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5 reasons why ONE Championship is beating the UFC in Asia

The UFC may be considered the leading mixed martial arts promotion in the West. However, ONE Championship has a stranglehold on the Asian MMA scene.


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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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?

Jake Nichols

Jake is RealSport's MMA editor. Based in South East Asia, Jake provides comprehensive coverage of ONE Championship while also sharing his thoughts on UFC and Bellator.

  • Juchi

    While I easily see One Championship dominating Asia, I see no reason why they can’t dominate the world as well with the proper marketing. I think the things they could do to make their format more appealing to the west would also help them dominate Asia even quicker. Here are five things they should consider. As I’m a huge fan of Angela Lee, I’ll occasionally use her as an example.

    1. Expand their efforts of bringing in the most recognized fighters in Asia and beyond. If a fighter is in the top 5 of an organization, make a play for them. Fighters they should target for Angela could include Weili Zhang, the Kunlun Fight MMA strawweight champ, Ayaka Hamasaki, Invicta FC’s atomweight champ and Jihn Yu Frey, their top contender; Mizuki Inoue, the Deep Jewels SW champ who constantly goes back and forth between Deep Jewels and Invicta FC; Mina Kurobe and Seo Hee Ham, recent AW champ at Road FC.

    2. Develop a roster for the different weight divisions and make it accessible on their website. ideally with bios for the fighters, so that the fans can become more familiar with them. Since a large part of the appeal of One Championship, especially in Asia, is the country identifying with the fighter, their website should allow a fan to search the rosters for fighters by their country. Some, like Angela, should be able to be searched by multiple countries, so that a search of Canada, U.S., Singapore or Korea would all turn her up.

    3. Make their weigh-ins the night before the fights public and make them a money making
    event. One Championsip has shown that they know how to throw an event.

    4. Maintain their policy of being with-in 10 pounds of the targeted weight the week-of the fight, but the night before, the fighter should make the industry wide recognized weight limits for the respective weight divisions. For example, Angela Lee should be no more than 115 the week of the fight, but have to make 105 at the official weigh-in the day before the fight. This should help their fighters gain broader recognition throughout the world by letting them participate in numerous ranking organizations and likely gain them more more endorsements without exposing them to extreme weight dropping risks. If Angela can’t safely make 105 the night before the fight, she should fight at 115 and leave 105 to true atomweights.

    5. Televise their events in the Western Hemisphere, satellite delayed. The increase in their advertising revenue should be substantial and they could probably gain many more sponsors both for themselves and their fighters.

    • Jake Nichols

      This is a brilliant comment – I appreciate the insight. Like you, I want ONE Championship to succeed globally and these are terrific ideas.

      • Juchi

        Thanks, Jake. I appreciate the feedback. Feel free to amend as you feel necessary and pass on to Chatri. It would probably have more impact coming from a writer than a fan.

      • Juchi

        One other suggestion that comes to mind, is that a number of the Asian organizations, and even Invicta FC, allow their fighters to compete in other organizations. I can see maintaining control of one’s own fighters by contract, but it would make the sport vastly more interesting if One allowed the champions of other organizations to challenge theirs, much like One is proposing for Angela to challenge JJ in the UFC (a very bad idea IMO at this stage of her career). I’ve always liked boxing’s concept of unifying the belts at any given weight.

  • Dimitar Marino

    What does their drug-testing look like? No disrespect to anyone in Asia, but we’ve all heard the stories over here about “fighting in Japan”.

    • Jake Nichols

      Good question. There isn’t much information out there regarding drug testing in the organization. Take that as you will.

  • Hessu

    lol

  • Gregory C Diaz

    You make many great points in this piece. However. One FC can only be viewed in the US with either a monthly ($20 )or yearly ($150 )” pro” subscription on flocombat.com. Also, I believe Bellator and UFC did not want to resign Ben Askren as they did not appreciate his “wrestling heavy” mma style despite potentially being the greatest welterweight on the planet. This is a very well thought out article. Thanks, I enjoyed it..

    • Jake Nichols

      Thanks Greg, appreciate your comments. I wasn’t aware of the FloCombat restrictions in the US – thanks for pointing that out.

      It’s incredible that they don’t enjoy his wrestling heavy style when he really is one of the more entertaining grappling-focused fighters out there right now. He inflicts non-stop damage. More so, he’s an incredible athlete and competitor as well. I would have loved to see him in the UFC.

5 reasons why ONE Championship is beating the UFC in Asia

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