Since debuting in September 2011, ONE FC has pushed hard to cement its reputation and position as Asia's largest MMA organization. Much has been said and written about the promotion's plans for MMA in the region – the intended benefits of the ONE FC Network of exclusive gyms, fighters and smaller promotions, the massive broadcasting reach covering a huge potential viewership and, most importantly, a sharp increase in world-class MMA events.
However, despite these lofty ambitions, the results thus far cannot be said to have lived up to expectations. This is not to say that ONE FC is a company peddling in hollow rhetoric and overstated hyperbole. Undeniably, by aiming high the promotion has been able to make some significant positive progress over these past two years. A look at the figures for the thirteen events they have under their belt confirms an increase in live attendance each time they return to a city or country, and their roster is being fleshed out and given more credibility with the recent signing of Ben Askren, and marquee attraction Shinya Aoki turning down a UFC contract in favor of remaining on board. They also held four events in the last four months of 2013.
This progress doesn't exist inside a vacuum, though. While it would be wrong to dwell on any misfires – perceived or real – the company has had in bringing MMA to a larger audience and guiding its mainstream appeal and development in Asia, these do need to be acknowledged. There is a risk that ONE FC's pronouncements about growth and proliferation and success and everything else will start to fall on deaf ears, with fans – or even worse, fighters – instead hearing the soft swish of the net as the goalposts are moved once again.
I'm digressing, but it's a point I wanted to make in light of the conversation I had with ONE FC's PR man, Loren Mack, who was in Taipei in December doing some groundwork ahead of the company’s proposed expansion this year. ONE FC has big aspirations for 2014 which, for the first time, appear to include a show in Taiwan. Live MMA events are an almost mythical beast here – PRO FC does wonderful work with exciting cards which I've always had a great time covering, but they're the only promotion which has maintained a presence over the years – and like any fan I simply want to see more fights more often. The prospect of the ONE FC roadshow rolling into town should be greeted with enthusiasm, but in light of their track record I personally feel it prudent to exercise cautious restraint instead of unbridled optimism.
Mack speaks knowledgeably and passionately about the sport and ONE FC. This is hardly surprising given that it is his job, but there is more to what he says than a typically glowing public relations veneer. He makes it clear from the outset that Taiwan is seen as an area of opportunity. "There’s obviously quite a bit of potential," he says, "and everybody seems hustling and bustling here, a very well educated population. I think MMA is still extremely new, but within time it’s going to explode."
ONE FC's recent successes with its Malaysian events illustrate his point. "People were asking me, 'Is this WWE? Is it real? Is it fake? What’s an armbar? Why do they call it that?' So we were at a very basic point. Today, we’re selling out 20,000 seat arenas. The fans are ecstatic – you’d think you’re in New York City. They’re screaming, they’re yelling, they appreciate the ground game, they appreciate what’s happening when the fighters are standing up, they’re rooting for the local heroes.
"We have so many Malaysian fighters on our roster right now, it’s incredible. Within less than a year, I've seen a sport go from 'What is an armbar? Is this WWE?' to the mainstream. When I come to a place like Taipei, I see the same thing happening."
That's a bold prediction. There are any number of reasons why MMA hasn't hit the mainstream in Taiwan. It could be traditional martial arts ruling the roost, or it could be a population lacking the desire to see athletes inflicting cranial trauma on one another. Mack, however, stresses MMA's infancy as the crucial consideration.
"It's just mixed martial arts is new for Asia," he explains. "Outside of Japan it's a new sport. It just takes time. It also takes the right promotion. When you go to a ONE FC event, that's exactly that – you're going to an event. You see the fireworks, you see the pyro, and you got world-class fighters so you're watching great entertainment. The promotion, we take time to explain what mixed martial arts is. We make the investment into the country that we're operating in, and then slowly but surely, you know, your fan base starts to grow."
Even so, there is a world of difference between filling a nightclub to bursting with an established base of hardcore fans as PRO FC does, and packing an arena with fresh converts as ONE FC intends to. "Anything we do, we look at 15,000 [fans] and up. That's what makes sense for us," says Mack. He speaks with candor about how fostering relationships with both current and potential partners in Taiwan is instrumental in realizing these plans.
