Asian MMA flexing its muscle

Return of UFC, rise of Asian fighters add up to huge year ahead for the sport

March 3, 2017 6:27 PM (UTC+8)
Jenel Lausa of Philippines celebrates after the conclusion of his flyweight bout against Yao Zhikui of China during the UFC Fight Night event at Rod Laver Arena on November 27, 2016 in Melbourne, Australia. Photo: Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)
Jenel Lausa of Philippines celebrates after the conclusion of his flyweight bout against Yao Zhikui of China during the UFC Fight Night event at Rod Laver Arena on November 27, 2016 in Melbourne, Australia. Photo: Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)

As with any such ceremony these days, the World MMA Awards aspires to be thought of as the Oscars of the industry it serves.

But the first difference you’d have noticed when scanning this year’s World MMA Award nominations was that – unlike the Academy Awards – diversification is simply not an issue, especially when it comes to representation from Asia.

The fact that Asia was represented in four of the top categories at Thursday night’s grand event in Las Vegas was yet another indication of the region’s growing importance to the sport. That rising South Korean star Choi Doo-ho was part of the “Fight of the Year” (his loss to Cub Swanson at UFC 206) further proof that out fighters can mix it with the best.

Exciting times await.

The Las Vegas-based UFC – the biggest show there is in the sport – estimates it reaches an Asian fan base of 93 million, while regional powerhouse promoters One Championship claims its shows are beamed into one billion homes in 118 countries.

The money being generated is astronomical – as reflected in the fact entertainment and sports marketing behemoth WME-IMG bought into UFC for US$4 billion last year while industry estimations are that ONE Championships is now worth around US$1 billion.

MMA fighter Choi Doo-ho celebrates winning a bout. Photo: Getty Images
MMA fighter Choi Doo-ho celebrates winning a bout. Photo: Getty Images

While both promotions like to stress any competition is good for the game overall, last week’s announcement from the UFC that they are coming back to Asia – after a break of 15 months – has definitely upped the ante.

The UFC card set for Singapore on June 17 is the first of what the organization promises will be “five or six” staged in the Asia-Pacific region over the next 12 months.

Read: The blood, the sweat, the glory: UFC returns to Asia

Carr openly admitted to mis-steps in the past and said the UFC’s deal with WME-IMG would help address previous stumbling blocks.

“The acquisition was eye-opening,” said Carr in Singapore. “They’ve been here forever. So now we can actually take advantage of their marketing arms, and their PR machine, and get our athletes, our fighters, out there and we can do more business in the Asian markets through the media.”

TOKYO, JAPAN - SEPTEMBER 17: Joe Carr, Vice President, International Business Development at UFC interacts with media during the UFC Ultimate Media Day at the Hilton Tokyo on September 17, 2014 in Tokyo, Japan. (Photo by Keith Tsuji/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)
Joe Carr, Vice President, International Business Development at UFC interacts with media during the UFC Ultimate Media Day at the Hilton Tokyo on September 17, 2014 in Tokyo, Japan. Photo: Keith Tsuji/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

While the last UFC card in Asia was a sellout in Seoul back In December 2015, the organization has been nurturing its fan base with fighter tours of the region, while opening its first gym in Vietnam last October – the first of many planned for Southeast Asia.

And while the region hasn’t hosted an event for more than 12 months, there have been plenty of fighters from Asia showcasing their talents to the North American market – and for locals here to cheer on from afar – with Chinese welterweight Li Jingliang  and South Korean featherweight Chan Sung-jung winning recent bouts.

The past week also saw the UFC sign up its third Chinese fighter – featherweight Wang Guan.

Read: UFC signs up Chinese MMA fighter Wang Guan

Next up, the UFC 210 event in Buffalo, New York, on April 8 will see flyweight (and one-time pro boxer) Jenel Lausa of the Philippines take on Russia’s Magomed Bibulatov.

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - NOVEMBER 27: Jenel Lausa of Philippines celebrates after the conclusion of his flyweight bout against Yao Zhikui of China during the UFC Fight Night event at Rod Laver Arena on November 27, 2016 in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)
Jenel Lausa of Philippines will be looking for another victory. Photo: Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

When Asia does see the UFC again, it will be the same beast that has helped make MMA the “fastest growing sport in the world” but with some noticeable tweaks to the product, according to Robbie Henchman, senior vice-president, head of IMG Asia-Pacific.

Henchman said the buy-in had added his organization’s “general Asia-Pacific knowledge” to the UFC’s operations – and plans for the future.

“We are replicating what they do overseas and most importantly localizing it,” said Henchman. “It can’t all be about importation, it has to be about what is relevant to the local audience. It’s about finding the balance between the two. You can’t bring something that is completely Americanized and just plop it down in Singapore.”

Interestingly, for those who see the UFC as a money-making machine, Carr claimed the events they stage are often run at a loss

“You make your money on the broadcast and you make your money on the sponsorship,” he said. “Events are a way of creating that content and having it available for broadcast.”

They also make a sizable impact on the cities that host these events, taken on figures supplied by the UFC.

After UFC 205 at Madison Square Garden, New York – an event headlined by the sport’s golden boy Conor McGregor – the city’s mayor announced that an economic impact analysis found the event made significant contributions to the city and state of New York with US$37.4 million in economic output and US$18.3 million in salaries and wages. The event also supported an estimated 300 jobs in the New York metropolitan area and generated US$1.6 million in taxes for the state.

Bangkok’s business community should take note.

While UFC’s Singapore looms on the horizon, next up for MMA fans in the region is One Championship’s Warrior Kingdom card in the Thai capital on March 11.

Angela Lee in training. Photo: Angela Lee
Angela Lee in training. Photo: Angela Lee

World MMA Award nominee Angela Lee makes her first atomweight world title defence against Taiwan’s Jenny Huang on a card packed full of Asia’s emerging MMA talent. ONE has 18 events scheduled for 2017, with more being planned, and has gone from strength to strength over the past five years.

ONE Championship founder Chatri Sityodtong said, “Martial arts is something that is deep in the psyche of Asia.”

“We’ve been going five years and have gone from a few to 18. That shows the passion for the sport in Asia. We actually welcome UFC – they’ve in been in Asia longer than we have been around as a company. The market is big enough for both of us,” he said.

A statement with which Asian MMA fans are more than happy to agree.

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