For the mixed martial arts (MMA) scene in Asia, there is only ONE. While the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) has long reigned as the premier MMA promotion in the west, to the east, ONE Championship has taken that market by storm.
Since its inauguration in 2011, Victor Cui, the CEO and owner of ONE, has moulded a sporting and entertainment powerhouse. It’s a brand, at least in combat sport circles, that is regarded as one of a kind, both inside and outside of the cage.
Take for example their revolutionary weigh-in system. At the start of the year, ONE implemented an outright ban on weight-cutting by dehydration. The move came on the back of the tragic death of their 21-year-old Chinese prospect Yang Jian Bing last December as he was cutting weight.
His passing rocked the MMA world to its core. Bing was not the first fighter to pass away while cutting weight but cases are extremely rare. What isn’t rare, is fighters being hospitilised and not being able to fight because of the problems stemming from cutting weight. It is arguably the biggest problem in the sport and with tragedy on their hands, ONE recognised this.
A group, including company doctors, officials, as well as veterans of the sport who have seen it all, ONE vice presidents Rich Franklin and Matt Hume, came up with a solution built around constant weigh-ins of all contracted fighters to determine their best hydrated weight to fight at. It’s the first of its kind in all of combat sports and it’s one that VP and former UFC middleweight champion Franklin believes will be adopted elsewhere.
“Once this system becomes tested and proven, I would imagine that other organisations will start to look at doing it,” he tells Sport360. “When Matt (Hume) and I, sat down the team to write the new rules we did research on the affects of hydration on the body. Now, as a fighter I would step on the scale 25-30 hours before stepping in the cage to fight but even with that period to re-hydrate you’re not going to re-hydrate to the level you need to.
“One of the things that re-hydrates last in the body is the fluid around your brain, so even a dehydrated athlete that re-hydrates, their brain is more susceptible to concussions than a fighter who is hydrated properly.”
He adds: “It’s not the only thing that makes our product unique, though. We don’t use the 10-point MUST system or judge on a round-by-round basis, the fight is judged in its entirety so the whole system from start to finish is different from everybody else. That’s what makes our product more authentic and more exciting.”
Indeed, ONE is certainly unique but not just in regards to the fighting itself. Very few organisations commit to the entertainment side of the business quite in the way they do. Music concerts, pyrotechnics and extravagant lighting shows populate their events to form a connection with their audience. It’s part of the reason why they’re filling the biggest stadiums in Asia, dominating that market with a 90 per cent share and are attracting blue chip sponsors such as LG, Canon and Panasonic.
Potentially, they are set to reach a new level with the announcement last week of a collaboration with Universal Music Group. In theory, the marriage between the two will see blockbuster concert performances by UMG artists as part of ONE’s live events.
And not just any artists, either. The music giant’s roster currently includes Adele, Rihanna, Maroon 5, Taylor Swift, Justin Bieber, Katy Perry, Lady Gaga, Kanye West and Metallica. With plans to expand into major cities across Asia, including new markets such as Mumbai, Tokyo, Seoul, Hong Kong and Macau, the collaboration could elevate the promotion onto a level similar to that of the UFC.
Now, MMA doesn’t enjoy the same level of popularity in Asia but ONE is still one of the most prominent and influential players in sport, in the region.
“The way we look at is that we beat to our own drum, we’re only really competing against ourselves,” says PR senior director Loren Mack. “In the western world once you get Las Vegas on board and the Nevada state commission it becomes a domino effect.
“For us, we’re in Singapore and then going to the Philippines it’s not the same analogy. Often times when you’re talking about doing business in Asia, it gets clumped into one thing but essentially what we’ve been able to build is so much more difficult than what happened in the western world leading up to where the UFC is now.
“That’s why when we talk about going into new markets, it’s not like going into three new states, each of these markets they have their culture nuances and different legal regulations and that’s a very tricky course to navigate.”
Despite these challenges, ONE Championship is thriving, using a potential TV audience of one billion viewers – thanks in part to a new deal with the largest TV broadcaster in the Philipines, ABS-CBN – to propel itself alongside the UFC.
“You’ve got UFC in the West, ONE Championship as biggest in the East,” Cui said. “You see the storyline of East versus West play out in almost every industry you can think of, from Apple versus Samsung, YouTube versus Youku, Twitter versus Weibo, Facebook versus Renren.”
It’s apt then that ONE’s next event on May 6 in Singapore is billed as ‘Ascent to Power’ because they are achieving success in regions other promotions that have been around a lot longer just haven’t been able to do. But they still have plenty of room to grow.
Essential to that development is the fighters themselves. There is a mixture of local talent and global imports that marry perfectly.
American talent like welterweight champion Ben Askren, arguably the best fighter outside of the UFC, is meshed with younger Asian fighters such as 19-year-old sensation Angela Lee (video above), who will fight on that May 6 card for the company’s first ever strawweight women’s title.
