Cui eyes China expansion

The word "Fighting" was dropped from his company's title last year, but Victor Cui is doing just that to grow mixed martial arts (MMA) across Asia.

Showcasing an underground sport with few fighters when it was formed in 2011, the One Championship promotion he helms now broadcasts to more than one billion viewers across 75 countries.

Well-received shows have been staged in Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines, led by home-grown talents out to prove they are more than just "human cockfighters", as critics carp.

Ranked sixth on Global MMA News' list of the most influential men in Asian sport, Cui has a bigger opponent in mind. His Singapore-based promotion aims to crack the China market, which even the industry-leading Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) out of Las Vegas has failed to do.

The country's increasingly affluent population of 1.4 billion offers a myriad of marketing and sponsorship opportunities - but not without its fair share of hurdles.

One Championship had planned to host 10 events there last year, but managed only two in Beijing and Guangzhou amid regulatory and logistical issues. Rather than give up the fight, Cui has again targeted 10 shows in China this year as part of the company doubling its annual schedule across Asia from 12 to 24 live cards.

"We learnt our lesson in finding the right partners, waiting for the right time and promoting ourselves the right way," said the Singapore permanent resident, who grew up in Canada. "When they see people who look like them doing extraordinary stuff inside the ring, it is gripping and inspirational.

"We will go beyond Beijing and Shanghai to the tier-two cities as well to attract not just new fans but find promising fighters too."

Two weeks ago, more than 12,000 fans in Changsha witnessed a card with 10 local fighters and headlined by bantamweight champion Bibiano Fernandes of Brazil.

One Championship's reputation took a hit after the death of Chinese fighter Yang Jianbing in December. The 21-year-old suffered severe dehydration in an attempt to make weight for its Manila card.

It has since banned weight cutting by dehydration, introducing a new system based on multiple weigh-ins and tests before and during fight week.

With the promotion also set to make its debut in Vietnam, Thailand and Hong Kong later this year, more eyes - including those of potential sponsors - will be on Singapore fighters such as Amir Khan and Angela Lee.

Backed by a decades-long career at sports television giant ESPN Star Sports, Cui believes he knows what it takes to market rising MMA prospects to a region enamoured with European football.

Using Malaysia's Ann Osman as an example, he speaks proudly of the 29-year-old hard-hitter adorning billboards across her homeland to promote the Milo drink.

"Everyone talks about (UFC fighter) Ronda Rousey breaking new ground for MMA, but it's people like Ann who are leading the way in Asia," said Cui, who is of Filipino-Chinese descent.

Top companies seem to be buying into the action. LG televisions are pre-loaded with One Championship content, while Disney will use upcoming cards to promote the new Captain America movie.

Always ready to talk up his roster of 250 fighters and "rock star" staff of 110, Cui was surprisingly mum when it comes to his balance sheet.

He would only say the company is "growing exponentially each year", noting it is on track for a billion-dollar valuation within the next two to three years.

UFC - valued at US$1.65 billion (S$2.3 billion) - has claimed its revenue last year will hit a record US$600 million amid big followings in North America and Brazil.

Cui's response was short and telling: "That's it, huh."

An initial public offering (IPO) listing in Singapore, he adds, is being considered for One Championship, whose board members include Filipino boxing star Manny Pacquiao and Evolve Gym owner Chatri Sityodtong.

Winning over the hearts of fans in China will be his priority in the coming months, but Cui has his sights set on India, the Middle East and central Asia next year. His ultimate goal is to hold 52 events annually, translating to a live card in a different city each week.

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.

A passion was ignited. It lasts till this day, evidenced by his juggling of family time with a hectic schedule that sees him overseas for 15 days on average each month.

The 42-year-old holds a black belt in taekwondo like his wife Carmen, while son Liam, five, and daughter Kayleigh, seven, both learn jiu-jitsu.

Cui will not rest until more households are hooked on MMA. He said: "This is the only sport that can say it is truly Asian. Why obsess over sports in other continents? Let's show the world how much talent we have in Asia."

  • The Business of Sport is a monthly series looking at the movers and shakers of Singapore's emerging sports business industry

This article was first published on February 12, 2016.
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