UFC aims to churn out Asian MMA stars

Strategy entails scholarship scheme with AirAsia to identify and develop young talent

Donald "Cowboy" Cerrone holding nothing back against his trainer. He and Leon Edwards are both confident of winning their June bout.
Donald "Cowboy" Cerrone holding nothing back against his trainer. He and Leon Edwards are both confident of winning their June bout. ST PHOTO: SYAMIL SAPARI
Donald "Cowboy" Cerrone holding nothing back against his trainer. He and Leon Edwards are both confident of winning their June bout.
Kevin Chang

Imagine a Singaporean fighter on the preliminary card of an Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) event headlined by Conor McGregor or Brock Lesnar.

That could become a reality in a few years' time as the UFC embarks on a mission to identify, develop and nurture young Asian talent into mixed martial arts (MMA) stars.

UFC vice-president of Asia-Pacific Kevin Chang revealed that the scouting process is ongoing under the UFC-AirAsia scholarship programme, as part of a partnership with the Malaysian budget carrier, who is its official airline sponsor.

Speaking on the sidelines of a press conference yesterday at the Mandarin Oriental for the UFC Fight Night Singapore event at the Indoor Stadium on June 23, he said: "One area which is really interesting is our partnership with AirAsia, where they're putting together a scholarship programme to identify budding athletes in the region.

"We work with them to identify these talents - our matchmakers of course are very involved in that process - and take them, all expenses paid, as scholars (to train) at the UFC performance institute in Las Vegas.

"Another component is bringing an athlete to compete in the Contender series... (and with) that pipeline into the Contender series, and we feel like the more exposure these Asian athletes get, we can find one who can one day compete in the UFC."

Chang, an American, added that nobody has been picked for the UFC-AirAsia scholarship programme yet.

When asked if there was a possibility of a Singaporean earning that scholarship, he said: "Yeah, it's definitely a possibility, especially considering the fact we have made the commitment to bring our events here on a consistent basis."

Currently, the UFC signs only established professional MMA fighters from other fight promotions from all over the world. For example, Irishman McGregor - the sport's biggest name - was a two-division champion in United Kingdom promotion Cage Warriors before he signed for the UFC in 2013.

The Contender, meanwhile, is a promotion that is not a property of the UFC, but created last year by its president Dana White as a means to look for talent not signed by the company.

The UFC has held 433 events in 21 countries and 138 cities. It has 67 million followers on its social media platforms, broadcasts its events in 165 countries, and its programming reaches 1.1 billion households.

Earlier this month, the UFC announced that it will hold events in Singapore in 2019 and 2020 and Chang said the deal is key to the company's goal of expanding its influence in Asia.

"Singapore is a trendsetting city in South-east Asia, and so the growth of our fans and our business here also lifts our growth in other South-east Asian markets as well," he said.

Yesterday, American Donald "Cowboy" Cerrone and Briton Leon "Rocky" Edwards - the two welterweight (up to 77kg) fighters headlining June's event - traded barbs at the press conference.

Cerrone, 35, is one of UFC's most recognisable names and is currently in a three-way tie (with Georges St-Pierre and Michael Bisping) for the most number of wins (25) in the UFC.

Edwards, nine years his junior, is on a five-fight winning streak and is champing at the bit to prove he has what it takes to match the big boys in the UFC.

"Cowboy is a good striker, but everyone knows he fights slow. I look forward to sprinting out there from the first bell," said Edwards.

"I'm on a five-fight win streak, and it's going to be six in June."

Cerrone responded to Edwards' goading by saying: "What's going to happen in June? Easy. Cowboy's going to be the 'winningest' fighter in the UFC. No question about it."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 26, 2018, with the headline UFC aims to churn out Asian MMA stars. Subscribe