Mixed Martial Arts Venture Has Big Plans for Asia

It was late on a Friday night in the Singapore Indoor Stadium. The 12,000 seats were full. The shouts in English, Mandarin and Malay were reverberating, and between sending Twitter messages from his cage-side chair, Victor Cui kept leaping to his feet in response to the takedowns, submissions and other codified mayhem transpiring at close range.

Cui, a velvet-voiced Canadian of Filipino and Chinese descent, is the would-be king of mixed martial arts in Asia: the founder and chief executive of One Fighting Championship.

He is also — believe it or not — the would-be king of Asian sport.

“I’ll make a really bold statement,” Cui said. “I believe in 10 years, mixed martial arts will be the most popular sport in Asia, ahead of soccer, ahead of everything.”

That is bold indeed, considering all the people in Asia huddled around their televisions and mobile devices for the latest from the English Premier League; bold in light of cricket’s enduring hold on South Asia; bold when some Asian nations switch television coverage from color to black and white when blood flows too freely in fights; bold when M.M.A. remains an unacquired taste in the two most populous nations in the world: China and India.

But Cui, no longer a sports marketing maven in search of a muse, has done his due diligence, recruited wealthy backers, including the Singapore Economic Development Board, and uncovered what he says is the chance of a lifetime.

“When I first crunched the numbers, I thought, ‘I have it wrong; I made a mistake,”’ Cui said.

Mixed martial arts pits fighters against each other, and unlike, say, boxing, competitors are allowed to use both their arms and legs to strike. They often mix different martial arts or fighting styles, instead of concentrating on just one.

One F.C., based in Singapore since its inception in 2011, has quickly grown into a major regional player with its predominantly Asian roster of fighters and consensual approach.

Japan was the trailblazer in Asian M.M.A. with Pride Fighting Championship, which drew huge crowds of about 90,000 for some of its events in Japan in the 2000s.

“It’s been done country by country,” Cui said. “Pride and Dream in Japan were huge, but that was really Japanese-focused.” One F.C.’s approach is pan-Asian: what Cui calls a Champions League approach to M.M.A., referring to the European soccer competition Last year, the One F.C. signed a 10-year agreement for undisclosed terms with a broadcaster in Asia, ESPN-Star Sports, now Fox Star Sports. On April 5, with Cui hopping in and out of his chair in Singapore, the network broadcast a One F.C. event live for the first time, reaching 28 countries in Asia and about 70 worldwide.

The card was heavy on east-west duels: like the bantamweight Masakatsu Ueda of Japan versus the aging American Jens Pulver. But it ended with Shinya Aoki manhandling his Japanese compatriot Kotetsu Boku in the main event: a lightweight championship fight.

Cui said the possibility of a live, pan-Asian broadcast had influenced his decision to shift One F.C. events from Saturday to Friday: a night when, as the time zones would have it, there is a dearth of live sports events available in much of Asia.

“No Formula One, no E.P.L.,” he said, referring to the English Premier League, “there is occasionally tennis when you have Australian Open, but generally Friday is dead, the complete opposite of North America and most of the other parts of the world.”

In all, Cui said One F.C. has 12 events scheduled this year in six Asian countries, and Cui has announced plans to stage 24 events in 2014. One potential venue is the soon-to-be-completed 55,000-seat National Stadium in Singapore. Cui also has expressed a longer-range desire to move into the Middle East, including Turkey.


Other competitors

One F.C. is — unsurprisingly — not alone.

Other M.M.A. promotions are also organizing events in Asia, including Legend Fighting Championship in Hong Kong. Then there is the global leader, Ultimate Fighting Championship, or U.F.C., the engine of the sport’s rapid development over the past decade with its deep roster and its seven-year television contract with Fox Sports Media Group worth a reported $700 million.

U.F.C. is based in the United States but has had an office in Beijing since 2010.

“I think the sky’s the limit for the U.F.C. in Asia and, by extension, the sport of mixed martial arts,” Mark Fischer, U.F.C.’s managing director for Asia, said by telephone from Beijing. “It’s very new here, and in some markets still quite niche, but the growth so far has really been outstanding. Since we set up here about two and a half years ago, we’ve seen M.M.A. gyms popping up everywhere in all the major cities across Asia. We’ve seen a couple of smaller promotions pop up like One F.C. and Legend, and our own viewership has grown exponentially.”

And yet U.F.C. action on the ground in Asia has been nonexistent until recently. It has staged three events in the region, but two of those were in Japan and Macau in the last six months. And U.F.C. has tentative plans to add stops in Jakarta, Manila, Seoul and Singapore and perhaps other Asian cities in the next year.

Before joining U.F.C., Fischer worked in Asia for 20 years, spending 12 of those with the National Basketball Association, where he was responsible for growing the N.B.A.’s business in the Asia-Pacific region, with a heavy emphasis on China.

Fischer said market surveys showed that awareness of the U.F.C. among adults in major Chinese cities had increased to 60 percent from 25 percent in the last three years. He said the percentage was significantly higher in the U.F.C.’s target demographic of 18- to 35-year-olds and that the U.F.C.’s weekly television program in China was averaging 20 million viewers.

