When you think mixed martial arts in Asia, ONE Championship will come immediately into mind. Indeed, the Singapore-based organisation has taken top position in the continent and it looks set to grow from strength to strength, expanding into even more territories in 2019. Venturing into smaller markets, ONE’s Warrior Series has unearthed gem from various countries and looks to be searching for more in the coming years.
At the same time, the UFC’s lack of presence in Asia is palpable. Perhaps, it is a lack of endeavor from the titan in the fight game. Coupled with ONE’s dominance, it’ll take a massive effort from President Dana White and his team before they can make any significant inroads in this region.
Mantality looks into the missteps taken by the UFC, and the right moves taken by ONE.
The UFC made its first foray into Asia in 2010. Unfortunately, the event, UFC 112, is remembered for the farcical main event where middleweight champion Anderson Silva made a fool out of the challenger Demian Silva by dancing around him and engaging in sporadic spurts. The fight certainly did not endear the UFC to the fight fans in the United Arab Emirates.
Interesting, after breaking new ground, the UFC decided not to hold any event in Asia the following year. 2012 was relatively better, with two events. 2013 had one single event in Japan and a year later, the UFC seemed to have gotten their act in Asia together by putting together four events in the region.
It was downhill after that, with three events in 2015, none in 2016 (one was scheduled for the Philippines, but it was cancelled due to B.J. Penn pulling out of the main event) followed by three in 2017 and two in 2018. So far, only one event in Asia is scheduled this year – UFC 242 back in the United Arab Emirates.
Fight fans expect some sort of regularity, and the UFC hasn’t provided that in Asia.
In comparison, ONE Championship has held 98 events in Asia since September 2011. On average, that was a ONE event held every month.
Misalignment of stars
UFC’s strategy for Asia may have been helped if the Asian stars on their roster have performed better.
The wildly popular Yoshihiro Akiyama joined the UFC on the back of a stellar record and started his career in the Octagon soundly with a win over American Alan Belcher. However, he lost his following four bouts. He seemed to have turned his UFC career around with a win over Amir Sadollah but eventually parted ways with the company after losing to Alberto Mina in 2015.
Similarly, Japanese fighters Takanori Gomi, Kid Yamamoto did not fare too well in the UFC, despite their legendary status in their home country. Yushin Okami, along with Kim Dong Hyun, share the honour as the most successful Asian MMA fighter in the UFC, but the unassuming fighters simply did not move the needle.
Korean ‘Zombie’ Chan Sung Jung delivered spectacular fights, but was never in title contention apart from the one opportunity he had against Jose Aldo when he replaced the injured Anthony Pettis at UFC 162.
The list goes and in short, the UFC doesn’t have a definitive star who can help break into the Asian market.
On the other hand, ONE has created local cult heroes. The likes of Myanmar’s Aung La N Sung, Philippines’ Eduard Folayang, Singapore’s Angela Lee and China’s Xiong Jing Nan are ONE champions and are wildly adored in their home country. Local fighters gave Asian fans a solid reason to cheer and at the same time, consolidated ONE’s distinct Asian identity.
The road ahead
ONE Championship seems to be doing all the right things but it remains to be seen if its current model is sustaining the organisation. Bloody Elbow has a comprehensive review of ONE’s financial statements and for now (link), it doesn’t look good.
Two excerpts from Bloody Elbow:
“The mixed martial arts promotion ONE Championship has seen itself in the news this last week with a pair of major developments. The first was the announcement that they closed a $166 million financing round, bringing their total capital base above $250 million (US dollars). This represents a level of investment unheard of in a young MMA promotion. Not even Zuffa was willing to invest that much in the UFC before their success with the Ultimate Fighter. The closest comparison is probably the hundreds of millions Waddell & Reed Financial invested into Premier Boxing Champions.”
“One of things that really stands out in the financial reports is the size of ONE’s losses. For the three years covered by the balance sheets, each of them shows an annual 8-figure loss. Entering 2015, ONE reported accumulated losses since their founding in 2011 of almost S$28 million. With losses growing annually by more than S$10 million, total accumulated losses have grown by December 31, 2017 to almost S$93 million.”
But for Asian fight fans, with events happening on a regular basis and the free-of-charge streaming of every single bout, things can’t get any better.
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