no-contest due to an illegal soccer kick) leave a lot to be desired for the former UFC champion. At 37 years old, Sylvia’s body has a lot miles and he’ll be facing off with a stout wrestler in Tony Johnson. Johnson’s compact 6-foot-1 frame should give him the leverage he needs to plant the towering Sylvia on his back. Once Johnson’s on top, things will get ugly as the American Kickboxing Academy product pounds out a violent TKO win.

Henderson: Nowadays, any time Sylvia fights, things get ugly. Johnson isn’t exactly among the elite of the sport, but this fight is mostly an illustration of how far Sylvia has fallen. Once a UFC champ and pay-per-view headliner, the big man is now fighting on the preliminary card of an upstart Asian promotion’s pay-per-view event. He’s not fighting a can either. Johnson, a former King of the Cage champion whose only loss came to Daniel Cormier and whose wins include a TKO of Kenny Garner and a decision over Tony Lopez, is a legitimate threat that could add another loss to Sylvia’s record. Johnson by way of a TKO.

FlyW: Geje Eustaquio (4-1) vs. Andrew Leone (5-2)

Henderson: Let me get this straight: the UFC relegates flyweights to the Facebook prelims, but an Asian promotion trying to establish a foothold puts relatively unknown guys, even by flyweight standards, on the main card and puts former UFC champion Tim Sylvia on the prelims? I like this approach. Considering the success of Team Lakay, there’s no way I pick against their fighter in this match-up. Geje Eustaquio will have to overcome the wrestling skills of Andrew Leone, but that shouldn’t be too significant of an obstacle. Eustaquio will either score a late submission win or take the fight on the scorecards.

Tatum: I have to disagree with Bryan on this one. While Team Lakay has found a lot of success under the ONE FC banner, Eustaquio is still mostly a one-dimensional fighter. He relies heavily on his stand-up attack, and against Leone, he’s going to be at a significant size disadvantage. The American Leone will have two inches in height on his Filipino opponent, but more importantly, the former bantamweight is just a bigger fighter. Couple that with his wrestling game and Leone is going to wear Eustaquio down with his wrestling and take a decision win.

LW: Eduard Folayang (12-3) vs. Kamal Shalorus (7-3-2)

Tatum: This fight could be a good gauge of how the Filipino Eduard Folayang stacks up against quality competition. Kamal Shalorus has not fought since suffering his third straight UFC loss last May, but before that, the Iranian had gone undefeated in the WEC. For all the accolades that Shalorus has in the wrestling department, the 35-year-old fighter has a propensity to head hunt with his overhand right. That will play right into Folayang’s strengths, as he’ll use his speed and footwork to pick Shalorus apart on the feet and earn a decision victory.

Henderson: Shalorus has two big assets in his skill set: his murderball of an overhand right and his world-class wrestling. Unfortunately, he does not properly utilize either of these aspects of his game. The head hunting that Rob alluded to forms Shalorus’ entire offense and consists solely of huge single-punch haymakers rather than combinations, and his wrestling only sees the light of day when he needs to fend off a takedown. I’m not sure I trust Folayang’s ability to avoid Shalorus’ strikes, and we cannot discount the level of opposition that Shalorus has faced (and with some success, too). Although it would not surprise me to see Shalorus score the big knockout, Folayang’s striking style gives him the upper hand and should lead to decision victory for the Filipino star.

WW: Phil Baroni (15-16) vs. Nobutatsu Suzuki (9-1-2)

Henderson: Much like Tim Sylvia, Phil Baroni can be a high-profile name that an up-and-comer can use to boost their resume. He’s still a tough adversary, but at 15-16, Baroni isn’t exactly an elite fighter. Nobutatsu Suzuki has the right approach planned in taking Baroni into deep waters. As long as the Japanese knockout artist avoids Baroni’s early blitz, he’ll be able to use his cardio and karate background to destroy Baroni via TKO in the latter stages of the fight.

Tatum: At this stage of his career, the 37-year-old Baroni has become nothing more than high-profile cannon-fodder. His cardio has always been a major weakness and his chin isn’t what it used to be. Suzuki has fought sparingly throughout his career, but one thing’s for certain: he hits like a truck. As Bryan said, he simply needs to avoid Baroni’s early barrage and then pour it on with his heavy hands. Suzuki by violent TKO.

Photo: Bibiano Fernandes (Martin Hooson/Sherdog)