Saturday's UFC show at the Mercedes-Benz Arena in Shanghai, China, was a night in which the value of the show was far more than the sum of its fights or name value of its fighters.
On paper, this would be a card that would seem almost a throwaway. It wasn't on U.S. television, airing on the online Fight Pass service, in the middle of the night U.S. time. Aside from the two main eventers, Michael Bisping and Kelvin Gastelum, there was nothing even close to star power.
But the show was important for a future major play: the attempt to break into and market the sport in mainland China. The UFC tried to get an event in Shanghai for years, but getting into the country was a very slow process. The UFC succeeded in running a sold-out show with 15,128 fans. But even if they only drew half that number, this show was more about laying a foundation. Even more notable than the sellout attendance, is that this was not an audience of curiosity seekers, either going to see a form of entertainment they knew nothing about, or an audience there primarily to see uncontrolled violence.
UFC president Dana White used to say, when predicting the worldwide potential of the sport, is that unlike popular American sports like baseball, football and basketball, that you have to understand rules and strategies based on growing up with the sport. It doesn't always translate to new markets, but that people have an interest in fighting since it’s in their DNA no matter what culture it is.
While simplistic, there is something to that. Most people are either drawn to, or repulsed, by a wild slugfest. But while MMA sometimes creates that type of fight, in the big picture, it is a sport about skill and strategy. For a first-time show in the market, you expect the early-era, learning-curve audience, one that wants to see fights, but doesn't know or understand the skill and strategy aspects.
And that's where the crowd reactions all night long were such a big surprise.
In many ways, it was the kind of audience one would wish to be there every Saturday night. They reacted loud to almost every fight. The knowledge level of the ground game was a huge surprise, as the crowd reacted big to reversals, and maneuvers that were teasing submission set ups. There was no booing when fights hit the ground, or when action slowed to a crawl, as there often is in new markets. The crowd arrived early and there was no disinterest when fighters came out who weren't stars, or weren't natives.
It was clear that this was not only an audience that knows UFC from television and watches closely. But the audience also had some knowledge of local promotions, as they seemed to know the Chinese fighters individually.
Like every business designed to go worldwide, China is the untapped dream market because of its emerging economy and its 1.4 billion population. Many companies also target India, and the UFC publicly has, but has never been able to make it work. Entertainment events drawing paid spectators in India is difficult. And even though MMA has been around there for years, they've yet to produce anything resembling a competitive star nor has its population supported smaller companies.
While she didn't win, it was clear in the third fight that the people saw 21-year-old women's bantamweight fighter Wu Yanan as a star. Two fights later, 19-year-old featherweight Song Yadong did win. When Yadong finished Bharat Kandare in the first round with a front choke, the reaction was like Georges St-Pierre's win over Matt Serra in Montreal. Yadong came across as an exciting fighter, but it's hard to get a read on him based on the quality of his opponent. Stylistically, he came across at first similar to Yair Rodriguez, an exciting creative offensive fighter who has potential to be a popular star.
Song Kenan, a welterweight known for fast finishes, lived up to that reputation by finishing Bobby Nash in just 15 seconds after dropping him and landing punches on the ground.
Wang Guan, who has a 20-1-1 record seemed to dominate Alex Caceres, who, even though his 13-11 record wouldn't indicate it, is a very legitimate fighter. The scores gave Guan a split decision win, but it's impossible to find two rounds that Caceres won, and 100 percent of media scores favored Guan.
Just from the crowd size and the reactions, it's clear there is a large fan base already there. Making money from it is the tricky question. China is a hard market for foreign businesses to navigate. And in a fight business, the key is finding that right star, and him being able to fight competitively with the top names, or even better, become championship level.
If one of these fighters can do so, and the public perceives it as a significant major sport that one of their own athletes is a major star in, the potential is huge. The NBA in the Yao Ming era is the template.
But this is still the long-play game. The idea at this point is not how much money can be made in China, or even if money can be made at all right now. It's about exposing the product to where a large number of kids will grow up wanting to be UFC fighters. If they see natives succeeding, it will be their motivation. In time, if the underground is grooming tons of fighters, the odds get a lot better that a native star who can compete at the top level will emerge, and if the business end is ready, that's when all these moves will start to pay off.
Let's look at how Fortunes changed for five stars of the show:
KELVIN GASTELUM - Gastelum (15-3, 1 no contest) scored the biggest win of his career in finishing the man who was middleweight champion until three weeks earlier in Michael Bisping.
Bisping had only been knocked out twice in his career, the famous UFC 100 finish with Dan Henderson, and by Vitor Belfort during his insane 2013 run with a TRT exemption. Immediately the question that had to be asked was if Bisping should have ever been put in the cage so soon after the St-Pierre loss.
The quickness of the fight lends credence to that idea. But the punch Gastelum landed would have finished most fighters. It didn't seem like a wise move, as far as winning was concerned, for Bisping to take the fight. But it wasn't as if he went down from something that wasn't a great shot.
Gastelum immediately challenged interim champion Robert Whittaker. That's probably not happening right away. Whittaker vs. St-Pierre is clearly the fight the company wants, and it's up to St-Pierre to make a decision on if and when. If not, Luke Rockhold would seem to have the best shot at getting Whittaker.
For Gastelum, the fight that makes the most sense for him, and he's also asked for it, is a rematch with Chris Weidman (14-3), who Gastelum hurt early before losing to a triangle in the third round over the summer.
MICHAEL BISPING - It's already been made clear that Bisping (31-9), has one fight left, on March 2 at the O2 Arena in London, the building he helped open for UFC in 2007. The only question is the opponent.
This isn't a quest to get in the mix for a title match. It's about a one-time fight that will create interest and lead to a fitting end. The problem is the best people for the job aren't available. Bisping already fought Dan Henderson, a second time, in Henderson's retirement bout. Anderson Silva, who Bisping defeated already in a close fight, is suspended. A rubber match with Rockhold (16-3) would be the right kind of farewell fight, but Rockhold may not be available given a possible fight with Whittaker. Wanderlei Silva and Chael Sonnen are both in Bellator. The fight that makes the most sense may be against the currently mere mortal version of Belfort (26-13)
WANG GUAN - Guan may have the most impressive record of the recent Chinese signings, but at 31 and in a speed division like featherweight, he's not someone you can build slowly.
A next opponent could be Artem Lobov (13-14), who doesn't have the best record but has more experience with bigger names and enough of a name himself that it would help establish Guan with a win.
ZABIT MAGOMEDSHARIPOV - Riding a 10-fight winning streak with two straight UFC submissions, Magomedsharipov (14-1) earned himself a name fighter next. Jeremy Stephens (26-14) is the right opponent for him, a top 10 fighter who would answer questions about what happens if Magomedsharipov gets rocked, or if he steamrolls through another opponent, now it's known he's a real top-tier player.
SONG YADONG - This one gets tricky, because at 19, Yadong (10-3, 2 no-contests) has time to be built slowly. Wuliji Buren (10-5), who lost to Rolando Dy in his UFC debut, showed some wrestling ability and would be a good opponent.