SINGAPORE - The coronavirus pandemic has brought major sports franchises all over the world to their knees, from football's English Premier League to the National Basketball Association, and mixed martial arts (MMA) is no exception.
Dana White, the president of the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) on Thursday (April 9) was forced to cancel its UFC 249 pay-per-view event just three days before it was due to take place, while Singapore-based One Championship has halted all events planned in the region. It hopes to return with its One: Inspiration event at the Singapore Indoor Stadium on May 8.
Another Singapore-headquartered organisation, though, believes it may have the answer to how fans can still get their MMA fix as the world continues to grapple with the Covid-19 virus. And its solution lies in virtual reality (VR).
Justin Leong, chief executive officer of Rebel Fighting Championship (Rebel FC), says it is looking at how to leverage on 5G - the fifth-generation of mobile internet connectivity - in China, where most of its events take place, to bring its fights to fans in the comfort of their own homes.
It was reported last November that 5G technology, which enables faster transmission speeds and reduced latency which could further drive online viewing, is now available in 50 Chinese cities.
"China has developed 5G centres in most of the major cities," Leong told The Straits Times in a phone interview earlier this week.
"If we are able to have a VR camera in the arena, you can project the action... the consumer just has to wear VR goggles to enjoy a 'live' experience."
Leong, 34, added he was looking into the infrastructure to make Rebel FC fights available through VR, and hopes to offer it to viewers in time for their next event, which is slated to take place in Shenzhen in the third quarter of 2020.
Rebel FC was founded in 2013, and did its first two live events at the Singapore Indoor Stadium (Dec 2013) and Suntec City Convention Centre (Aug 2014) before Leong decided to move the shows out of Singapore as it made better business sense.
After considering other South-east Asian nations like Thailand and the Philippines, he decided to hold his next event in Qingdao, China in June 2015.
"In China, once they go all in on a new sport, you will see it flourish, and with 1.3 billion (population) they also have a talent pool of fighters," he said. Rebel has since staged events in Shanghai, Shenzhen, Guangzhou, and in January branched out to hold a show in Moscow. Leong said he is open to staging a show in Singapore next year.
While he was initially concerned when the coronavirus pandemic first erupted in China, there are positive signs that the country has gotten "back on its feet" following a steep decline in cases, with restrictions being lifted and domestic flights allowed again.
Leong believes Rebel is well placed to grow even further, and the company has filed a submission to be listed on the Nasdaq stock market by the end of the year.
Aside from its VR venture, Rebel's next big project is a reality show on the search for MMA talent in China. Rebel has also roped in Chinese director Xie Dikui as executive producer and shooting will begin in December.
Leong is keen to leverage on MMA's popularity in the region to grow his product and while some MMA promoters shun the verbal jousting seen in the sport, he believes that it is key.
Calling Rebel FC a "fightainment" company, Leong said: "You look at all the most famous fighters in the world - Muhammad Ali, Mike Tyson, Conor McGregor - they were and are very entertaining in and out of the ring.
"In my view, you have to embrace that MMA is also entertainment. Fighters don't necessarily have to disrespect one another but... personalities sell fights."
He added: "Reality shows, if done right, are massive revenue generators. By creating a profitable venture, we intend to scale up our matches and grow MMA from the grassroots levels to be a mainstream sport in China."