Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC)

Will June 17 event in Singapore finally see the UFC make it big in Asia?

Ultimate Fighting Championship senior vice-president, head of international and content Joe Carr announces organisation’s return to Asia at Singapore Indoor Stadium

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 01 March, 2017, 1:11pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 01 March, 2017, 1:11pm

Joe Carr brought an air of quiet confidence with him as he took the podium in Singapore last week. And well the man might.

As the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) senior vice-president, head of international and content, Carr was in town to both announce his organisation’s return to Asia – with a fight card set down for the Singapore Indoor Stadium on June 17 – and to run through their strategy for the region as they continue to chart the growth of the sport it champions.

Along with the Singapore event, Carr revealed a card was in place for Tokyo later in the year – at a date still to be decided – while Australia and New Zealand were also in the mix, as well as one more as-yet undetermined date somewhere in Asia.

The Las Vegas-based UFC now lays claim to 93 million fans in Asia, part of an estimated global TV audience of 1.1 billion across 152 countries.

“We’ll probably never beat football,” said Carr. “But we think we can become the second most popular sport in the world.”

In a frank and revealing discussion with the Post, Carr readily admitted the UFC had made a few missteps in their past dealings with Asia.

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It’s been more than 12 months since the UFC last touched down in these parts – in Seoul, on November 28, 2015, on a card headlined by Benson Henderson’s victory over Jorge Masvidal in their welterweight bout.

Manila had been lined up for last October, but plans were abandoned when headliner BJ Penn withdrew due to a rib injury.

“You can’t force square pegs into a round hole,” said Carr. “Obviously last year we would have liked to have more events but there are always challenges.

“The biggest challenge in Asia in my mind is the infrastructure. Last year we would have loved to have gone back to Korea, but the arena is under renovation and it won’t be ready until 2018.

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“So we’ll go back then. Manila was the right decision, collectively. Let’s not grow for the sake of growing.

“The last thing I want to do is bring a B or C level product, which honestly I think happened in 2014 with the events we staged in Macau and Singapore. It just wasn’t reflective of who we are as a brand.”

What the UFC got right with their last event in Seoul was a line-up with a local flavour, including Korean cult heroes Kim “Stun Gun” Dong-hyun, who fights in the welterweight division, and featherweight “The Korean Superboy” Choi Doo-ho. Both duly won.

“2015 was a great year and last year the thinking was do we maintain our premium brand and positioning or do we rush, and we’re not in the position to just do things for the sake of doing them,” said Carr.

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“We always want to have our top talent, we always want to have top-10 fighters and obviously have local flair and local nuance, but at the end of the day the base core of the product has to be the same. It has to reflect the UFC brand.”

As fans wait for an announcement on just who will line up at the Singapore event, Asian fighters are increasingly taking to the same UFC stages that have put the likes of Conor McGregor and Ronda Rousey on the road to global fame and fortune.

Next up we have flyweight Jenel Lausa of the Philippines set to face Russia’s Magomed Bibulatov at UFC 210 in Buffalo, New York, on April 8, while the likes of Chinese Li “The Leech” Jingliang, and the South Korean trio of Kim, Choi and featherweight “The Korean Zombie” Chan Sung-jung continue to lay down their credentials as possible challengers for world titles.

Hong Kong’s Alberto Mina is also waiting in the wings with a UFC record that stands at three fights for three wins (13-0 overall in MMA).

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The UFC last week announced the signing of featherweight Wang “The Dongbei Tiger” Guan to their books as well and Carr said China was, quite obviously, a big part of the organisation’s plans for the region.

Two events have already been staged in Macau, but the mainland was now their main concern.

And while the UFC continues to roll out those plans, on the ground across the region, MMA fans are increasingly spoilt for choice.

The Singapore-based ONE Championship group is leading the way with 18 events planned for the year and more promised, while any number of smaller groups – South Korea’s Road Fighting Championship among them – are ensuring there’s something to watch or attend somewhere, every weekend.

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Carr sees these organisations as helping to “grow the MMA pot” – an opinion shared by ONE Championship founder Chatri Sityodtong, albeit with some caveats.

“We’re bringing Asian heroes to the world stage,” said Sityodtong, whose group claims a reach into a billion households globally.

“UFC has actually been in Asia longer. I expected them to come back and the market is big enough for all of us. The difference is that we resonate with the Asian market.”

ONE’s next event sees the much-anticipated return of world atomweight champion Angela Lee, who fights out of Singapore, in her first title defence against Taiwan’s Jenny Huang in Bangkok on March 11.

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“Asians prefer humble champions, not trash talkers, and the reality is that Asians are the best in the world at martial arts,” said Sityodtong.

“The UFC will have to localise their product. You can’t expect to come into the region with a Western product and succeed.”

Carr believes the fact that the WME-IMG entertainment and sports management group bought in to the UFC – for an estimated US$4bn – last July will help solve any such issues, given that company’s already established reach into the Asian sporting landscape.

“In my mind 2017 can really be a seminal moment for us going forward,” said Carr. “Five to six events in the Asia-Pacific region, that’s the right mix for us.

“The key is to making sure that all those events are super successful and that they a representative of the UFC brand, not a diminished product.”