It wasn't long ago that the UFC was in second place. Back when the giants of PRIDE were the name of the game and Japan's Saitama Super Arena was the center of the world, the west was almost an afterthought.
That time is gone now. The decline of Asian MMA happened quickly, with a whimper, not a bang. But remnants of a generation raised on the myths of Fedor Emelianenko and Kazushi Sakuraba are still here. Those who witnessed the spectacle of PRIDE first-hand understand the viability of eastern martial arts. It's hard to forget.
Now the race has changed. The sprint has become a marathon, to revive a scene left for dead and revitalize the spirit of the mid-2000's. It's here that the Singapore-based ONE Fighting Championships has abruptly emerged as the odds-on favorite, and at the heart of it all is a fight-crazed 40-year-old Canadian businessman.
"My dream is to build the best MMA organization in Asia," ONE FC founder Victor Cui says simply. "I will never be satisfied until every single person in Asia is an MMA fan."
Cui's goals may seem lofty, but since ONE FC debuted in mid-2011, the organization has made unprecedented international strides, stunning skeptics by inking a 10-year broadcast partnership with ESPN Star Sports, Asia's largest sport content provider, in a contract unmatched in both its length and scope. "This deal is a giant step forward," Cui explains. "Combined with our other broadcast deals, we now have over 500 million viewers who have access to (ONE FC).
"(ESPN) has realized the potential growth MMA has in the Asian region. No sport in Asia has a 10-year deal, not tennis, not golf, no basketball and this is just the beginning."
In the race for eastern eyeballs, Cui's savvy wheeling and dealing has ONE FC marathon ready. With two shows already in the books, and a third set for this Saturday, the ONE FC brand has more or less become MMA's ambassador to Singapore, India, the Philippines, Thailand and various other regions throughout Asia. And as an added incentive to western audiences, Saturday's entire fight card will be streamed free of charge on YouTube. "The response from the fans has been insane," Cui says.
"This allows fighters the chance to fight more times than ever before, which means more experience, more exposure and higher pay-days."
Nostalgia can a major seller in all walks of life, and ONE FC welcomes that fact in a way rarely seen in today's MMA. The promotion's special brand of violence, which Cui labels "a blend of the very best from the west and the east," embraces a bloody mish-mash of the unified rules and PRIDE rules, allowing for not only head stomps and soccer kicks, but also knee and elbow strikes to the head of a downed opponent, providing for an explosive, potentially gruesome form of combat. "What we try to do is give the fans what they want," Cui proclaims. "Our promise is to bring our audience the best Asian fighters and put on the best world class MMA show they have ever seen."
However all the attention in the world is irrelevant without a roster that can raise eyebrows. To that extent, Cui knew he needed help. So using the immense personal network he collected in his past life in public relations, Cui embarked on an exasperating chase to end the dog-eat-dog mantra of fight promotion and unite Asia's top organizations under one roof.
In any industry driven by human ego and selfish competing interests, the idea of large scale collaboration seems laughable. But somehow Cui sold it the right way, the end result being the ONE FC Network, a fascinating talent-sharing alliance between top gyms and promotions throughout the eastern hemisphere, including Japan's DREAM and DEEP, the Philippines' URCC, Australia's CFC, Korea's ROAD FC and Thailand's DARE Championship.
Now, seemingly overnight, Cui holds one of the world's largest roster pools at his disposal. "Asia is a region where the MMA talent is largely untapped," he explains.
"The ONE FC Network is based on trust, support and friendship, but most importantly, it is a network that clearly benefits everyone. Other promotions get to work together and avoid conflicting plans and have their champions fight other champions on ONE FC, gyms get greater opportunities for their fighters, and fighters get more pay days. We have greater opportunities for TV deals, sponsors, and endless business benefits. Everyone wins."
The first indication of ONE FC's blended new world will come this Saturday, as Cui pilfered top-ranked Japanese featherweight Tatsuya Kawajiri from DREAM to meet American-born Donald Sanchez at ONE FC 3: War of the Lions, on a card that also features DEEP champions Masakazu Imanari, Yuya Shirai, and Yoshiyuki Nakanishi, URCC champion Eduard Folayang, and DREAM veteran Melvin Manhoef. Of course, as the network adapts to its new web of relationships, Cui also has his eyes on several other primetime targets, chief among them being perennial top-ten lightweight and reigning DREAM champion Shinya Aoki.
Ultimately, ONE FC's remarkable rise is still far from a finished product. But with a full plate of 2012 shows lined up across Asia, including stops in Malaysia, the Philippines and Singapore, the promotion that continues to defy expectations has inched its way closer to becoming the new face of Asian mixed martial arts.
"It's been nothing but a positive growth and I am so blown away by that," Cui humbly admits.
"I credit the wonderful people I work with, the team we have driving ONE FC and of course our partners. This is only the beginning and it is just going to get better from here."