Last year the mixed martial arts scene in Hong Kong was thriving, as it was in the US. Shows from multiple organisations were held every other month locally and in Macau. Hongkongers were jumping on the bandwagon, with martial arts gyms offering classes for men, women and children of all ages. Then, scandal hit. In October last year, Damien Roche, director of the Kontact MMA Training Centre in Central, and promoter of an MMA event set to take place at Macau's City of Dreams that month, fled town. He had allegedly embezzled most of the event's funding, reportedly HK$13 million. Fighters who had flown in from overseas to join the multimillion-dollar event were left stranded in Hong Kong with no pay and plenty of questions. Michael Haskamp - who had been organising a rival event, the Legend Fighting Championship series - thought the scandal would deal a death blow to the growth of the MMA scene in the city. He's glad he was wrong. The sixth edition of Legend took place on Sunday at the City of Dreams, following the success of Legend FC 5 in July. Haskamp says the partnership with the venue has benefited both sides, with the location boosting the credibility and legitimacy of both the sport and the series. MMA, a free-flowing combat sport that combines elements from martial arts and wrestling, is arguably the fastest growing sport in the world. In the US, it has gone from an obscure subculture in the mid-1990s to a form of mainstream entertainment - and fitness workout - in a little over a decade. It is close to replacing boxing as the world's most popular combat sport. Haskamp says MMA combines multiple elements of a workout. 'For a while, there was a stigma that MMA was just some violent sport. But people are realising it can be a fitness exercise, too,' he says. 'It helps strength, endurance, stamina, and it's a great social sport, too.' Michelle Kang, manager at Impakt Academy of Mixed Martial Arts in Central, says business for MMA classes has picked up over the past couple of years. 'Now, most men are interested in at least trying out a class,' she says. Impakt has roughly 20 clients taking exclusive one-on-one MMA classes, plus those who take group classes. More women are also joining in, according to the trainers, mainly because it's great for weight loss and muscle toning. Lauren Wong Suk-yee, 25, a dancer, combines yoga and MMA to strengthen her body. 'I used to be very weak, always getting sick and spraining and straining my legs if I danced or walked too much,' she says. 'MMA has really helped. It works the muscles that most people don't even know they have.' Most people do the sport to get a good workout, says Impakt lead trainer Alain Ngalani. 'I understand not everyone is going to be a professional fighter,' says the hulking Cameroonian-born fighter who's represented Hong Kong in muay Thai tournaments. 'They're learning because they want to get fit, and MMA training is really one of the best sports around for general fitness.' Liu Wenbo, the two-time youth boxing champion of China, who headlined Legend this past weekend, shed 10kg of fat in about six weeks. He says he could never drop weight during his boxing days, but MMA's unique combination of grappling, striking and footwork did the trick. Half the training is dedicated to conditioning and cardio, says Kenny Yeung King-ho, Hong Kong's first MMA fighter. 'People used to think it was barbaric sport. But we only spar half the time in training. The rest is about fitness and getting our bodies in shape,' he says. Ngalani, who claims nearly half of his students are women and teenagers, says: '[MMA] is not dangerous if you're just training, and training properly.' The success of the sport locally was something former banker Haskamp, 33, had always envisaged. He started Legend in 2009 with Chris Pollak, a former classmate at Columbia Business School. The pair noticed Hong Kong was lacking an MMA scene. 'Hong Kong, thanks to Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan and their movies, is arguably the capital of martial arts,' he says. That's why, to him, the absence of MMA in the city 'didn't make sense'. Since Legend started, Haskamp has seen a local scene that once featured mostly foreign fighters blossom into a local affair. This past weekend, Vincent Siu Chi-tung became the third Hong Kong fighter to participate in an MMA event. Siu, 30, a trainer at Impakt who has been practising karate for nearly a decade, took up MMA recently because he says it is the future of combat sports. 'There are more variations and styles,' he says. By all accounts, the sport still has a long way to go in Hong Kong before it achieves the mainstream acceptance it has in the US and Europe. But it's getting there. 'You know who was a pioneer of MMA? Bruce Lee. He started out with wing chun, then he created a style which was a mixture of many different elements, which took the best bits of each art and blended them into one,' Haskamp says. 'That's what MMA is. It's had a Hong Kong heart from the beginning.' Fight clubs Impakt Central, tel: 2167 7218 www.impakt.hk Hong Kong's largest dedicated MMA gym also offers training in Brazilian jujitsu, kyokushin karate, muay Thai and other forms. All-access membership costs HK$1,000 a month, though private lessons cost extra. JAB MMA Central, tel: 2851 6684, www.jabmma.com JAB offers training of all levels for MMA, jujitsu, boxing and kickboxing. It started a children's MMA course this summer. Monthly membership starts at HK$1,000, and personal training starts at HK$300 per session. Triquest MMA+Fitness Academy Tsim Sha Tsui, tel: 8201 2822, www.triquest-mma.com Besides the usual training, it offers krav maga, the official self-defence regimen used by Israeli forces. It focuses on personalised workouts, with an emphasis on fitness. Annual membership is HK$500, with additional costs for classes.