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Hardcore mixed martial arts fans kept their eyes on ONE Championships as former UFC champions Demetrious "Mighty Mouse" Johnson and Eddie Alvarez made their promotional debut on March 31.
Both fighters competed on ONE's "A New Era" event in separate tournament bouts.
Alvarez signed with ONE Championship back in October 2018. He was no stranger to fighting in Japan, having competed for DREAM, MARS, and at Fields Dynamite 2008.
Johnson came to ONE Championship in an unusual manner. The UFC traded his contract for former ONE Welterweight Champion Ben Askren. Before he left the UFC, Johnson endured a successful run with the promotion, holding its flyweight title for six years and making 11 successful title defenses—the most in promotional history.
In his first foray in the ONE Championship cage, Johnson submitted Yuya Wakamatsu with a guillotine choke in the second round of their fight to advance in the ONE Flyweight Grand Prix tournament. After enduring Wakamatsu's power attack in the first round, Johnson brought his aggressive opponent to the canvas and worked the grapple game, while firing some elbows and knees to his head before he slapped on his submission.
For Johnson, who has only lost three fights in the last 10 years, this was one of the first challenging matches he's had in some time.
While Johnson began his ONE Championship on a high note, Alvarez lost his promotional debut against Timofey Nastyukhin in a ONE Lightweight Grand Prix quarterfinal match. The Russian fighter controlled the majority of the first round en route to landing a combination that sent Alvarez up against the cage. Nastyukhin unleashed a flurry of blows before the referee stopped the fight. The loss to Natsyukin is the latest in a skid with Alvarez, who has held both the UFC and Bellator lightweight titles.
As someone who has followed both Johnson and Alvarez throughout their careers, I was surprised at how both fighters fared in their ONE Championship debut.
I fully expected both Alvarez and Johnson to dominate their opponents in their ONE Championship debuts. Whenever former UFC fighters enter a new promotion, they're usually given tune up matches in order to secure a win on their debut. If they had signed with Bellator, both former UFC champions would have received easy opponents who they could beat in the first round—even title matches upon their debut. They would have also been given spots at the top of the fight card. With Alvarez being a former champion, Bellator would have rolled out the red carpet for the former titleholder and made his homecoming a grand spectacle.
ONE Championship did promote both Johnson and Alvarez for their upcoming fights—they just didn’t make a spectacle of it.
Some may criticize ONE Championship for putting Johnson and Alvarez lower on the card because they were big names coming from the UFC. Yet it made sense for ONE to structure their card like they did because they had two four fights, with athletes who were well known to the promotion's fans. ONE Championship didn't brush aside their champions in favor of former UFC fighters who hadn't fought in the promotion before. As a long time mixed martial arts fan, it's refreshing to see a fight organization still committed to promoting their champions who have fought for the company rather than cater to new fighters just because they bring name value.
If Johnson and Alvarez want to get to the top of the ONE Championship marquee, they are going to have to earn those spots. ONE isn’t going to just step aside and let them take an escalator to a title shot.
Both fighters are talented enough to rise through ONE Championships' rankings and eventually earn title shots in their respective divisions.