At the Versus 6 post-fight press conference, UFC President Dana White only spent about 20 seconds talking about its plans for 2010, but those 20 seconds were monumental to MMA in Asia. A new flyweight division. China. South Korea. TUF reality TV expansion into the Philippines. Taking a look at the UFC’s past record of dropping mini-bombs in press conferences, following up with well-timed match ups, then announcing major events, it’s blatantly obvious that the Zuffa-owned promotion has its sites set on Asia. Right now.
Since 2009 the UFC has been talking about putting on a show in Japan. The earthquake and resulting economic conditions delayed this from happening. However, at the beginning of 2011 Zuffa was able to secure some distribution deals pushing the event closer to reality. Then, on August 27th, Japanese fighter Yushin Okami was set to challenge Anderson Silva in UFC 134 to be followed by 3 Japanese fighters on the next card,135: Takeya Mizuzaki, Takanori Gomi, and “Kid” Yamamoto (who cancelled due to injury). Smack in the middle of this was the announced return of the UFC to Japan with an event set for February 26, 2012. Perfect media strategy.
Given White’s most recent comments on expanding the UFC into China, South Korea, and the Philippines, can an actual game plan for their conquest be deduced?
Earlier this year, White announced an interest in expanding the reality show TUF to other countries – expressly the Philippines. This got the interest of UFC fighter Mark Munoz as shown plastered all over his personal website. Just last month, Anton Tabuena of bloodyelbow.com in the Philippines reported that the organization is indeed finalizing plans and working out a broadcast deal with the Philippine sports channel Balls. This was Step 1 – dropping mini-bombs. Step 2 – well-timed events – are on the horizon: UFC Light heavyweight champion Jon Jones is set for a Philippine tour on October 22nd. Mark Munoz, the Filipino hero of the UFC, headlines UFC 138 on November 5th. The TUF 14 finale is on December 3rd. And Dana White just tweeted that Jon Jones will defend his title against Lyoto Machida at UFC 140 on December 10th. Step 3 – the big announcement – could happen at any one of these Philippine attention-aimed events.
That’s Japan and the Philippines covered. What about China and South Korea?
Rumors and news of the UFC in China have been circulating since the Beijing-based promotion Art of War kicked off it’s 12th event under the patronage of His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, the United Arab Emirates. UFC heavyweights Big John McCarthy and Michael Buffer were inside the ring. Rolles Gracie was on the card and brought Rickson, Royce, Royler, and Renzo into his corner. Around the same time, Flash Entertainment – a subsidiary of the Sheikh’s Abu Dhabi government – purchased a 10% interest in Zuffa. The Renzo Gracie-facilitated deal was thought to help the UFC’s chances in China. During the same period, Aaron Randolph was a consultant for the UFC in China, and he confirmed that the UFC was indeed working its way into the China market. However, in the two years since, Randolph has gone on to work directly for Legend FC in Hong Kong, and Art of War stopped running events. China went silent.
Until now. Dana White’s simple mention of China holds a great deal of portent. There may not be a huge quantity of information coming out of the UFC on China matters, but the flurry of activities behind the scenes in Asia is pointing heavily back to the UFC. So step 2 – event – well that would be this very weekend’s October 8th event, UFC 136. China’s only rising star in the organization, Zhang Tiequan, is on the prelim card which will be shown live on Facebook – ironically which is banned in China. Zhang is from the Xi’an Sports University, where Pat Healy from Team Quest is currently running a 6-week training camp. This is a partnership set up with Hong Kong-based Legend FC to develop Chinese MMA talent, specifically in the lead up to Legend FC 6 in Macau.
Macau is a good choice for fight promotions to find venue partnerships with casinos; it is aptly named the “Las Vegas of Asia”. Legend FC signed a multi-event deal at City of Dreams starting with their 5th event last July. Now Victor Cui of new Singapore promotion One FC has stated they will hold a future event in Macau. So the China market seems to be getting hotter. Even Shanghai-based promotion RUFF, fresh off its first event, has indicated that its next event might not be in Shanghai, but elsewhere in China. And although its from a source who wishes to remain anonymous, I was told that the UFC is in talks with a China venue in regards to a 2012 event.
The flurry of activity doesn’t stop at the “where and when” level, it goes deeper into the “who” – the actual talent pool. Recently, Filipino superstar MMA Team Lakay was personally visited by both Victor Cui of One FC and Mike Haskamp of Legend FC. Talent from Team Lakay has appeared on both promotions. Three Filipino fighters also signed management agreements with URCC Talent Management, which is reportedly to help them defend their titles in the Philippines-based URCC and gain new ones across several promotions. One FC has signed partnership deals with Thailand’s DARE and South Korea’s Road FC, including a champion versus champion event with Road FC’s tournament winners. RUFF is currently seeking fighters. With Legend FC’s sponsored fight camp in Xi’an and One FC’s recent signings to multiple fight deals from DARE’s fight roster, plus both wooing the Filipinos, they are snapping up talent at the speed of light.
In regards to the UFC, many promoters have stated they would like to have the reputation of being a ‘feeder’ of talent to that promotion. Another option is being bought out by them. With these promotions all scrambling for more talent, more venues, more cross-promotion connections – essentially ‘assets’ in the MMA industry – it remains to be seen if they are aware of and moving towards a UFC bid, or hedging against it.