Since the demise of Pride Fighting Championships in 2007, countless organizations have attempted to recreate what it once had. It is not often that a sport’s power base shifts as suddenly and as irrevocably as MMA’s did from Asia to North America in 2005-07. For half a decade, Japan was the sport’s biggest stage, and, suddenly, it was barely relevant in the big picture. A vacuum was left in the Asian MMA scene that has not yet come close to being filled.
Japanese organizations like Sengoku, K-1 Heroes and Dream popped up with aspirations of recreating Pride, but none of them came close. Smaller organizations like Pancrase and Shooto were not able to grow to new heights in the absence of the previously dominant force. A falling tide sunk all boats. During a period when Asia was the world’s fastest growing region economically, Asian MMA underwent a precipitous decline. Japan simply did not seem to care about MMA like it once did.
If Asia can regain the foothold it once possessed in the worldwide MMA scene, the movement may have to be spearheaded outside the familiar confines of the Saitama Super Arena or Yokohama Arena. Some 3,000 miles south, inside a tiny island nation with one of the world’s most prosperous and well developed economies, a young MMA organization dreams of playing that role.
Singapore’s One Fighting Championship runs its seventh event on Saturday in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. With significant television deals, a quality lineup of fighters, a network of affiliated gyms and solid attendance for a series of shows in Southeast Asia, the promotion shows promise. However, a long road and much work still remain if the organization wants to live up to its lofty goals.
In the mid-2000s, Victor Cui was an executive for ESPN Star Sports in Asia, tasked with locating new sports properties for the network that owns the Asian broadcast rights to the likes of the World Cup, Olympics, Major League Baseball and Wimbledon. He identified MMA as a sport with great potential growth, but one that had a relatively weak presence in Asia. The germ of the idea that would become One FC was in place.
“MMA was the fastest growing sport in the world,” Cui told Sherdog.com. “It was exploding everywhere else but non-existent in Asia. That didn’t make sense because Asians love martial arts. You see it all over the culture, where Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan and Jet Li are household names. I looked at the market gap and realized how big an opportunity it was.”
A few years later, Cui began promoting smaller MMA shows in Singapore, learning the ins and outs of putting together events. The shows were underwritten by casinos, like many of today’s Bellator Fighting Championships events, allowing Cui to focus on booking fights and building relationships with fighters and gyms. Comfortable with the MMA scene, Cui gathered a team of investors and launched One FC.
While Cui was focused on the promotional end, other developments were changing the landscape of Asian MMA. Mixed martial arts gyms were popping up in new countries like the Philippines and Indonesia. Thai fighters were beginning to integrate groundwork into their traditional kickboxing training. In Singapore, Harvard MBA Chatri Sityodtong founded the Evolve Gym, which grew into one of the most respected gyms in the world by bringing in some of the brightest minds in MMA to collaborate and train together. Many of the top Japanese fighters began training extensively in Singapore, with North American and Brazilian fighters flying in, as well.
Matt Hume, a longtime MMA trainer and executive, serves as Vice President of Operations and Competition for One FC. He views the One FC Network as a boon for fighters and promotions alike.
“Connecting gyms together gives you a much bigger base than you’d have by yourself,” Hume told Sherdog.com. “Fighters can develop into the One FC level, and if they’re not quite ready, we can take them back down and work them through the network. Guys can be brought into the right gyms to get the right training in the aspects of MMA they need to work on the most. It’s not a situation where we have to find guys and if they don’t make it, we cut them. The network is great for developing those guys and forming bonds with other promotions to grow together.”
While the spirit of cooperation does offer opportunities, it is not a path without its risks. The concept bears a striking similarity to the ill-fated plans of Pro Elite, which banded together promotions like King of the Cage, Icon Sport, Cage Rage and Spirit MC to support Pro Elite’s centerpiece -- EliteXC. The unwieldy and decentralized conglomeration collapsed, losing millions of dollars in the process.
