If you've seen pictures from the UFC's upcoming show on Fuel TV, you can be forgiven if you thought it was just another bout from the Las Vegas strip. The scene looks all too familiar to fight-night veterans—the casino, the conspicuous luxury, the boozy party seekers just looking for a good time.
But this isn't the Venetian that has become one of the go-to hotels on the north end of the Vegas strip. It's actually a sister hotel in Macau, home to the UFC as the promotion makes its debut in China.
In truth, for all the talk about this show being a gateway for the UFC into China, the first step in a long journey toward success in the world's most populous country, Macau, despite its physical proximity, is actually worlds away from mainland China.
A Portuguese colony until 1999, the island is a Chinese protectorate, like Hong Kong, that exists mostly as a den of sin. Macau is a tourism and gambling hot spot and not really an inroads into China.
The unofficial philosophy is "One country, two systems," which basically means China agreed to leave Macau alone for 50 years as it is slowly assimilated. Macau has a totally distinct system of government, a different legal system and a different power base.
That's why Michael Mandt scoffs at the idea that the UFC is making its debut in China.
"Macau is a territory of China, much like the Virgin Islands are a territory of United States," Mandt, the Chief Creative Officer for Ranik Ultimate Fighting Federation (RUFF) told Bleacher Report in an exclusive interview. "Macau has a separate passport and currency system than China, so it is far from being 'in China.'"
That's part of the reason so many of RUFF's competitors find themselves on Macau or Hong Kong and not in mainland China, where, at least for now, RUFF is the only promotion permitted by the government-run Wushu Administrative Center to hold MMA shows.
RUFF has a permit to run events in the mainland, one that Mandt says the UFC and other Asian competitors have tried, and failed, to obtain. And, he tells Bleacher Report, RUFF's permit has been extended for two additional years after some early success.
"We believe that MMA can and will thrive in China in part because it has a rich tradition with Martial Arts," Mandt said. "Unlike football or baseball, which the NFL and MLB have tried to introduce over there, this is a sport that is very organic to China and is something they can understand and care about.
"...To succeed, we have to have three things," he said. "First, there has to be good, quality fighters that are well matched and we have done that so far, identifying fighters with tremendous potential with a ridiculous drive to win. Secondly, these fights have to have proper distribution, which we have been doing. We have various TV deals through regional and satellite partners that show our fights to a potential TV audience of 1.3 billion, so we have total coverage of our fights on TV.
"We also have live streaming deals on the Internet through three major partners, Sina, Tencent and PPTV. Our mobile partner is CN Live. Finally, there has to be awareness, which we are growing through our fights and our upcoming 24/7-style reality series called RUFF Journey.
"...Everything we are doing is building toward what we are calling the Super Fight. This will be the night where we crown the RUFF champions across all our weight classes for the first time. This fight will happen in early February, and on that night, not only will the RUFF champions be crowned, but because we are the only government-sanctioned organization in China, we will be crowing the Chinese national champions.
"On top of that," Mandt continued, "each winner will receive 1,000,000 RMB in prize money (about $160,000 US). That is an incredible amount of prize money to fighters in China."
RUFF's stranglehold on China is part of the reason the UFC has announced that its Asian efforts going forward will focus primarily on South Korea and Japan. But the battle for the hearts and minds of China's enormous potential MMA market will continue. Mandt, a video producer who has worked on major television sporting extravaganzas from the World Cup to the Olympics, calls this the most exciting project of his career.
"China has the fastest growing economy in the world that has been engined by the fastest growing middle class," Mandt said, explaining the stakes. "As the most populous country on the planet, they have a middle class and younger demographic of 20- to 30-year-olds that are obtaining more purchasing power than ever in the country's history, so we are confident that the timing is right for sports and entertainment to thrive in China."