To many Americans, Saturday’s UFC Fight Night from Singapore is merely a blip on the radar screen, another show on the UFC’s crowded calendar. But to UFC execs? It represents the future.
Asia is the world’s new frontier. Massive population bases. Thriving economies with room for growth. Technological advances. Natural resources.
Every industry on Earth is trying to get a foothold in Asia. The UFC is no different.
In 2014, the MMA organization plans to hold six or seven events on the continent, starting with this one at Singapore’s Marina Bay Sands, the most expensive casino resort ever built ($5.7 billion). Mark Fischer, UFC Asia’s managing director, told Fox Sports that the promotion will definitely be returning to Macau and deals are being finalized for events in Japan and South Korea.
We are in the first inning of growth for Asian MMA. The market is enormous and the potential is huge.
- Chatri Sityodtong, founder of Asia's top MMA gym Evolve
The Philippines, Thailand and Indonesia are also being targeted with mainland China perhaps a little further away.
"I think we’ve gone through a great beginning phase for the development of the sport here – the last 3 to 5 years – and now we’re poised for the next stage," said Fischer, who led the NBA’s charge into Asia from 2003 to 2008.
Is it only a matter of time before the UFC is massive all over Asia? Or will there be pratfalls? Becoming popular in the United States wasn’t easy, either, so one would expect some bumps along the way.
Culturally, Asia is far different than the U.S., Canada and even Brazil, where the UFC has become enormous. Legendary trainer and former UFC fighter Renzo Gracie fought most of his career in Japan – he’s been there 45 times, he said – and he’s not sold on the UFC’s ability to take over the continent.
The hard-charging ways of the company, Gracie says, might not mix well with Asian dealings. Japan’s PRIDE, at one time the most popular MMA promotion in the world, wasn’t even able to sustain for a myriad of financial and cultural reasons.
"They have a different mindset in Asia," Gracie told Fox Sports. "They have a different way of doing business. If you try to change that, it’s a recipe for disaster every time."
The common perception is that Asians prefer doing business with other Asians, which Gracie says means ONE FC, the current Asian MMA power, could have an advantage over the UFC in brokering deals.
What ONE FC CEO Victor Cui has done in just over two years has been impressive. The Singapore-based organization has held events in the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia, all with great success. Its last show, on Dec. 6, filled the SM Mall of Asia Arena in Pasay City, Philippines with 16,398 people.
Kyung Ho Kang of South Korea in action during the UFC Fight Night Singapore Open Workouts on January 1, 2014.
By comparison, UFC Fight Night on Saturday will be likely be a sellout crowd of 5,500 at Marina Bay Sands. All but one of ONE FC’s shows has surpassed that mark. Of course, this is a relatively minor show in the grand scheme of things for the UFC. But the fact remains that ONE FC, which has billionaire investors, a majority of the top fighters in Asia and solid television partnerships, already has a foothold in Southeast Asia.
Fischer is not concerned. He said the UFC does not view ONE FC as competition. The UFC, he said, is the global leader, while "for the benefit of the sport, the growth of the sport, other promotions are needed to build out the infrastructure." That’s in line with UFC president Dana White’s recent comments that every other promotion is "a Triple-A organization to the UFC."
"Rising tide lifts all boats," Fischer said. "The UFC is the biggest ship in this particular ocean."
There’s no doubt about that. But Asia is still somewhat uncharted waters. Maybe there’s room for a few vessels. Chatri Sityodtong, the founder of Asia’s top MMA gym Evolve, thinks so.
"We are in the first inning of growth for Asian MMA," Sityodtong told Fox Sports. "The market is enormous. And the potential is huge."
I don’t know if it will take five years or 10 year, but I do believe that Asian MMA will be the largest in the world.
- Chatri Sityodtong, founder of Asia's top MMA gym Evolve
In time, Sityodtong, who is planning an expansion of his Singapore gyms throughout Asia, believes MMA in the region will surpass the United States, Canada and Brazil in terms of popularity. When you combine the populations and the culture of martial arts – as Gracie said, "everything we know about martial arts came from there" – you can see his point.
"It will take time, money, and media to grow the sport into a mainstream sport," Sityodtong said. "UFC in Asia is a great thing for everyone here. If everyone in Asia works collaboratively, the future is bright."
Fischer believes in five years the market will support monthly UFC events in Asia, doubling what the company plans on doing this year. By then, he believes Asian fighters could make up nearly 25 percent of the UFC’s roster, up from about 5 percent currently. The Ultimate Fighter: China alone has the chance to produce four to five UFC fighters, Fischer said, relaying information he got from show mentor and UFC star Cung Le.
This Asian series of events will give dozens of new fighters a chance to prove their worth in the UFC without the disadvantage of having to fly to a different hemisphere or fight at 10 a.m. for the benefit of a U.S. audience.
It all begins with Saturday’s fights in Singapore, a card headlined by South Korean prospect Hyun Gyu Lim. Less than 100,000 fans in the United States might tune in on the UFC’s new digital network, Fight Pass, but brass won’t care all that much.
The big picture is what they have in mind and it’s pretty vast.
"I don’t know if it will take five years or 10 years," Sityodtong said, "but I do believe that Asian MMA will be the largest in the world."