The battle for Asia’s lucrative mixed martial arts (MMA) market continued in Singapore, as both of the world’s largest global promotions, ONE Championship (ONE) and the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), went head-to-head with shows at the Singapore Indoor Stadium in the space of three weeks.
First was ONE: DYNASTY OF HEROES on 26 May, headlined by two title bouts featuring ONE Women’s Atomweight World Champion “Unstoppable” Angela Lee (8-0) and ONE Welterweight World Champion Ben “Funky” Askren (16-0). Both champions successfully defended their titles and undefeated records via thrilling stoppage wins.
Then came UFC Fight Night: Holm vs. Correia on 17 June, with former UFC Women’s Bantamweight Champion Holly “The Preacher’s Daughter” Holm (10-3) and former title challenger Bethe Correia (10-2-1) in the main event. Holm eventually claimed victory via a highlight-reel head kick knockout.
In recent years, ONE Championship has risen in the East to take on the UFC’s longtime control of the West, resulting in a global duopoly. Earlier this year, the UFC announced their re-entry into the Asian market with a Singapore event, signaling their intent to wrest control of the region from ONE.
However, Chatri Sityodtong, Chairman and CEO of ONE, says there is no way the UFC could match the level of importance ONE places on the Asian continent.
“ONE: DYNASTY OF HEROES featured two World Championship main events between four undefeated martial artists, including two of our biggest superstars, Angela Lee and Ben Askren,” said Sityodtong.
“That shows you how much we value our shows in Asia. The majority of our events feature world title bouts. Asia is our home where we are headquartered, and we are here for the long haul. We only put on the most exciting shows possible, and make sure every fan leaves thoroughly entertained.”
In contrast, the UFC’s evening in Singapore – it’s first in Asia for since November 2015 – seemingly lacked that level of excitement. There were extended periods of inaction during the event, including the headlining bout between Correia and Holm, much to the crowd’s displeasure. Both competitors spent the first two rounds feeling each other out, waiting for the other to make a mistake before Holm’s knockout finish.
“Overall feel of the show, entertainment-wise, as a fan, I thought ONE was better,” said Arvind Lalwani, head coach and owner of Singapore’s Juggernaut Fight Club, who was present at both events. Lalwani is also the President of the Singapore Fighting Championship, a popular martial arts promotion.
“A lot of the fights were kind of disappointing. I heard quite a lot of people who came out of the stadium and regretted paying for the event, especially those who paid for the expensive seats. Fights were quite boring. As a fan, I want to be excited by fights. Out of all the fights, maybe two fights were exciting.”
Sityodtong, however, does not take pleasure in this difference in reception between the two shows. He knows that for martial arts to grow in Asia, a high quality must remain consistent, regardless of promotion. As he is fond of saying, “a rising tide lifts all ships”. What’s more, in the spirit of martial arts, competition is the key to improvement.
That is why he has repeatedly called for a superfight between Lee, the ONE Women’s Atomweight World Champion, and UFC Women’s Strawweight Champion Joanna Jedrzejczyk.
The UFC, however, in a statement made through its Senior Vice President of International and Content, Joe Carr, claimed that despite Lee’s obvious talent, she is not on the level of current UFC strawweights.
Rich Franklin, former UFC Middleweight World Champion and current ONE Vice President, disagreed.
“I think Angela would do more than just hold her own against their champion,” said Franklin, in comments to the media. “Quite frankly, I would stack any one of our champions here (in ONE) against any champion in the world. If you watch any of our shows, I’m sure their talent speaks volumes for what they’re capable of doing.
“They (the UFC) do one show at a time; we spent years developing talent over here. That’s the difference between one organization coming here to put on a show, and another organization operating on this side of the world.
“Clearly, we’ve been over here doing due diligence, putting the hard work in, and people know this brand here - not just because of the brand itself, but because we’re also building local heroes here.”
There is merit to Franklin’s claims. Since it’s inception in 2011, ONE has held 54 shows in Asia to date, with 12 more scheduled in 2017. As a result, several breakout Asian stars have emerged, including ONE Lightweight World Champion Eduard Folayang and Myanmar national hero Aung La N Sang.
In contrast, the UFC has done just 12 Asian shows in its history, despite having been operating in Asia since 2009, with a single remaining show scheduled in September for Japan.
The US-based organization did not have an event in Asia for 2016, as the lone show scheduled that year in Manila was ultimately cancelled.
However, regardless of what the UFC does and says, Sityodtong is unfazed. He is more concerned with ONE Championship’s mission to inspire Asia with hope and strength through its real-life superheroes.
“The reality is our product resonates with Asia because of our values and our celebration of true martial arts,” said Sityodtong. “Those values of humility, courage, discipline and honour. What the UFC does doesn’t resonate in Asia. We will continue to build on our momentum in each Asian market from the ground up, as opposed to treating them as stopovers.”