Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) announced in July that they would be attempting to break into the Chinese market by hosting their first-ever event in mainland China. When Anderson Silva vs Kelvin Gastelum was announced as the headline event of UFC Fight Night 122 in Shanghai, it quickly became apparent that the UFC is going all-out in their attempts to capture the attention of local fans.
Michael Ma, CEO of WME | IMG China commented:
MMA is developing rapidly in China and amassing a large fan base; this is an exciting first step to making the sport a mainstay here.
Michael Ma and the UFC are correct in their assessment; mixed martial arts is growing incredibly fast across all of Asia, but it’s not just in China.
ONE Championship, Asia’s leading MMA organization, has been showcasing their party-like atmosphere, high-quality production and a list of talented world-class fighters all across Asia for over six years now. Led by chairman and CEO, Chatri Sityodtong, ONE Championship’s objective is to “unite the 4.4 billion people in Asia and to celebrate our continent’s greatest cultural treasure together in harmony.”
In the blindspot
At the UFC's post-fight press conference in Singapore, when asked how the UFC views ONE Championship, a UFC official commented:
I don't really see it (ONE Championship) as competition. We'll continue to do our thing. We pride ourselves on having the best fighters in the world and being at the top of the MMA market. I think, going forward, they'll continue to develop fighters at the grassroots level, and hopefully, at some point, those local fighters can migrate and be successful at the UFC level.
Whether it be due to plain ignorance or sheer lack of understanding, the UFC believe that they can dump their existing model anywhere in the world and succeed.
That's how this sport works almost everywhere else in the world; you have your local development leagues that have events on a regular basis, and the UFC has the benefit of coming in once a year, or once every other year with a big show, and we can still be successful as well.
With this approach, the UFC should be successful in Asia; but they won't be #1. They'll always be sitting underneath ONE Championship, who have an Eddie Bravo-like lockdown on the Asian market.
ONE Championship is growing with supersonic speed and one thing is for sure; the organization is still only just beginning on their quest of unifying Asia with martial arts.
Here are five reasons why ONE Championship has a stranglehold on MMA in Asia:
1 ONE Championship puts the sport first
The UFC, more so now under WME | IMG, continue to focus more and more on the 'sports entertainment' aspect of fight promotion and would seemingly rather promote controversy, arrogance, and trash-talking in the build-up to a fight.
Chairman and CEO of ONE Championship, Chatri Sityodtong, best explains the UFC's approach to marketing:
UFC has a great marketing strategy that works for America -- blood, violence, disrespect, anger, controversy, hatred among fighters, showcasing pure fighting.
This scheme influences the fighters at a personal level, as well.
At the UFC Athlete Retreat in May, UFC competitors were outraged when a drunken Budweiser representative took the stage and told them all to "be like Conor McGregor". While the rise of "The Notorious" Conor McGregor has brought in an unthinkable amount of money for the UFC; this is an individual case and fighters should really be able to feel comfortable being themselves. However, the UFC seemingly lack the interest or skills required to tell a "real" story and instead resort to cheap promotional tactics in order to sell fights.
Alternatively, ONE Championship successfully promotes genuine, down-to-earth, likable athletes who have often overcome significant obstacles in their life to get to the largest stage in Asian MMA. When undefeated prospect Agilan Thani challenged Ben Askren for the ONE Welterweight World Championship at ONE: Dynasty of Heroes in May, the promotion was entirely centered around Agilan Thani's inspiring pathway to the top.
Heralded as a role model for Malaysia's youth, I saw the impact first-hand at ONE: Quest for Greatness in Kuala Lumpur on August 18. The thousands of screaming Malaysian fans in attendance showed deafening support for the inspirational 22-year-old, and I was frankly amazed at how much star power and respect that ONE Championship had generated for Agilan Thani.
There's a stark contrast between the way these two organizations promote their athletes. With respect for the courage, humility, strength, discipline, and honor that make today's mixed martial artists, ONE Championship shows us the best of these traits.
Chatri Sityodtong explains:
We (ONE Championship) are massively different. Martial arts is about courage, integrity, honor, and respect.
It seems as though once a fighter makes it in the UFC, these characteristics need to take a backseat. Fighters are now entering the seemingly inevitable self-promotion phase so that they can stand out from a flooded pack of fighters who are all trying to be the next Conor McGregor.
2 ONE Championship are signing the right talent
This is where it all comes crashing down for the UFC in the Asian market. If ONE Championship can highlight local talent faster than the UFC, and they definitely can, the UFC will continue to miss out on rising stars. Now, with a mix of local and overseas talent, ONE Championship continues to heavily promote their champions such as Angela Lee, Ben Askren and newly crowned Martin Nguyen. Given the success and popularity of these fighters, it wouldn't even make sense for one of these fighters to transition across to the UFC given the current attention that they receive from Asian MMA fans.
