After almost a decade establishing its presence in Asia, Singapore-based mixed martial arts (MMA) organisation One Championship is now eyeing a foothold in the United States.
Starting with the One on TNT 1 event today, they are slated to stage shows for four consecutive weeks that will be broadcast "live" on prime-time American television network TNT. The closed-door fights at the Singapore Indoor Stadium will begin at 8.30am local time to cater to American audiences and will also feature some of One's biggest stars.
Former Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) champions Demetrious Johnson and Eddie Alvarez are the headline acts in today's event. One's other top fighters like Christian Lee, Martin Nguyen, Aung La N Sang, Shinya Aoki and Sage Northcutt will appear in the subsequent events.
One founder and chief executive Chatri Sityodtong told The Straits Times this push into the US market had been a "long time coming".
"But with Covid-19, our plans were delayed," he said. "The 'One on TNT' series airing on prime time marks a big first step for us entering the United States (and) we hope to have more events like this to come."
He said he was "super fired up" and promised American fans a "unique brand of martial arts… (that) is completely different from what exists in the States right now".
He cited how Asian-based MMA features more striking as opposed to the North American style and its base of wrestling, and therefore offers more excitement and potential of knockouts.
There have been some hiccups though. On Monday, the Ministry of Health's daily report listed three individuals from Brazil, Serbia and Canada who had tested positive for Covid-19 upon arrival in Singapore.
This prompted One to change two of the fights on its undercard for today's event, pulling Serbian kickboxer Rade Opacic and Iranian fighter Mehdi Barghi from the event, citing "health and safety protocols". Their respective opponents, Patrick Schmid of Switzerland and Senegalese Oumar Kane, will face each other in a heavyweight MMA fight.
The 30-year-old Brazilian who tested positive is understood to be John Lineker, scheduled to fight on One on TNT 3 on April 22.
Today's marquee fights, however, are unaffected and Johnson and Alvarez, household names to MMA fans in North America from their time in UFC, are thrilled to be involved.
Johnson, 34, will challenge for Brazilian Adriano Moraes' One flyweight (up to 61kg) world title, and said fighting in the morning meant he did not need to acclimatise to an Asian time zone. He added: "I think fans who haven't been able to see One Championship are going to be in for a real treat."
Alvarez, 37, takes on Moldovan fighter Iuri Lapicus in a lightweight (up to 77kg) bout, and said being on prime time in the US has "re-energised" him. "This is One's coming out party in America," he said. "American fans will see One Championship in a different light, and after they see what they see, there'll be a new (player) in town."
Dr Seshan Ramaswami, associate professor of marketing education at the Singapore Management University, noted that the US television sports audience is not "one monolithic" group and there are subsets for different sports and leagues, as well as seasonal patterns.
He said the "sheer quality of the matches and martial artistes" will be a key factor to One attracting more pure combat sport fans, and long-term exposure to audiences will also be helpful.
"Establishing a season on an annual basis, staging some live events in the US, attracting (established names) to participate in the One Championship season, and a hero-and-story driven development are key to succeeding in the US television market," he added.