It’s been more than a decade since the most dramatic knockout in Indonesian professional mixed martial arts history – but unfortunately it was not in the Octagon.

During a professional MMA event in 2004, which in those days were staged at television studios due to the limited interest among the Indonesian public in the sport, a riot broke out in the stands following one bout.

A gun and a sword were both brandished and bottles smashed during the melee, which spilled out into the parking lot, prompting a response from local civilian and military police units, including officers dressed in riot gear.

The riot was not covered by the local media, but one witness said between five and 10 people were killed, mostly from stab wounds, and dozens more were injured.

RCTI, the national television broadcaster that had regularly organised and televised MMA events, immediately shut down the programme. Like dominoes, another television station that promoted and broadcast events stopped doing so, and the national regulatory body went into hibernation.

And MMA in Indonesia, an enticing future Asian market given the country’s love of boxing and martial arts – not to mention a population of more than 230 million people at that time – was officially choked out.

Recovery time for a defeated MMA fighter – and their wounded pride – might be a few weeks. But for Indonesia, it has taken more than a decade. Those involved in the sport here, however, used those years in the wilderness wisely.

Today, MMA is more popular than ever in Indonesia, with the establishment of a brand new domestic league in 2016 to develop up-and-coming local fighters through bouts on live national television, and the mushrooming of MMA-dedicated gyms. Even some of Jakarta’s upscale shopping malls have stores selling MMA equipment and apparel.

Internationally, Indonesia is also on the map. ONE Championship, Asia’s largest mixed martial arts promotion company, which is based in Singapore, began holding events in Indonesia in 2012.

ONE PRIDE MMA INDONESIA

THERE IS A REBIRTH WITH MMA EVENTS ONCE AGAIN BEING BROADCAST ON NATIONAL TELEVISION.

Fittingly, ONE’s first event for 2017 will be held at the Jakarta Convention Centre on 14 January. ONE is also scheduled to return to Jakarta on 16 September.

“Indonesia’s absolutely a key market,” said Loren Mack, the organisation’s director of public relations.

“We’re seeing a tremendous amount of additional martial arts talent that are going to be competing in ONE Championship events in the very near future, and we’re also looking to expand beyond Jakarta into some of the other hotspots throughout Indonesia such as Bali and Surabaya.

“So without a doubt, it’s a very, very crucial market for ONE Championship. Always has been, always will be.”

The real foundation of Indonesia’s mixed martial arts renaissance, however, began in 2016 with the formation of a new national MMA league, One Pride FC, and a new mixed martial arts federation.

One Pride, which is not affiliated with ONE, has male and female bouts, but only Indonesians can compete, which organisers say is due to their philosophy of developing local fighters. The league does plan to eventually showcase foreign fighters.

One Pride was the vision of an unlikely trio: Ardiansyah Bakrie, a scion of one of Indonesia’s wealthiest business families; David E. Burke, a former British amateur kick-boxer and now telecommunications executive; and Fransino Tirta, an Indonesian MMA legend who was the face of the sport during its dark days over the past decade.

One Pride has a unique format that caters to both live and television audiences. Like a television series, the league has broadcast seasons, with its first two seasons airing between April and December 2016, with a total of seven events for the year. Season three will begin in March 2017.

For the first two seasons, One Pride held a fight night one Saturday per month, with a main card of several fights televised live on tvONE, its media partner. An undercard of up to 20 or more fights, was aired on tape delay at 10pm every Saturday night during the successive three weeks until the next live event.

This ensured that every Saturday night was dedicated to MMA bouts broadcast across Indonesia, which has the world’s fourth-largest population.

Viewership has exploded, nearly doubling to around 10 million people since One Pride held its first event in April, Burke said. During one event in October, he said, the television audience watching Paul Lumihi defend his One Pride featherweight title was estimated at 22 million people – startling numbers for what was considered a niche sport.

Not surprisingly, the number of Indonesian fighters wanting to join One Pride has also exploded. For season one, only 150 fighters came for an audition, but for season two, also aired in 2016, more than 230 turned up.

“And the quality of fighters among the 230, we could see it had turned up a notch,” said Burke, who is One Pride’s chief operating officer.

“Because all of the fighters out there sitting at home watching the first season on TV were saying, ‘Are these guys for real?’”

With more than 100 fighters now under contract, One Pride’s leadership team says it has answered that question, as well as scepticism about whether they could compete against boxing, badminton and football, the three most popular sports in Indonesia.

The league is currently considering partnerships with international promotions such as the Singapore Fighting Championship, and Art of War, which is based in China.

One Pride’s fighters come from diverse backgrounds ranging from wushu to boxing, but are quickly adapting to the full-on nature of MMA.

In One Pride’s first season, only about 25% of the fighters knew the ground game, but for season two this rose to 40% .

“They came from a lot of backgrounds, but none of them were pure professional MMA fighters yet,” said Tirta, the league’s chief executive officer, who also fights for ONE Championship, but has been sidelined for more than two years with a wrist injury.

“But ever since they started joining us, they’ve become fully professional MMA fighters.”

Mustadi Anetta, an Indonesian referee for One Pride bouts who also fights professionally overseas, said the new league had filled a huge void and would support the rise of a new generation of Indonesians who can compete internationally.

“I think One Pride is a new dawn in Indonesian MMA history,” he said.

“In 2005, the Indonesian Broadcasting Commission banned events, claiming there was too much violence. Today, there is a rebirth with MMA events once again being broadcast on national television.”

Down to Business

The business potential of MMA in Indonesia is equally as promising. Martijn de Jong, a Jakarta-based Dutch professional MMA trainer who has coached world champions in a number of martial arts disciplines, will open a gym in January in the Indonesian capital dedicated to MMA

“It’s booming. It’s not a niche market anymore, and the Indonesian people like fighting sports like boxing and pencak silat,” he said referring to the martial art style that originated in the Indonesian archipelago centuries ago.

He said that while aspiring Indonesian MMA fighters lag behind those of other neighbouring countries, such as Thailand and its established Muay Thai leagues, there is great promise given Indonesia’s population of 250 million people.

“The potential is huge,” he said, “and the Indonesian people really want to learn MMA”

His belief in the sport’s rise in Indonesia is so strong that de Jong, whose father was born in Medan, North Sumatra during the Dutch colonial period, has established his base in Indonesia and plans to open MMA gyms across the country.

He also has another goal: “To find and train the next Indonesian world champion in MMA and make him the hero of the country.”