“Believe it or not, that is still somewhat niche for China,” Fischer said. “But that’s up from almost nothing when we started. We’ve built a large provincial network of broadcasters in China that are carrying U.F.C. on a regular basis.”

But Fischer said the timing was still not right to stage a full-fledged U.F.C. event in mainland China.

“We could go in tomorrow and hold an event in mainland China,” Fischer said. “But we look at it like a rocket ship. We are building up the compression phase and looking really for a mass audience.”

Developing Chinese fighters is part of the compression phase. But for now, the mass audience is reserved for other sports in Asia: soccer, Formula One and, in certain markets, cricket and tennis.

“We are at less than one percent market penetration of our sport,” Cui said.

But the shape of the growth curve has Cui and others excited, including his fighters.

“One F.C. was live throughout every country in Asia, and that’s within two years, man,” said Eddie Ng, a fighter who was born and raised in Britain but represents Hong Kong. “The U.F.C. came about in 1993. One F.C. has been around less than two years. The growth that One F.C. is going to experience in 20 years, I can’t imagine. It will be crazy. There are just so many potential fans here.”


Tapping into history

Though the commentary can veer toward breathless, the arguments in favor of M.M.A.’s continued momentum are hardly without their charms.

Asia has a rich and ancient history in martial arts, but the landscape is fragmented with different disciplines dominant in different nations.

“Asia has been the home of martial arts for 5,000 years, and there are movie heroes like Bruce Lee, Jet Li and Jackie Chan, but there’s no real-life hero,” said Chatri Sityodtong, a former hedge fund manager and Harvard Business School graduate who recently founded the Asian martial arts academy Evolve M.M.A. in Singapore.

“No one has tried to commercialize real-life martial arts, but you have all of these world champions in all these different disciplines because there are martial arts in every country,” Sityodtong said. “Japan has karate, aikido, judo. Korea has taekwondo. Thailand has muay Thai. The Philippines has boxing, and you have silat from Malaysia and Indonesia. This is homegrown stuff.”

M.M.A. gives these homegrown figures the chance to play off (and beat up on) each other and, in theory, reach a wider Asian audience, even if Sityodtong, a former professional muay Thai fighter, acknowledges that, in practice, recruiting crossover stars is a challenge.

“We’re only in the first inning, so yes, it’s hard to recruit a guy who is only doing muay Thai, because he’s not exposed to anything else,” said Sityodtong, whose Evolve fighters, like Aoki, are some of One F.C.’s key figures. “But the media platform of One F.C. is already much bigger than any media platform for muay Thai. Muay Thai is shown in Thailand and only Thailand. So once a fighter realizes that ‘I can represent my country and make a lot more money doing so and bring glory and honor to my country,’ it will almost be like a mini-Olympics.”

Asian sport is also short on pan-Asian superstars, with much of the media focus on excellence abroad in the form of the Premier League or the N.B.A.

M.M.A. presents an opportunity — with all the world-class talent already at work in the martial arts — to generate Asian stars. Sityodtong also says it presents an opportunity to tap in an elemental way into the region’s many traditional geopolitical rivalries.

“Japan vs. China; India vs. Pakistan; Korea vs. Japan; Malaysia vs. Singapore,” Sityodtong said.

Cui said M.M.A. checks off four boxes vital for success in Asia: the ability to generate “national heroes,” the transcendence of language barriers, a compelling television product and cultural relevance.

“Asians see martial arts all the time, so the cultural gap is really, really small to make a leap,” he said. “I love ice hockey, and I miss it with all my heart. I brought all my gear here and it’s all molded, because I haven’t been able to play. For me to teach everybody about hockey, people have never even seen ice, let alone follow a puck. But M.M.A., O.K., I get it. I’m going to put the best martial artist in taekwondo versus the best in kung fu.”

While U.F.C. officials thinks globally, Cui’s thinking is relentlessly regional, focused on the approximately two billion people who live in East and Southeast Asia.

Cui, a black belt in taekwondo, has started what he calls the One F.C. Network, cooperating with gyms and smaller M.M.A. promotions in countries like the Philippines and Malaysia so that One F.C. has access to their fighters for its events while preserving their national competitions.


A crowded market

The question is how big One F.C. can grow in the face of rising competition and with the U.F.C. intent on increasing its Asian market share but uninterested for now, with its global commitments, in staging more than a few events each year in the region.

Fischer said he did not view One F.C. as a competitor but as a minor league helping to grow interest in the sport as a whole. The talent gap is abundantly clear even if Aoki and the Brazilian fighter Bibiano Fernandes have turned down U.F.C. contracts for lucrative deals and early access to a new market with One F.C.

But Cui and his friend Sityodtong, whose lives have been all about navigating between North America and Asia, are both quick to make the same analogies to other east-west business rivalries.

“U.F.C. is biggest in the west; One F.C. biggest in the east,” Cui said. “It’s a theme that is played out in almost every major industry. Apple vs. Samsung. YouTube vs. Youku. Twitter vs. Weibo. Amazon vs. Alibaba.”