One was a Filipino boy trying to lift himself out of poverty. Another was an injured Vietnamese-Australian school rugby player looking for a new way to lose weight.

Then there were the Harvard University Asian students who drafted a visionary business plan, a kid from East Java who was a victim of bullying, and a British amateur kickboxer-turned-telecommunications executive in the Indonesian capital, Jakarta

While they and many others hail from diverse backgrounds, they have all bought in and immersed themselves in a new hard-driving force in Asian sports: mixed martial arts (MMA).

MMA is the fastest growing sport globally, including in Asia. While North America is the gold standard for the sport with the Las Vegas-based Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) promotion, its popularity is now skyrocketing across a continent of billions of potential viewers.

“I’m not surprised, not at all. It was just a matter of time until Asia followed in the footsteps of the sport’s momentum in North America,” said Matt Eaton, editor of The Fight Nation, an online MMA news-site based in Hong Kong.

Asian roots

Leon Jennings, co-founder of Asian Persuasion MMA, an online combat-sports site based in Kuala Lumpur, believes the sport’s fast rise in Asia is rooted in culture and history, saying: “Asia is the home of martial arts and has a 5,000-year history here, so martial arts is a way of life for many in Asia.

“But on the other side, almost every country has its own form of martial arts: Thailand, muay thai; Myanmar, lethwei; China, kung fu and sanda; Japan, karate and judo; Korea, taekwondo; Russia, sambo.

“So although combat sports are a way of life to the many cultures here, I think MMA has taken a little longer to be accepted here than in the West, due to most countries having their own form of martial arts,” said Jennings, a former tennis teacher.

Fists and feet meet in the ring of a recent ONE Championship bout. Photo: ONE Championship

Therein lies the rub: the “little longer” has come and gone.

The sport’s business talisman is ONE Championship, the Singapore-based sports property that is Asia’s largest MMA promotion, boasting a potential television and online viewing audience of nearly two billion people for its fighting events.

While Asia-wide data on MMA’s popularity doesn’t exist, according to ONE, its own promotion went from 352 million social media and digital impressions in 2014 to 32 billion in 2018, and from 312,000 social media and digital video views to five billion over the same period across all its platforms.

The promotion, whose roots are firmly in Southeast Asia, has also expanded aggressively into China and Japan. It now has around one million Twitter and three million Instagram followers, and more than 14 million subscribers on Facebook.

The company is now considering to open offices in Los Angeles and New York, and hopes to hold its first event in the United States in 2020.

Harvard link

Chatri Sityodtong, the Thai founder, chairman and chief executive officer of ONE Championship, and Saurabh Mittal of India, the promotion’s vice chairman, mapped out their business plan while studying together at Harvard University’s Business School.

ONE Championship’s Thai founder Chatri Sityodtong in a file photo. Photo: ONE Championship

They were later joined in the venture by Hua Fung Teh of Singapore, who also went to Harvard and is currently ONE’s group president.

“We entered a market that did not have a promotion that was able to build a footprint across all of Asia. We had an advantage” being here, Teh said in an interview with Asia Times.

“You have a good starting point. We also picked a sport that has skill. I don’t think we would have had success if we started a cricket league. There’s not that many sports that are easy to understand and have such a strong history in Asia.”

ONE Championship is in an envious regional position, with the UFC sticking mostly to its home turf in North America, while holding a smattering of events in Europe, Australia and South America, according to analysts.

“UFC has not invested much in Asia and it’s a sideshow for them,” said Marcus Luer, founder of sports marketing company Total Sports Asia.

“It helps that Asia has strong local fight sport disciplines which can be used to identify fighters and incorporate them into MMA,” Luer said. “Until a few years ago, there was no real MMA gyms or places to train MMA. Fighters would come from traditional martial arts forms and then adapt to the MMA style of fighting.”

Luer added: “Local MMA organizations are all scrapping by or are funded by TV.”

A ONE Championship bout gets physical. Photo: ONE Championship

Others would beg to differ. Among them is David Burke, a Jakarta-based British telecommunications executive and chairman of ONE Pride, an Indonesian promotion that is Southeast Asia’s largest in terms of fighters under contract and annual events.

Indonesian riot

In the early 2000s, there were challenges. MMA bouts in Indonesia were modest affairs, usually held in a boxing ring inside a television studio due to limited viewer interest. In 2004, a riot broke out between rival fans at one studio event, killing several people.

