UFC on Fuel 6: Will the UFC Invasion of China Sink the Rising Asian MMA Market?

Jonathan Snowden@JESnowdenCombat Sports Senior WriterNovember 5, 2012

Rich Franklin headliens the UFC's first card in China
Rich Franklin headliens the UFC's first card in ChinaJon Kopaloff/Getty Images

If the UFC's presence in Macau (along with Hong Kong, one of the two administrative regions of the People's Republic of China) is supposed to sound the death knell for the burgeoning Asian MMA scene, someone forgot to tell Chris Pollak.

As the Managing Director of Legend Fighting Championship, it's his company the UFC is ostensibly in town to compete with. It's his fighters the Borg-like UFC machine will attempt to assimilate as they continue the process of siphoning off the best fighters from across the globe. And it's his show the UFC will try to make look hopelessly small time.

But to hear Pollak tell it, the UFC's arrival on the scene is a reason to cheer, not a consequence to fear.

"We are excited, and are taking the whole Legend team out to Macau to watch the event," Pollak told Bleacher Report. "We wouldn't be in this industry if we were not fans. We also wouldn't be in this industry if we didn't think we could coexist. We are building a platform here that is quite different, and meant to complement, not compete with, all of the other great MMA events out there."

Other regional promoters haven't greeted the UFC's presence in Asia with such equanimity. Jung Mun-hong, President of South Korea's leading MMA group Road FC, told The Korea Times that the UFC was "cheap," criticizing the promotion for signing away their champion Kang Kyung-ho:

They use their reputation to recruit talent, while the talent-builders like us get nothing...Do you know how much of our resources we spend to discover and develop talent? It was a great loss for us. However, Kang really wanted to go, so I let him, even though UFC didn't pay anything to our organization.

Road FC may have reason, above and beyond the loss of Kyung-ho, to be concerned about the UFC's incursion onto their turf. Historically Japan and South Korea are both very strong markets for MMA and the UFC intends to capitalize on them.

Although specifics are scarce, Marshall Zelaznik, UFC's Managing Director of International Development, tells MMA Fighting that the company plans to run multiple shows a year from Japan and South Korea, an Asian Fighting Series that will be targeted for fight fans in that area rather than existing customers in the UFC's homebase of North America.

And while Japan and South Korea have a preexisting MMA fanbase for the UFC to work with, fans who grew up on the legendary Japanese Pride promotion, their show this week in Macau indicates the UFC is willing and able to move into China with the right opportunity. Zelaznik tells MMA Fighting, essentially, that the world is the UFC's oyster:

We're definitely able right now to go to Shanghai and Beijing. We're reliant on dates. Macau had a great venue so starting there made a lot of sense. It's near Hong Kong. We had good media partners in that area and it was important for us to be there. We're always looking at other markets in Asia. I don't know which ones will pop up, but there's nothing stopping us.

According to Victor Cui, this may be a step too far for the UFC or other Western promoters. Cui runs the other leading regional MMA promotion, One FC. With a TV deal in place with ESPN that spans the next decade, Cui is nicely positioned to compete with the UFC for the Chinese market and warns the American promotion, one he tells The New York Post is "a fantastic organization," that the nuances of the Asian market may be tough to overcome:

It’s not easy to go from city to city with the right relationships and the right partners. Singapore is nothing like Malaysia and Malaysia is nothing like Indonesia and Indonesia is nothing the Philipinnes and the Philipinnes is nothing like Japan and so on.

The real battle in China may not involve the UFC at all, instead coming down to an aesthetic choice between Legend and One FC. While Legend hasn't received much attention from American fight fans, choosing instead to focus their attentions on local fans, they are running neck and neck with One FC in Asia.

Cui presents an American-friendly show, complete with recognizable, albeit slightly past their prime former UFC stars like Andrei Arlovski and Jens Pulver, presenting a show that looks and feels an awful lot like the UFC. Cui tells Tapout Live's Stephanie Daniels that balancing world-class fighters and developing Asian prospects is one of the trickiest parts of his job:

We have looked for quality fighters that are of good value, that can put on entertaining, world class fights...we're developing fights that are globally relevant, but regionally applicable. They appeal to the European fan, the Brazilian fan, the Canadian fan, the American fan, but we still work hard to keep a distinct Asian feel to it, and we use local Asian talent, to give them the opportunity to showcase themselves on a ONE FC card...The skillset, obviously between Asian fighters, outside of Japan, is dramatically different than the developed scene in Europe or in North America, so we're always trying to find a balance between those two."

Pollak has eschewed European and American fighters almost entirely, instead attempting to create a product that will be more comfortable for the Asian viewer. He doesn't have to balance existing stars with Asian fighters just learning MMA—to Legend, there is no such thing as an MMA "star," at least not in China.

"When we speak to broadcasters and sponsors in this part of the world, none of them care about the 'big' names because the sport is still young here, and no one knows who those guys are," Pollak explained. "The first question we always get is, 'Who do you have from my home country?'  Like us, they believe that the best way to grow the sport is to give their audiences local heroes to care about and cheer for."

Legend reaches 600 million homes in mainland China, and a new deal with AXN will bring them to a regional audience in Asia in a prime time slot. For a promotion that says it attracted more than 12 million viewers in China alone for a welterweight scrap featuring Li “The Leech” Jingliang, this expansion into the broader Asian market is exciting news.

"Legend is the Asia-Pacific Championship of MMA," Pollak said. "We invite exclusively the best Asia-Pacific fighters to compete, and wrap the fights in high-quality broadcasts designed to celebrate the region's cultures, national pride, and thousands of years of martial arts history and traditions," Pollack said. "We are the only promotion in the world that focuses solely on native Asia-Pacific talent, and we do this because we know this is what people in the Asia-Pacific want to see."

These contrasting visions for MMA in China will do battle over the years to come, with Legend and One FC both having a strong television platform and initial successes, competing for the hearts and minds of Chinese sports fans. This, more than the UFC's tentative presence in the region, will be the story of Asian MMA for the remainder of the decade.