CENTURIES OF TRADITION HAVE HELPED ESTABLISH ASIA AS THE FASTEST GROWING MMA MARKET IN THE WORLD, WRITES JAMES GOYDER.
ASIA is the ancestral home of martial arts. From Muay Thai in Thailand to judo and karate in Japan and from taekwondo in Korea to kung-fu in China, the region has a rich history of handto-hand fighting techniques.
Despite its status as the traditional epicentre of the martial arts world, the surge of interest in MMA has seen Asia fall behind the West in recent years with the most marketable events and profitable promotions invariably headquartered in the US.
There was a time when the Pride Fighting Championship could attract crowds of nearly 100,000 people to marquee shows and was seen by many as the pinnacle of the MMA competition, but when the wildly popular Japanese promotion closed its doors in 2007 the sport in Asia was plunged into demise.
The sport retained a hardcore fan base, but was a million miles away from crossing over into the mainstream in the post-Pride period until the remarkable recent rise of the Asian MMA which has seen the region return to its roots by slowly starting to reclaim that mantle as the martial arts capital of the world.
Leading the charge has been the Singapore-headquartered ONE Fighting Championship (ONE FC) which has emerged as Asia’s most prominent MMA promotion with sold out shows having been held in Manila, Jakarta, Kuala Lumpur and Singapore. Its appeal has truly transcended borders.
ONE FC has signed up some of the top talent not just in the region, but in the world, with the likes of Bibiano Fernandes, Shinya Aoki and Ben Askren all putting pen to paper on multi fight contracts. It has also secured an unprecedented 10-year deal with Star Sports which broadcasts events live all over the continent.
The driving force behind the organisation is Victor Cui. Formerly a senior executive with ESPN Star Sports, he feels Asia’s centuries old association with martial arts made it the perfect place to set up his new promotion
“Asia is the birthplace of martial arts with history that dates back thousands of years and MMA is the fastest growing sport in the world,” he says.
“It makes sense the best mixed martial arts organisation should come from Asia because you have so many martial arts disciplines to draw from such as wushu, taekwondo, karate, Muay Thai and Silat and with ONE FC world champions in those disciplines they can test themselves against other world champions.”
ONE FC’s most successful fighters so far have tended to come from more conventional backgrounds with Fernandes and Aoki both BJJ black belts, while Askren, who will get a shot at the ONE FC Welterweight World Championship in August, is a former Olympian wrestler.
However, despite the dominance of fighters with skill sets traditionally associated with MMA success, notably BJJ and wrestling, ONE FC has showcased mixed martial artists from a plethora of diverse and different backgrounds with judo, Kun Khmer, wushu, Silat, karate and Muay Thai all regularly being showcased inside its circular cage.
It is this diversity of fighting cultures which makes Asia such a fascinating market for MMA promoters such as Cui, but no martial art has proved quite as unexpectedly effective as the wushu which provides the base for virtually all the fighters at the leading Filipino camp Team Lakay.
IT MAKES SENSE THE BEST MIXED MARTIAL ARTS ORGANISATION SHOULD COME FROM ASIA.
A few years ago the likes of Eduard Folayang, Honorio Banario, Kevin Belingon and Mark Eddiva were virtually unknown outside of the Philippines, but these Team Lakay teammates have established themselves among the most recognisable mixed martial artists in Asia.
Team Lakay’s founder Mark Sangiao is a former SEA Games wushu gold medallist who retired from MMA with a 7-2 record. He has seen his fighters go from being unknown outside of wushu circles to becoming bona fide celebrities in the Philippines.
“Team Lakay has grown tremendously in the last three years – before we were only dreaming of fighting internationally and now it has become a reality,” he says.
A number of Team Lakay’s fighters have signed with ONE FC, including Folayang, who like Sangiao has won gold medals in wushu at the SEA Games, Banario who was the organisation’s inaugural featherweight champion and Belingon who is in contention for a shot at the 135-pound title.
