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Fighting Talk: UFC’s Fischer eyes ‘major league’ growth across Asia

MARK FISCHER, Managing Director of UFC Asia, talks about how the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) is helping make MMA one of the hottest new sports in Asia, led by Japan and Korea but with huge growth plans for China and Southeast Asia.


By SportAsia


You predicted UFC would stage five, six, maybe seven events in Asia in 2014. You’ve already staged Fight Nights in Singapore (January 4) and Macau (March 1), so what else is coming up this year?

We’re looking at going back to Macau in August with a slightly different format, with more of a global type of event. The recent one had a little more focus on The Ultimate Fighter China finale, with other great fights on the card. The next one will be more focused on an international card.


We’ve got Japan lined up for the third quarter, going back to Saitama Arena, where we’ve had great success the last couple of times. We’re looking in the fourth quarter at Seoul, Jakarta and possibly one or two other venues. We’re also in final discussions for an event in Manila. These are all key markets for us that are welcoming us to come and we just need to dot the i’s and cross the t’s.


We’re also looking at coming back to Singapore, probably in December, which is a little bit of a cheat because it was supposed to be in January [2015]!


What were your thoughts on UFC Fight Night Macao, your second in the city after the 2012 debut?

The attendance was a sell-out thanks to The Venetian Macao and everyone who worked so hard on the event. We had 6,000 fans in attendance, packing the arena. Matt Mitrione had a heck of a knockout in the first UFC heavyweight fight ever held in Greater China. Zhang Lipeng was crowned The Ultimate Fighter China – the first ever. Dong-hyun Kim had an amazing performance and we’re already talking about that as the Knockout of the Year so far – he’s definitely, definitely a candidate.


UFC is making big inroads into Asia, but there are other competing MMA (mixed martial arts) properties also battling for market share. How do you feel UFC is shaping up against the competition in this part of the world?

We don’t really see them as competition. These guys are minor leagues, which is great and important for the sport. It’s a complementary position. They help to promote the sport at the regional level, which gives aspiring fighters who would not immediately be able to enter the UFC a chance to compete, a chance to ply their trade in regional promotions.


It’s a little bit akin, say, in baseball to the major leagues and the minor leagues. It’s like the NBA and the Asean Basketball League or this sort of thing. Again, not competition. I think it’s great that promotions are cropping up all over. It shows the strength of how the sport is growing.



Do you feel there are Asian MMA heroes already out there and are you hoping others will come along?

Japan and Korea are certainly the most advanced markets in Asia for our sport. There are some great fighters coming out of those places that are already heroes, not only in the home markets.


Korean MMA pioneer Kim Dong-hyun is already a major star in the UFC.

Korean MMA pioneer Kim Dong-hyun is already a major star in the UFC.

Guys like DH Kim (Kim Dong-hyun) and ‘Korean Zombie’ (Chan Sung-jung) are already international stars. They’re already very popular in the United States, for example. In Japan, [Takanori] Gomi is a legend and we’ve got some great fighters that have entered UFC recently that are becoming stars. However, I feel like we’re almost ‘losing’ them. They have a couple of good fights in Asia and then we lose them to the big pay-per-views in Las Vegas or Brazil.


So, we see heroes happening in North Asia already. It’s absolutely going to happen in China. The sport is growing everywhere and MMA gyms are cropping up everywhere. The great thing about our sport is that it takes any race, creed, colour or size. You can be a champion regardless of where you come from and Asia has the deep base of martial arts, or mixed martial arts, with the UFC being the highest of all the versions. It’s clear that we’re going to have a champion from Asia in years to come who will be a regional and global superstar.


How successful has The Ultimate Fighter China series been in promoting the sport?

Zhang Lipeng won a six-figure contract with the UFC by becoming welterweight champion of The Ultimate Fighter China, while Wang Sai, the runner-up in Macau, will also get a shot. The series itself has been a big boost to our awareness. Being on Liaoning Satellite TV has enabled us to reach all corners of China. Before we were on about a dozen regional stations in China, which was great, but we were missing a couple of pieces there.


We’ve had about 10 million people tune in every week to at least part of the show during the 12 episodes. We don’t yet have all the results in and we’re still tabulating the surveys and so on, but there’s no doubt it has created a big boost for our awareness. Going forward, we just want to build on that with fighter-development programmes and ultimately a major event on the mainland, probably in 2015.


Is there a commitment for a second season of The Ultimate Fighter China?

Fisher flanked by Wang Sai (left) and Zhang Lipeng ahead of The Ultimate Fighter China welterweight finale in Macau.

Fischer flanked by Wang Sai (left) and Zhang Lipeng ahead of The Ultimate Fighter China welterweight finale in Macau.

Yes, on paper. We’re going to go through the full review and work on exactly how we’re going to do it in season two. But absolutely, it’s our intent. It will be once a year, which is enough for now. Maybe we’ll get to twice a year for the future. We’re also looking at a Southeast Asia version and at ‘Korea v Japan’, but Southeast Asia would come first.


You had many years working with the NBA in China and Asia, so what’s the catalyst for growing a sport? Is it having a role model that people can identify with?

I think it’s a combination of things. Yao Ming was a catalyst, but it’s also having the right resources to take advantage of that, so once you have that spark, to keep the fire going. That includes grassroots programmes, bringing big events, continuing to improve your TV coverage, your media coverage and so forth. It all kind of fits together in this integrated marketing mix that us sports guys try to create.


Southeast Asia has a rich tradition of martial arts, most obviously in Thailand. Do you see stars emerging from that region?

I do. It will take a little longer because they’re a little further behind some of the other markets, but they have some of their own martial arts and clearly Muay Thai is incredibly prominent in Thailand.


It’s really a question – and it’s already happening – of those guys learning the grappling, of not necessarily getting stuck in the Muay Thai world, but starting at a younger age of coming out of that and learning some of the other skills that make a mixed martial artist. We see that happening.


There’s actually a lot of MMA camps based in Thailand where some of the UFC fighters go down for training. MMA is clearly growing there and it’s led by a lot of these MMA camps.


Overall, are you pleased with how quickly the UFC and MMA is gaining acceptance in Asia?

You’ve got to be patient. Rome wasn’t built in a day, but we’ve definitely built the foundation already. I don’t think there are any major obstacles. I think it’s really just step by step, doing things like The Ultimate Fighter, fighter-development programmes to get the talent level up from this region and giving them good coaching. Getting that winner out of the region is going to be a real spark. It’s all building to these moments.


In the meantime, we’ve got great television partners and we’re building the audience, largely by getting out to literally millions – potentially more, billions – in Asia through our TV. All of this is coming together.


We’re arguably 10 years, 20 years, behind places like North America and Brazil. People need to be patient. This is our first foray, but the thing is: in China, once you get big, you get real big. I saw that with the NBA. The NBA has been around for a hundred years and was on TV for 20 years before Yao Ming entered and had that incredible success. We’re in that building phase – it’s going to happen. It’s just a question of when. It’s going to take off. I think UFC, in particular, has incredible potential within five years – 10 on the outside – to be a top-three sport in China.

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