Time is ripe as UFC comes to China for the first time with all guns blazing
The organisation has been taking the world by storm and finally hits the mainland with a sold-out 12-bout fightcard in Shanghai on Saturday
The Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) has arrived for its debut event in mainland China as the nation takes the sport to its heart and the sport looks to cast off a reputation that has sometimes been shady.
“It’s a milestone for the organisation,” Kevin Chang, vice-president UFC Asia Pacific said on Wednesday.
It’s also been a long time coming, considering the UFC was launched in 1993 and in the years since it has staged more than 400 events and taken its show on the road to 18 countries outside its base in Las Vegas. The UFC has estimated its pay-per-views are watched by between 30 to 40 million people globally, while its worth has skyrocketed from the US$2 million paid for the fledgling sports promotion company by Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta and their business partner Dana White in 2001 to its sale – for an estimated US$4 billion – to the WME-IMG group last year.
Along the way, the UFC has launched the international careers of such global superstars as Irishman Conor McGregor and America’s Ronda Rousey, whose popularity in the sport has helped them crossover into the mainstream and collect untold millions along the way.
Now, said Chang, comes a commitment to mainland Chinese fans – and the search for a Chinese world champion. The organisation estimates there are around 77 million MMA fans in China, among them 28 million UFC fans, and close to 100 million Asia-wide.
Chinese waters were first tested in the southern enclave of Macau – once in 2012 and twice in 2014 – but Chang said in terms of establishing a foothold on the mainland, UFC management had waited “until the timing was right.”
The organisation first operated an office in Beijing in 2010. It later moved to Singapore before a Shanghai office was opened in 2015 – and plans for the big night moved into overdrive.
“If you look back eight years ago the awareness of MMA, what it was as a sport, and the awareness of the UFC and what it represented as a brand was not what it is today,” said Chang. “And the market wasn’t really ready for us to bring the big show. Now it is.”
Saturday night’s sold out 12-fight card at Shanghai’s Mercedes Benz Arena will be headlined by a bout featuring recently deposed UFC world middleweight champion Michael Bisping (30-8) of England against American Kelvin Gastelum (13-3) but the UFC has stacked its debut card with no less than eight local fighters, led by China’s rising star in welterweight Li “The Leech” Jingliang (13-4).
“China started later in terms of MMA,” said Chang. “But now we have our biggest star in Li Jingliang. We feel he is the best MMA fighter in China. The talent is there and there’s only going to be more and more now.”
While the UFC keeps tight wraps of the salaries it pays its fighters, Forbes has previously estimated McGregor’s net worth at around US$85 million, thanks to earning from pay-per-view fights and sponsorship deals with the likes of Reebok.
It’s a fact not lost on the charismatic Xinjiang-born Li, who has strengthened his growing reputation in the sport with two straight victories and faces the biggest test of his career yet against American Zak Ottow (15-4) on Saturday night.
“Joining the UFC changed my life and it can change the lives of other Chinese fighters,” said Li. “We are proud to represent China and Saturday night will be magnificent. The Chinese fans will not let the UFC down, and they will not let the world down. They have been waiting a long time and it should be a great night, not just for me but for all the other Chinese fighters.”
The growth of combat sports in China has not been without its controversies, despite inroads made by local promotions such as the Kunlun group and a growing presence of regional heavyweights including the Singapore-based One Championship and South Korea’s Road FC organisation.
China’s General Administration of Sport recently declared that practitioners should “build correct values about martial arts”.
The move followed a controversial but widely publicised bout between a tai chi “master” and an MMA fighter in April, won by the MMA fighter in 10 seconds.
Those in combat sports must avoid “creating one’s own style, organising a fight without a permit from the authorities, malicious attacks, slandering or discriminating against others”, the official document stated.
Much has also been made in mainland media and elsewhere of a series of wild amateur events staged in the Chinese countryside and the story of an ex-monk in Sichuan Province who was taking in orphans and training them to fight.
At the same time the sport has been looking to improve its image globally through the International Mixed Martial Arts Federation, which earlier this year set up a Chinese affiliation as it looks to regulate MMA rules globally with an eye on the sport joining the Olympics.
“We know these things that are coming out in the media,” said Chang. “But we’re not a single discipline versus a single discipline. Our brand represents athlete safety, fair competition, it represents the best of the best. That stands for itself.”