How the fight for combat sports is being won

NOT many would have been able to predict a few years ago that Singapore would grow into one of the leading lights of the fight scene in Asia, let alone the world.

While countries like Thailand and the Philippines have long histories of producing world-class athletes in combat sports, Singapore has quickly established itself with a series of mixed martial arts (MMA) and boxing shows, as well as gyms that are well-respected around the region.

The visit of US-based MMA market leaders the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) to Marina Bay Sands on Saturday must be seen as the high point of that rapid rise through the ranks.

A sell-out crowd of 5,200 fans at the Sands Expo and Convention Centre watched Belgium's Tarec Saffiedine kick his way to a points victory over Korea's Lim Hyun Gyu in the main event of the 10-fight show.

It says a lot about the brand power of the UFC that so many supporters paid at least double the ticket price of Singapore-based organisation One Fighting Championship (One FC), especially as the card was devoid of the big names that the UFC is famous for.

UFC fans in Singapore shelled out between $88 and $688 for Saturday's show while One FC tickets start at $38. Their events are held at Singapore Indoor Stadium and attract crowds of around 7,000.

Both organisations clearly work hard to make their events fan-friendly. The UFC posted fighters Jon Hathaway, from Britain, and South Korea's Kim Dong Hyun outside Saturday's show to drum up support for their welterweight clash at the Cotai Arena inside the The Venetian hotel in Macau on March 1. There was also a replica Octagon cage for fans to take pictures in along with the usual merchandise booths.

Some fans have questioned why a worldwide organisation like the UFC chose an arena that holds less than the Indoor Stadium, and there has been chatter about a possible future show at the new 55,000-capacity Sports Hub when it opens later this year.

For the moment, both of those venues seem unlikely.

The UFC made it clear that it intends to stick with MBS, as the casino complex aggressively cements its growing reputation on the worldwide sports scene.

While Singapore should be capable of hosting competing MMA events - with UFC and One FC bouncing off each other to create interest in the sport in general - there are still pitfalls to avoid in a relatively new market.

Last month's inaugural Rebel Fighting Championship show at the Indoor Stadium - fronted by Singapore entrepreneur Justin Leong - was a flop, with thousands of empty seats despite having several matches that were arguably of the same standard as those on rival promotions.

Without an established name, Rebel FC failed to capture fans' imaginations and failed, despite having the same ticket price range as One FC.

While the UFC may have the image of being a brash American outfit, it seems determined to expand carefully.

Internationally, the UFC offers glitz and glamour - and has a huge roster to draw on - and that is its unique selling point.

Perhaps their next show here will feature some of the stars that fans watch live on mio TV broadcasts, as 15 of the 20 fighters on Saturday had never competed in the UFC before.

After five shows in Singapore since September 2011, Victor Cui's One FC has created a real buzz with stars like Hong Kong's Eddie Ng and Japan's Shinya Aoki, who are both based at Chatri Sityodthong's Evolve gym in the Republic.

In many ways the pioneering spirit of Cui and Chatri paved the way for the UFC to come here, and Evolve was one of the sponsors of Saturday's action with Brazil's Leandro Issa, a former One FC regular, also representing the gym in the first fight of the night.

Impact MMA trained Royston Wee for Singapore's first victory in the UFC, while American Will Chope had done the final preparations for his clash with Max Holloway at the Juggernaut Fight Club.

The names of these gyms are being talked about all over the globe, as the knock-on effect of the MMA boom creates jobs and opportunities for those both in and around the sport.

Although Singapore has yet to produce a world-class fighter who can match those from Japan, Thailand, Korea or the Philippines, the foundations are there for anyone with the gumption to give it a go.

The competition between different promotional outfits means fans can watch those stories unfold, whatever their preferred price point or venue of choice.

As a country, Singapore is well-respected for making the most of its limited resources to achieve great success.

It is also now punching above its weight in the fight game, challenging the traditional champions who may not have expected such a meteoric rise to the top from a nation whose fierce determination belies its small physical size.

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Jan 6, 2014

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