THE UNSTOPPABLE MARCH OF MIXED MARTIAL ARTS CONTINUES, DRIVEN BY BIG INVESTMENTS AND BIG STARS, WRITES MATT EATON.

It’s not often that you see a sport transform right before your eyes. But fans of mixed martial arts are now witnessing some of the biggest changes the sport has ever seen in its short, but storied history.

The past year will go down as a turning point for MMA, not just in Asia, but worldwide, where new fans are being introduced to the sport in ways we could not have fathomed just a few years ago.

It’s hard to believe that just 15 years ago the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) was an organisation heading towards bankruptcy, alongside a sport that to many was simply underground and violent.

But fast forward to 2016 and mixed martial arts is an entirely different beast.

In July this year, entertainment giant WME-IMG announced a massive US$4 billion acquisition of the UFC, along with a consortium of investors from private equity firms Silver Lake Partners, KKR and veteran Hollywood agent Ari Emanuel.

Four months into the new management structure and some of IMG’s top entertainment clients – including Serena Williams, Sylvester Stallone, Ben Affleck and Mark Wahlberg – have been drafted in as minority shareholders, a move that adds a touch of celebrity mojo to a sport in desperate need of a perception overhaul.

But 2016 will perhaps be remembered for a landmark agreement that saw a long-standing ban on mixed martial arts events in New York overturned.

The UFC made its Madison Square Garden debut on 12 November with its biggest star Conor McGregor fittingly making history, stopping Eddie Alvarez in the second round to become the first fighter to hold two UFC championships simultaneously.

Needless to say, McGregor left the crowd speechless, but more than that, it was a cross-over moment for the sport.

But it’s not just the markets of North America where this rapid change is taking place.

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Result: Roger Huerta wins a split decision over Adrian Pang at ONE CHAMPIONSHIP: Defending Honor. Photo: Dux Carvajal

Asia, the spiritual heartland of martial arts, has emerged as the fastest-growing region for MMA, driven largely by the Singapore-based ONE Championship.

In the past 12 months, ONE has taken its brand of mixed martial arts to some of Asia’s fastest growing economies from Cambodia to Yangon and Jakarta to Bangkok and this only looks set to continue into 2017.

Like the UFC, ONE has been a target for private equity investors, with Singapore government-backed hedge fund Heliconia Capital Management investing an undisclosed sum to help ONE Championship expand into new ground and increase the number of live events across Asia, especially in China.

Chatri Sityodtong, founder and chairman of ONE Championship, says that in fewer than five years, the organisation has grown into a global brand with a broadcast reach of more than one billion homes across 118 countries. He is also bullish on its growth plans.

“I want us to be as ubiquitous as the NBA,” he says. “If our plans go right, the next 12 months will see us cross that two billion homes mark.”

This year has also marked the return of Art Of War in China and seen the likes of Kunlun, ROAD Fighting Championship and Hong Kong-based IMPI break new ground across the region.

So, yes, the story is one of considerable growth, but it’s not all smooth sailing.

Event cancellations are not an uncommon occurrence in Asia. This year alone, UFC, ROAD FC and ONE have been forced to drop events when wider social issues came into play.

But in the grand scheme of things, they’re minor speed bumps on the path towards a very bright future. It’s hard to imagine any other sport in history that has gained so much notoriety and pushed so quickly toward mainstream acceptance.

Hold onto your seats, folks, 2017 is going to be a wild ride.