Ben Askren chose ONE Championship over offers from the UFC, WSOF and an opportunity to re-sign with Bellator. The salary was higher and the lifestyle suited him more. If Ben Askren, who is arguably one of the best welterweights in the world, chose ONE Championship over the other organizations, don't be surprised when more and more fighters choose to stay or sign with ONE Championship.
ONE Championship also makes an effort to sign humble and respectful mixed martial artists - aligning with the earlier comment of how they promote courage, humility, strength, discipline, and honor. The UFC really has limited regard for these characteristics and are known to willingly sign previous users of performance enhancing drugs and crime. It works for the UFC, though, because the North American market embraces all of this behavior. The Asian market, however, doesn't follow suit.
When Colby Covington brought his trash-talking and maniac ways to Singapore in a bout with Dong Hyun Kim at UFC Fight Night 111, it marked one of the more memorable moments of the entire event. Not because it was effective or entertaining, but rather that his acts came across as blatantly disrespectful to the fans in attendance and Dong Hyun Kim was never interested in retaliating. Covington, who is stuck inside the UFC's marketing wheel, seemed to believe that trash-talking would generate more enthusiasm, but in the end, it generated silence and lack of interest.
3 ONE Championship is (and feels) local
ONE Championship doesn't spin the same wheel and over and over in a number of different countries while expecting the same results.
Their knowledge of the Asian market means that they can build events from the bottom-up that are specifically designed for the hosting country. With a multitude of local fighters to choose from and an organization that promotes the best aspects of every fighter, local heroes rise to the occasion and fans are inspired to cheer them on.
The UFC, being such a large enterprise, are unable to do this as efficiently as ONE Championship can. The UFC struggle to feature fighters in their own resident hometowns, let alone feature prominent fighters in their home country. We've seen the success of Stipe Miocic in Cleveland; it just proves that featuring homegrown athletes right there in front of local fans works.
4 Locking down Singapore and China
ONE Championship is beating UFC to the punch in two of the fastest-growing MMA-focused areas in Asia; Singapore and China.
When the UFC brought their roster to Singapore earlier this year, it came just three weeks after ONE Championship had packed Singapore Indoor Stadium with fans. ONE Championship featured arguably their two biggest stars in Angela Lee and Ben Askren for an event that showcased two championship bouts. Singaporean's Amir Khan and Tiffany Teo picked up impressive wins while the event featured the first-ever 'Grappling Super Match' between Garry Tonon and Shinya Aoki.
When the UFC arrived, unfortunately, the fans were greeted with mostly uneventful fights and an event that lacked any real noteworthy moments until Holly Holm brutally KO’ed Bethe Correia in round three. Part of the problem for the UFC was that there was no significant connection between the fans and the athletes in Singapore. While Khan and Teo had the support of Singaporean fans, Angela Lee is also a local fan-favorite considering that she lives and trains at Evolve MMA in Singapore.
When the UFC arrives in Shanghai, China later this year for UFC Fight Night 122, it will be interesting to see the contrast between the ONE Championship events and the UFC's debut in mainland China.
ONE Championship recently saw Ben Askren defend his title against Swedish Zebaztian Kadestam in Shanghai on September 2. Later this year, the promotion will return to the area with events in Beijing on October 21 and Shenzhen on December 23 to close out the year.
5 Digital first
It feels like I'm saying this five (or even ten) years too late, but digital is the area that these large MMA organizations should be focusing on.
The UFC's insistence on streaming through Fight Pass has caused plenty of trouble for fans lately (just look at the Mayweather vs McGregor incident). The organization has also created a 'paywall' to watch their broadcasts and fans require a Fight Pass subscription in order to watch live events through their streaming service.
ONE Championship streams their prelims through Facebook - which seems well ahead of the times. Not only does it generate interest with plenty of casual fans that might not have normally been exposed to the promotion, but it aligns with their earlier mentioned objective of "uniting the 4.4 billion people in Asia and to celebrate our continent’s greatest cultural treasure together in harmony." By removing a paywall for almost half of their scheduled bouts, fans can tune in from anywhere in the world and enjoy ONE Championship action. Furthermore, if you want to purchase the PPV, you can do so easily through their streaming service at a cost of just $9.99 USD.
ONE Championship's rise is also partly due to their social media succes and online strategy. Over the last year alone, ONE Championship has seen a 58% increase in total fans, nearly five times as many video views (299 million), and three times as many social media shares (746,000). Data released by the organization also shows that ONE Championship is projected for a total of 4.8 billion social media impressions by the end of the year.
Unlike UFC, ONE Championship doesn't just exist in the Asian MMA scene; they ARE the Asian MMA scene.
One of the many photos I took at ONE Championship: Quest for Greatness!
Want to share your opinion? Why not Write For Us?