One FC is not on the hook for the losses of its partners, providing a key distinction from Pro Elite. However, MMA gyms over the years have often proven to be natural rivals, with fighters and coaches not fully trusting their counterparts at other locations. MMA promotions have battled even more fiercely for territory and talent. There are questions about the long-term viability of the model.
With any fledgling MMA organization, the biggest question always centers on where the revenue will come from. For One Fighting Championship, a significant part of that equation will be television rights fees supplied by a number of TV partners. One FC has an agreement with Cui’s former employer, ESPN Star Sports, and One FC executives emphasize their ability to provide a high-quality television program.
ESPN Star Sports has a broad reach in Asia, reaching 500 million potential viewers in 28 countries. However, it has its limitations. One FC televises on ESPN Star Sports in English, a second language at best for most of the region. Those who speak multiple languages are more likely to be affluent and thus able to spend more on tickets for live events and merchandise, but it is a limiting factor in the company’s growth.
With that in mind, One FC is attempting to line up local television deals that can serve regional communities in Malay, Mandarin, Cantonese or other local dialects. The other benefit of local television deals is that they allow the promotion to focus on local fighters and create national heroes. Cui emphasizes that the creation of those stars is central to One FC’s future success.
“That’s been the key in what Asian sports has been lacking,” Cui said. “You can bring in a foreign star like Maria Sharapova, but for the majority of sports fans, they want to see local heroes they can relate to. One FC has worked hard to bring up Asian heroes for the ticket buyers on the ground. Country rivalries like Malaysia vs. Singapore, Indonesia vs. Malaysia or China vs. Japan are huge. Fans like to see their fighter triumph over their rivals.”
The basic model of competitors fighting for national pride is similar to what has driven Japanese combat sports for decades. Opening up that model to a number of different nations simultaneously provides greater options for growth and also offers contingency plans in case superstars from one country dry up as they did in Japan. It is a model that suits Asia much better than North America, where national sports rivalries do not play as well.
While there is a great upside to those national rivalries, they also necessitate very careful matchmaking. It is difficult to promote and protect stars from different areas when the level of competition is often much different depending on location. Every region needs to be individually managed and finessed, not an easy task when dealing with dramatic geographic, economic and linguistic differences.
To cater to local audiences and supplement the ESPN deal, One FC already has deals on local stations in Singapore and Indonesia. The company plans to eventually have simultaneous live broadcasts of its biggest events in multiple languages. The ability to do so will significantly affect the company’s penetration in Asia’s many diverse and unique regions.
One FC’s geographic reach will perhaps best be reflected by where the company ends up running shows. Cui has been vocal about running throughout the continent of Asia, hitting major markets in Japan, China, India, South Korea and beyond. However, to this point, major shows have run exclusively in Southeast Asia: Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia and The Philippines. Breaking into different regions will offer a variety of logistical challenges, and One FC has been careful not to overextend itself too soon.
The geographic range of MMA promotions can dramatically change over time. When Zuffa purchased the Ultimate Fighting Championship, two of the company’s regular stops were Atlantic City, N.J., and the Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Conn. Now a UFC show at one of those venues is an extreme rarity. It remains to be seen whether One FC will stick in a familiar range of locations or whether it will follow the UFC’s expansion model. One FC plans to run 12 events in 2013 and 24 events in 2014, leaving plenty of opportunities to test different markets.
One FC 7 “Return of Warriors” reflects the overall approach of the promotion. The event is headlined by a bout between two top Filipino fighters, Eric Kelly and Honorio Banario, battling for national bragging rights and the One FC featherweight title. A mini-tournament on the undercard will look to crown a Malaysian national featherweight champion. Fighters from Indonesia, Japan and Vietnam are complemented by fighters from outside the continent. It has a distinctly Asian flavor.
Going forward, it is unlikely anytime soon that North American MMA fans will direct their eyes towards Asia like they did during the glory days of Pride. The UFC is so dominant and has such a lock on the world’s top fighters that any foreign organization will struggle to gain attention. However, for those who have followed the evolution of martial arts and want a thriving and dynamic international scene, One FC offers hope that one of sport’s greatest centers will rise once again.