RCTI, the national television broadcaster that had regularly organized and televised MMA events, immediately shut down the program. Like dominoes, another television station that promoted and broadcast events also stopped while the national regulatory body went into hibernation.

Now, MMA is back with a vengeance in Indonesia, which with 260 million people is the fourth most-populous nation on the planet. Considering the nation’s fondness for boxing and its own centuries-old martial arts discipline, pencak silat, that’s a lot of potential viewers.

The country’s new regulatory body, with the help of ONE Pride, has also formed a national MMA team. Since ONE Pride started in 2016, it has grown from a roster of 165 fighters to nearly 488 as of 2018 – exclusively Indonesian men and women – and has an MMA camp network of 245 combat sports clubs across most of the vast country’s 34 provinces.

Its television audiences boomed from 20 million in 2016 to 76 million in 2018 via national broadcaster tvONE, its media partner, and boasts a potential viewer audience of 200 million people, according to the promotion’s data.

In addition to at least 10 nationally televised “fight night” events per year on tvONE, during the 2020-21 period ONE Pride plans to work with regional Indonesian television stations to broadcast nearly 300 live local events, or nearly one per day, according to Burke.

“We want visibility in the regions,” Burke, a former kickboxer, said, adding: “We want to create celebrities and heroes and make sponsorship money for them.”

A gleaming ONE Championship titleholder belt in a file photo. Photo: Twitter

If Asian martial arts fans, and those who do such workouts at their local MMA gym after a long day at the office, are excited about the sport’s rising profile, the professional martial artists themselves have never been more galvanized – or fortunate.

Consider Filipino Eduard Folayang or Myanmar national Aung La Nsang, both of whom have been ONE Championship belt-holders and “are national heroes, worshiped by millions and inspiring children up and down their countries. And not only does ONE make these heroes, they stay strong to the core values of traditional martial arts,” Jennings said.

Filipino, Vietnamese-Aussie, Indonesian stars

Folayang, known as the “Landslide” and a former two-time ONE Championship Lightweight World Champion, was born and raised in poverty in the Philippines’ Baguio region. He began practicing the local wushu martial art in 1999 and was a member of the Philippines’ national team for years before making the transition to MMA.

“In just a short span of time, MMA has become huge. Every country has their own promotion because people can relate to the fighters, and there’s always a way to win as long as you keep on pushing,” Folayang told Asia Times. “You can still like MMA even if you like judo.”

Martin “The Situ-Asian” Nguyen, the reigning ONE Championship featherweight champion, was born and raised in Sydney to Vietnamese parents who immigrated to Australia. He was a rugby league player while at school, but was forced to quit the sport after suffering multiple injuries.

Nguyen only took up martial arts when he was 21 “to lose weight,” he said, but soon began competing and winning MMA titles in Australia and is now a national hero in both Vietnam and Australia.

“Time has flown,” Nguyen, now 30 years old, said in an exclusive interview with Asia Times. He said he is not surprised by the rapid rise of MMA promotions and fanbase in Asia. “It’s where martial arts is and initially began. It was more of a revamping and reeducating a new generation. And the marketing – it just took off,” he said.

At the same time, he notes an important difference in the sport’s Asian promotion.

ONE Championship titleholder Eduard ‘The Landslide’ Folayang in a recent bout. Photo: Facebook

“People want to see respect, they don’t want to see people being insulted, their families being insulted,” he said, taking a thinly veiled swipe at the infamous trash-talking and profanity associated with the UFC. “Here, it’s a matter of, ‘If you haven’t got anything good to say, don’t say anything at all,’” Nguyen said.

For Suwardi, Indonesia’s ONE Pride flyweight champion, it was a matter of getting beyond the bullying he was subjected to growing up on the mean streets of Madatan in East Java.

Suwardi took up the local version of pencak silat – many Indonesian regions have their own version of the ancient fighting sport – in 1994, and transitioned to MMA in 2004 after first seeing the sport on a DVD and then later on television.

He previously organized local MMA seminars, without sponsorship, to spread the word about the sport among pencak silat practitioners in and around his hometown.

“I think Indonesian people love these kind of extreme sports,” he told Asia Times. “It’s very popular now, but it depends on the future – educating people to know more about the sport and to follow it.”