Asia wants MMA back to its eastern roots

By Dennis Gasgonia,

Posted at May 08 2013 08:05 PM | Updated as of May 09 2013 04:24 AM

Bruce Lee's siblings, Robert Lee (left) and Phoebe Lee (right) attended the 2013 ONE Asia MMA Summit. They were joined at the stage by ONE FC CEO Victor Cui. Photo by Dennis Gasgonia, 

MANILA, Philippines – Asia, home to nearly a hundred martial art forms, wants to bring back the fast-rising sport of mixed martial arts to its eastern roots.

ONE FC recently gathered 500 fighters, promoters, writers and sponsors in Singapore to foster relationships and boost the popularity of Asian mixed martial arts.

“Last year there were 100 people in this summit,” Victor Cui, the moving force of ONE FC, said during his opening address at the ONE Asia MMA Summit 2013. “Now there are 500. The number of rejected applications to be in this event is far bigger than that.”

The three-day event that took place at the luxurious Marina Bay Sands Hotel was attended by MMA personalities like former fighter and now coach Renzo Gracie, ex-UFC middleweight champion Rich Franklin, Evolve MMA’s Chatri Sityodtong and URCC’s Alvin Aguilar.

Also present were executives like Tunetalk’s Jason Lo, FOX Sports’ Peter Hutton and Fight Network’s Leonard Asper, and media entities Marc Raimondi of the New York Post, Greg Savage of Sherdog and John Keefer of Crave Online.

Bruce Lee’s siblings Robert and Phoebe Lee served as the guest speakers.

With a population of 3.9 billion people, Asia is seen as one of the biggest promising markets for fight sports.

Even the UFC and boxing promoters like Top Rank are recognizing Asia’s potential as the next fight hub such that they have started holding events in Macau, Singapore and Japan.

Cui said Asians are naturally enamored to MMA because Asia has always been the home of martial arts.

“It’s in our blood. Our people have been practicing martial arts for the past 5,000 years,” he said.

Rising sport

Cui recalled that only two years ago, MMA was virtually unknown to Asia’s mainstream media.

But with the establishment of promotions like ONE FC, the sport has attracted the attention of several mainstream outfits including the New York Times.

“Right now we have a 90% market share which means that every time we hold an event, over a billion people can potentially watch us,” Cui said of ONE FC’s market reach. “With MMA growing exponentially, don’t be surprised if it ends up bigger than football or cricket.”

East vs West

Sityodtong, founder of Evolve MMA which has become one of best martial arts academies in Asia, said that if Asia’s movers and shakers work together, they will see a global duopoly of MMA.

“What will the future look like?” asked Sityodtong. “UFC and ONE FC will be the centers of the MMA universe. It will be like Apple versus Samsung, GM versus Toyota.”

Sityodtong, however, stressed that it would take everyone’s cooperation to achiever the goal, even likening Asian MMA to a princess to be defended by a brave warrior.

He said Asia has all the potential to be a giant market for MMA, and that the stakeholders should protect “the princess” at all cost.

“There are 3.9 billion people in Asia… we have 2 billion viewers at the same time zone. We’re going to overtake soccer, cricket… Asia will become the biggest market in the world,” said Sityodtong.

Going mainstream

But for Asian MMA to gain the full attention of mainstream media, it will need to put its focus not just on the sport itself but also on the fighters.

“How do you get your product covered by mainstream media?” asks New York Post’s Marc Raimondi. “As great as the sport is, what really draws journalists to the sport is the stories of the fighters.”

This, he said, is the reason sports personalities like Muhammad Ali have become favorite subjects of the mainstream media.

“Muhammad Ali obviously is the greatest boxer of all time, but really it's his charisma and personality that made him attractive to media coverage,” said Raimondi.

“There are MMA fighters our there right now breaking into the sport, who has ability for crossover appeal to promote MMA.”

Raimondi said that if they tap the stories behind each fighter, then it will be easier to market Asian MMA.

Sityodong, for his part, said they could also pattern the success of boxing by creating real-life super heroes in MMA.

“Do you know that whenever Manny Pacquiao fights, the crime rate goes down in the Philippines because everyone’s glued on TV?” he said.