Another SEA Games wushu gold medallist, Eddiva, recently made a successful UFC debut and Sangiao is delighted to see his students holding their own on the international stage against some of the best in the region,
“We are extremely excited and happy for what has been happening for us in the UFC and in ONE FC. I hope this will continue for the coming years because we still have a lot to show and learn as we compete in these world’s best promotions,” he says.
The Las Vegas-headquartered UFC deserves much of the credit for making MMA a lucrative mainstream sport, taking it from obscure nightclubs and Indian Reservations to thrust it into the limelight with sold out shows at some of the most prestigious casino resorts in the US.
So far this year the promotion has put on two shows in Asia with two more booked and Mark Fischer, the managing director of its Asian operations, is excited about the opportunities for further expansion.
“The response (in Asia) has been even greater than we expected and it’s all we can do to keep up with it in terms of meeting the demand in certain markets,” he says. “It’s a great opportunity to expose our sport, for fans to have access to it and to give opportunities to local fighters and build local heroes from Korea, Japan, the Philippines and so on.”
Japan and Korea have been the traditional heartlands for Asian MMA and these countries are still home to a high percentage of the top talent in the continent, but one of the most remarkable things about the recent explosion in interest in the sport is how increasing numbers of fans and fighters are emerging from destinations as diverse as Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines and even Cambodia.
Before founding his promotion ONE FC, head honcho Cui worked with major sporting events such as the PGA Tour, the Olympics and the X Games, but even he could not have foreseen the speed at which MMA would expand across multiple Asian territories.
“I would never have thought that MMA would grow as rapidly as it has in recent years. There are so many markets now that are on the brink of rapid growth and we have set our sights on Hong Kong, Taiwan, Cambodia and the Middle East as markets that have the potential to grow exponentially the same way Singapore and Malaysia did,” he says.
While the UFC and ONE FC are putting on events in some of the biggest casino resorts and indoor arenas in the region, a number of new domestic promotions have sprung up in the past few years such as RUFF in China, which was started by Joel Resnick in 2011 and has held 12 shows to date.
MMA events happen regularly in China, but RUFF was the first to receive government sanctioning and Resnick says his organisation has subsequently gone from strength to strength.
“It’s growing and growing quick, especially when you look back at RUFF 1 and now compare that to RUFF 11. The growth of the fighters has been nothing less than amazing,” he says.
China is the most populated place on the planet so it’s no surprise to hear RUFF gets comparatively high viewing figures and Resnick says the fights his promotion puts on attract an enormous TV and online audience.
“Our live streams are over a million views, our 10-episode reality show, RUFF: Journey, averaged over three million views per episode. We have had up to eight million viewers on TV and satellite for a single event,” he says.
One of the things which makes the Asian MMA market so exciting for promoters is the sheer scale of the continent. It is home to more than four billion people which translates into a lot of potential viewers, more than North America, Australia and Europe combined.
In India and Pakistan, cricket is king, basketball has a healthy fan following in the Philippines and China, but the single most popular sport in Asia remains soccer. Comparatively speaking MMA is still in its infancy, but it has rapidly gone from being obscure, and in many cases unregulated, to achieving mainstream acceptance.
ESPN, Star Sports, Fox Sports and AXN are among the broadcasters in the region to have come on board and fans, who have followed the sport since the days when the only way to get access to fights was through obscure mail order videos, can now watch a plethora of live MMA events from the privacy of their own home.
There’s still some distance to go before we can start talking about the possibility of MMA overtaking soccer in the hearts and minds of the population in Asia, but Cui, who moved ONE FC to a Friday night slot specifically so as not to compete with the English Premier League, believes the stratospheric rise of the sport is unlikely to abate.
“It is unbelievable how fast the sport of mixed martial arts has grown in Asia and we are still scratching the surface in terms of the potential in mixed martial arts,” he says.
“ONE FC draws a larger live attendance and better television ratings than badminton, golf, tennis and motorsports and I will even argue that ONE FC is the largest sporting event in Asia behind soccer and basketball.”