MMA: One dream gave Victor Cui will to succeed

MMA: One dream gave Victor Cui will to succeed
One FC owner Victor Cui (left) with Filipino boxing star Manny Pacquiao, who recently purchased an undisclosed stake in the Singapore-based MMA company.

Victor Cui broke the cardinal rule of marriage when he set up the One Fighting Championship organisation in 2011 - he refused to listen to the missus.

To the horror of wife Carmen and many close friends, who wanted Cui to go slow, he insisted on booking the 12,000-seat Singapore Indoor Stadium for the Sept 3, 2011 opening night of the fledgling mixed martial arts promotion.

At that point, it was an unknown brand showcasing an underground sport with a threadbare roster of fighters, some of who had already featured in his Martial Combat series at Resorts World Sentosa.

But Cui argued that his regional twist on a hybrid sport that had taken the United States by storm - thanks to the Ultimate Fighting Championship - was a surefire knockout, comparing his company to a Lamborghini that "everyone wanted to get their hands on".

It certainly went into overdrive: Some 6,800 fans turned up for the first taste of One FC's menu of experienced fighters supported by rising Asian talent.

"Even the venue officials thought I was crazy but I love doing things other people don't do," the 41-year-old told The Straits Times over coffee at the Dubai World Trade Centre, where the promotion hit another milestone - its first Middle East show - last night. "It is in people's DNA to either fight or watch a fight."

Critics might call him brash or lucky but the Canadian native had done his due diligence, recruiting backers such as Singapore's Economic Development Board.

He had also learnt during a decades-long career at sports television giant ESPN Star Sports that MMA has all the ingredients to succeed in Asia - it embraces cultural relevance, provides compelling television and has the ability to create national heroes andto transcend language barriers.

Cui, who holds a black belt in taekwondo like his wife, said: "There hasn't been any other sport coming out of Asia that the rest of the world cares about.

"Nobody wants to watch ASEAN Basketball League in Brazil when there's the National Basketball Association, or the Malaysian Super League in England when there's the Premier League."

Backed by a 10-year television deal with Fox Sports, One FC claims to own a 90 per cent share of the Asian MMA market, boasting a roster of over 200 fighters headlined by former American Olympic wrestler Ben Askren.

After staging well-received events across South-east Asia, the Singapore-based promotion has targeted China - a sleeping giant in MMA - with 10 shows annually, starting in October.

"The company has grown much faster than I thought it would," Cui said. "We're on a track for a multi-billion dollar IPO in three to four years' time as a possible exit strategy."

Usually candid, Cui turns coy when asked if he has received offers to sell One FC, noting that "we are on everyone's radar".

Filipino boxing star Manny Pacquiao purchased an undisclosed stake in the company this month, joining a handful of board members whom Cui described as "billionaires and successful entrepreneurs from the world over".

Going against the curve has been Cui's way from when he was young. As a Filipino-Chinese growing up in Alberta, Canada, he had to fend off bullies who picked on him because of his race and small size.

Instead of bearing a grudge, he sought to prove his allegiance by voluntarily serving for four years as an officer in the Royal Canadian Navy.

Now, the Singapore permanent resident battles bigotry of a different kind, as MMA continues to be tainted with allegations of mafia links, drug abuse and corruption.

"Yes, our world has always had that stigma but One FC's books are open, we are audited by Ernst & Young - if you work with the best, your company will be the best", said Cui.

"This is the first time for martial arts in Asia that legitimate businessmen have come together to commercialise the sport and bring it to a global audience."

Cui's first brush with combat sports came at the age of 13, when his diplomat father built a boxing ring in their backyard after they moved to Ghana.

His unbridled joy at donning leather gloves in his early teens is still evident in the businessman sporting a designer suit and a sleek haircut.

Cui invited The Straits Times to a closed-door briefing of his fighters on the eve of the Dubai event. Thumping his chest and raising clenched fists, he implored them to "give fans a night they will never forget".

Said One FC lightweight champion Shinya Aoki: "You see the passion and love he has for MMA and it makes you feel that you can't let him down."

Referring to One FC as his "other child", Cui already has his hands full finding time for son Liam, 3, and daughter Kayleigh, 5 - both of whom learn jiu-jitsu - around a hectic schedule that sees him overseas for 15 days on average each month.

But it is a necessary sacrifice for the ultimate prize - catapulting MMA into becoming the most popular sport in Asia.

Cui said: "Many people, including my wife, say I'm mad because football has too big a head start.

"It's not the first time I've been called crazy."

This article was first published on August 30, 2014

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