"We work very closely, for example, with Tough MMA. So they have a lot of young, up-and-coming fighters on their roster. This is a relationship going back a long time. We'll definitely be out here working with them. I was just at one of [their gyms], and it was incredible. It was right in the heart of a hustling, bustling neighborhood, and the gym was packed yesterday. Tons and tons of kids coming in, working the bags, doing the ground game. I saw a lot of skill, I saw a lot of potential."
A Taipei event would be in the later part of 2014, says Mack, and would hopefully be the beginning of what he calls "a long-term investment."
"It's not a one-off," he continues. "It's not like we're going to do one show and then never be back. Taipei would be a market that we plan on being in for many years to come. So it wouldn't be like we're gonna be in Taipei so that we can get into some other country. It would be like, 'Look, we like what we see here and we're gonna stay here.'
"Japan MMA wasn't built overnight. Obviously there's a very, very long history but their pinnacle was 100,000 plus in a baseball stadium watching mixed martial arts. That can happen in Taipei. We never thought it could happen in North America. It's happening in North America, as we speak. We've seen it with ONE FC in all the venues we've been in in South East Asia."
Mack's statements echo much of what ONE FC has been saying throughout its existence, and therein lies a bit of a problem. In June of last year it was announced that 36 events were being hoped for by the end of 2014. In August, that number had changed to 24. In December chief executive Victor Cui said it would be one event a month starting around March. The company's initial three-year plan stated that they would have shows in cities like Bangkok, Macau, Seoul, and Shanghai amongst others from the outset but as of yet, nothing.
To give the promotion the benefit of the doubt, the logistics involved in holding events in different countries must be unimaginably complicated for myriad reasons, and most of us probably couldn't conceive of the obstacles they face in trying to organize cards for the entire region. Asked about why it is that plans for events in certain territories never materialized, Mack is a little circuitous and oblique with his answer.
"When we do something [as a company], we're going to do it for a lot of reasons. What makes sense? Do we see potential? There are so many different factors that go into a location. We're live on Star Sports, so the moment - wherever we are in the world - you turn on Star Sports, we're one of the only sports programming live on a Friday night. We also broadcast into 60 different markets across the world, on terrestrial TV, free TV. Plus we stream. We have a great stream, especially for our fans in North America.
"We want to be in every market, but things take a lot of time. Don't forget, we're also educating. We're a company that, we love the sport, we believe in it, we know it, we know it's going to be around forever, so we're also making an investment in every market we go to. Some of that takes more time than others would like to see. What we have planned for 2014 is absolutely incredible."
And there's the rub. Over the course of the interview Mack forecasts, amongst other things, more cards with more fights showcasing more fighters, continuing the search for a welterweight titleholder, and implementing amateur events in conjunction with ONE FC's network partners. But there is nothing here which hasn't been said before.
In fairness, January has started with a handful of reasonably strong announcements from the company. They will be returning to Malaysia in March with a card headlined by Brock Larson and Nobutatsu Suzuki's welterweight title fight, and supported by a number of intriguing match-ups - personally I'm looking forward to Andrew Leone's meeting with Shinichi Kojima because I've seen Leone fight twice and he's vicious. A number of new fighters have also signed on and, while none of them are particularly overwhelming, discerning fans will no doubt have their interests piqued.
There is no question at all in my mind that ONE FC is still finding its way as an MMA promotion and tend to get a bit ahead of themselves. For example, their recent press release trumpeted seven new signings, but listed only six, and of those six Marat Gafurov has mysteriously vanished from the press release which is posted on the ONE FC website. A small issue, true, but enough to raise a cynical eyebrow.
I still have some misgivings regarding what ONE FC is all about and what they are capable of. At the same time I hope these are unfounded because nothing will give me greater pleasure than to look back on 2014 and admit to being wrong about any concerns I had. It would mean, after all, that we had just had a fantastic year of MMA. For now, I'm going to keep an eye on local developments. Summer in Taipei, you say? I look forward to the show.