Drive Sports and Fitness

Finding heroes: MMA's popularity goes beyond what's in the cage

What is it about the sport that has more and more people tuning in? Simply put, people enjoy watching a good fight. 
Santino Honasan | Nov 08 2018

SINGAPORE—It has been said over and over again for the last couple of years. 

“MMA is the fastest growing sport in the world!” 

And truth be told, it’s hard to argue. 

Within the last decade or so, MMA, or mixed martial arts has enjoyed a remarkable growth in popularity, equalling, or maybe even surpassing that of boxing. 

While MMA may not be at the level of football or basketball yet on a global stage, the sport is more popular now than it has ever been. 

But what is it about the sport that has more and more people tuning in? 

Simply put, people enjoy watching a good fight. 

Geje Eustaquio captured the ONE Flyweight World Championship in 2018 after defeating Brazilian former champion Adriano Moraes

Whether it’s an all-out brawl or whether it’s a beautiful display of technical mastery, fans will tune in to see two well-trained athletes compete against each other. 

MMA’s popularity on a global scale can be attributed to North American promotion Ultimate Fighting Championships or the UFC. 

For the greater part of the last two decades, the UFC has been the top-of-mind brand when it comes to the sport of mixed martial arts. 

In recent years however, another promotion has emerged to compete with the UFC when it comes to global popularity. 

Born in 2011, Singaporean-based promotion ONE Championship has - much like the sport of MMA—grown at a rapid pace. 

Operating mainly in Asia, the promotion holds upwards of 24 events yearly in different countries across the continent, with Singapore, the Philippines, Thailand, and Indonesia being some of the most-frequented. 

In just seven years of existence, ONE has become the marquee brand in Asia, and it has a lot to do with their active promotion of homegrown Asian talents.

Kevin Belingon is just one of the many world champions to come from the Philippines

Take the Philippines, for example. 

MMA’s popularity in the Philippines is thanks in large part to the UFC and the success of Filipino-American fighters such as Mark Muñoz.

But as the UFC has slowly shifted their focus away from Asia, ONE Championship has done well in taking over and taking Filipino MMA to a different level of popularity by giving homegrown talents an avenue to showcase their skills. 

Currently, the promotion has three homegrown Filipino world champions in Geje Eustaquio, Joshua Pacio, and Kevin Belingon. 

All three are part of the famed Benguet-based Team Lakay MMA stable, along with former champion Eduard Folayang, who is considered to be the face of Filipino MMA.
Considered the face of Philippine MMA, Eduard Folayang became a world champion in 2016, dethroning Japanese legend Shinya Aoki

Folayang has a chance to regain his world championship in Manila on November 23rd. 

Building homegrown champions like Folayang and the rest of Team Lakay is what ONE has put a premium on, and they have been able to do this not just in the Philippines, but in Singapore, in Thailand, in Malaysia, and in Myanmar among other places as well. 

This is also something that ONE Chairman and CEO Chatri Sityodtong has focused a great deal on. 

“The thing that makes ONE Championship different is that this is about martial arts, it’s about respect, it’s about honor, it’s about integrity, it’s about courage, it’s about discipline,” he said during a recent press conference in Singapore. “We want to build real-life superheroes.”

“Yes, the world wants to see the action, but what we really want to do is tell the stories of our athletes, their triumphs, their life stories, their failures, so that we can inspire the world,” he added. 

For ONE Championship Chairman and CEO Chatri Sityodtong, martial arts is also about building heroes

No doubt that the nature of the sport of MMA - the spectacle, the action, the excitement - are all contributing factors in making it as popular as it is now. 

Equally important however, is the stories and the personalities behind the sport, and ONE Championship has helped in finding heroes to root for. 

Because, really, what fun is watching a sport if you don’t have someone to root for?