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How ONE Championship took on MMA giant UFC in Asia – and won

In a battle of mixed martial arts dominance in Asia, David takes on Goliath.

Victor Cui’s cellphone buzzes. He is speaking at a seminar in Bangkok and does not answer it. Try calling Cui any time during a given week and chances are the 45-year-old is anywhere in the world, but home.

He has been travelling quite a bit since launching ONE Championship (previously ONE FC) in Singapore with business partner Chatri Sityodtong in 2011, but the frequency has increased these days – it comes from running Asia’s foremost mixed martial arts (MMA) enterprise. And it has been a phenomenal story that vindicates both men. In starting ONE, they set up a clash with the world’s biggest and richest MMA property, Las Vegas-based Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), which had its eye on expanding in Asia.


“When we go to each country, it’s about reconnecting people with their roots because martial arts is engrained in the DNA of Asians.”

– Victor Cui, ONE Championship


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But the American giant, which had established regional headquarters in Beijing a year earlier, shrugged off the sudden emergence of ONE. In interviews, executives made light of its rival’s shows, and saw ONE as preparing Asian audiences for UFC’s fight cards. To drive home the point that UFC’s events were of unequalled pedigree, they even declined interviews where ONE and its shows might be narrated alongside theirs.

As things turned out, ONE has surged ahead with a whopping 54 shows and its footprint today extends the length and breadth of Asia, with a solid hold on China. The franchise’s most significant moment came last May when it held a fight card in Thailand, which was previously resistant to MMA competing with the indigenous muay thai on its home soil.

In the interim, UFC, founded in 1993, struggled. After moving its regional headquarters from Beijing to Singapore in 2013, the American company suffered an exodus of top executives, including managing director Mark Fischer. A head start in Asia with three events in Japan between 1997 and 2000 was of no help. It has been able to stage only 11 shows, since returning to the continent fi ve years ago. So where did the Singapore-based company get it right and UFC didn’t?

TALE OF THE TAPE

Cui never fails to remind interlocutors – even if they are hearing it for the umpteenth time – that “Asia is the birthplace of martial arts” and ONE is at the heart of it. He sheds some light on the David versus Goliath state of play so far. “UFC has done amazingly well in America,” he tells The Peak. “I have massive respect for them. But they approach Asia in a pure sports manner. In ONE Championship, we present it with a martial arts perspective. When we go to each country, it’s about reconnecting people with their roots because martial arts is engrained in the DNA of Asians.”

  • Ben Askren
    ON THE ROSTER Ben Askren (right), a US Olympian and one of the world’s best MMA fighters, currently competes for ONE Championship.

Martial arts, including its guise as MMA that traces its roots to legendary jeet kune do exponent Bruce Lee, is about discipline and honouring an ancient tradition dating back 5,000 years, adds Cui. The founders of the various forms – from China’s gongfu and Japan’s karate, akido and judo, to taekwondo in Korea and muay thai – would agree with him and point out that the object is to also build character.

“I always tell everyone that martial arts is one of the greatest platforms to unleash human potential,” explains the Canadian of Filipino descent. “I genuinely believe that, because through martial arts, we inherit discipline, courage, confidence, mental strength, a warrior spirit, a desire for continuous self-improvement, humility and integrity. All these values are very important for success in life and the business world.”

BY THE NUMBERS

Last December, Forbes rated ONE as the top MMA promoter in Asia, with broadcast penetration in over a billion homes in more than 100 countries across the globe.

But UFC is not giving up the battle for Asia just yet. After a two-year absence, it is launching a comeback next month with its second fight card in Singapore. Talking to the media in February, the company’s senior vice-president and head of International and Content, Joe Carr, conceded UFC had made “a few missteps in its past dealings with Asia”.

Glaring was its sub-par fight cards in its first foray in Asia (outside of Japan) in Macau in 2012 and again two years later, when they also had an inaugural show in Singapore.

“The last thing I want to do is bring a B- or C-level product, which honestly I think happened in 2014 with the events we staged in Macau, and Singapore,” he told the South China Morning Post. “It just wasn’t reflective of who we are as a brand.”

  • UFC at Marina Bay Sands Expo and Convention Centre
    PROMISING START UFC’s first outing in Singapore three years ago drew a packed crowd at the Marina Bay Sands Expo and Convention Centre.

The other, Carr claims, is the lack of top local talent that met UFC’s standards during its Asian tour. He pins this down to the American franchise’s inability to penetrate China beyond Macau.

“The (China) market is quite fragmented and scattered in terms of promotional rules, and the MMA sport itself is so new there. Talent is not quite at the UFC level yet, so we are looking at how to really build it up in the market,” he told Marketing magazine. Yet, the country has embraced ONE, so much so Cui had to relocate to Shanghai from Singapore in December. Since late 2014, the Asian MMA powerhouse has also performed to packed crowds in six major Chinese cities, including Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and, yes, Macau, too. Cui has scheduled five events in the country for this year.

“We also have the largest roster of 72 Chinese MMA fighters in the world, competing at a high level on a global stage,” he adds. With UFC trying to play catch-up, Cui is plotting to lock up Asia to secure ONE’s ground and pole position.

He says: “I can say we are not done yet because ONE is looking to venture into countries like Japan, South Korea, India. It is our vision to unify four billion people in Asia behind one sports league and celebrate the true beauty of martial arts.”

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