There is an emphasis on creating local heroes and using those personalities to break into new markets. Dejdamrong Sor Amnuaysirichoke, the current strawweight champ and decorated Muay-Thai fighter, will headline their first ever event in Bangkok on May 27.
He is one of the biggest combat stars in the region and will open up a thrilling new market. And this is a similar strategy ONE hope to emulate in the Middle East. Their first and only forage into the UAE market came in 2014 at ‘Reign of Champions’ but there is a desire to return to the region.
“We’ve just scratched the surface here. When we do come back here, we’ll be entrenched in this market,” adds Franklin. “We want to do at least two shows here a year and I think Dubai is a region that could handle more than that because it is a destination internationally. We see this region as a hub and we see Dubai being a hub for ONE Championship.”
McGregor was slated to take on Nate Diaz in a rematch of the original fight that saw the latter choke the Irishman into submission before the fall-out that sent tongues wagging the world over.
A bitter row ensued between McGregor and the UFC, combining a retirement from the fighter and president Dana White saying that he had been pulled from UFC 200 after refusing to adhere to promotional responsibilities.
It’s all been very dramatic, as you can see here…
One single tweet from the 27-year-old created mass hysteria and threw into doubt his future as an MMA fighter.
While at a training camp in Iceland, he thanked fans “for the cheese” and said it was over-and-out for the featherweight champion.
I have decided to retire young.— Conor McGregor (@TheNotoriousMMA) April 19, 2016
Thanks for the cheese.
Catch ya's later.
FIGHTERS LOSE THEIR MINDS, DON’T BELIEVE THE HYPE
A mixture of shock, outrage and genuine disbelief ensued after the 160,000 or so retweets, causing the mixed martial arts world to share their thoughts on McGregor’s announcement.
Largely, the responses called it a load of hot air as they too took to Twitter to have their say on matters.
His intended opponent Diaz was one of the most prominent voices in reply.
I guess my work here is done I'm retiring too✌?️??— Nathan Diaz (@NateDiaz209) April 19, 2016
THE WHITE RESPONSE
In the UFC there is essentially one man that calls the shots and that man is White.
He was obviously furious with McGregor’s comments and made his feelings very clear on the matter.
Essentially, White said McGregor had been pulled, he has commitments to keep and regardless of McGregor’s future the show goes on.
Just two days passed in between McGregor’s retirement and the announcement that he was in fact not hanging up his gloves.
Still in Iceland for that training camp, McGregor released a statement in full, gory detail about his future in the UFC and the money he has made them ($400m in eight months according to him).
He outlined how promotional work was hindering his performance in the octagon and that he needed a break.
Ok no more games.— Conor McGregor (@TheNotoriousMMA) April 21, 2016
I am going to release a statement shortly.
THE ELEPHANT NOT IN THE ROOM
And so came the day for the UFC 200 press conference and in among all the fighters slated to be on that card was one gaping empty seat.
That of McGregor’s remained vacant and White faced fans and media desperate for more on McGregor and his retirement.
It all led to Diaz stating that if McGregor wasn’t involved, he’d take a holiday.
McGregor was also tweeting that day…
Everyone flew in. Respect.— Conor McGregor (@TheNotoriousMMA) April 22, 2016
But not everyone up there made the company 400million in 8 months.
THE PRODIGAL SON RETURNS?
Just days following that press conference passed with some semblance of quiet before BOOM, McGregor unleashed a bombshell.
Once again taking to his Twitter account, he went on to say that he was in fact fighting on UFC 200 and offered his thanks to White for making it happen…
WHITE SHUTS DOWN UFC 200 TWEET
In reply to McGregor’s tweet claiming to be back in for UFC 200, White spoke to the Los Angeles Times and then TMZ to reiterate that McGregor was in fact OUT.
It’s been a dizzying few days of toing and froing but it looks like White is adamant that McGregor will not be at the company’s night of celebration.
For all the talk of not doing promotion, McGregor has actually served to give the whole event more publicity than ever.
Ah, the irony…
Clear as mud, right?
Anyway, what are your thoughts on the whole incident and do you think McGregor will fight at UFC 200?
**This article first appeared on April 25 and was updated April 26 with the latest developments**
Featherweight champion McGregor had stunned the mixed martial arts world last week by announcing his “retirement” before later backtracking.
The UFC responded by removing the 27-year-old from the billing for his July 9 fight with Diaz on the UFC 200 card in Las Vegas.
However McGregor insisted in a tweet on Monday that he was back on the card and looking forward to fighting.
But in an interview with the TMZ sports website, White said he was baffled by McGregor’s announcement.
“It’s not true. We haven’t talked to Conor or his manager since the press conference. I don’t know why he would tweet that,” he said.
White added: “All the media keeps asking me that. I feel like the scene in ‘Step Brothers’ when they ask if they can build the bunk beds. I don’t know how many more times I can say the fight is off or how many more press conferences I can have saying the fight is off for people to believe it’s off.”