SINGAPORE: Singapore has had its fair share of top-class live sporting action, but the country could soon add yet another heavyweight to its calendar.
Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), billed as the world’s premier mixed martial arts (MMA) promotion, could be considering Singapore as a regular stopover for its highly-acclaimed UFC Fight Nights.
A decision will likely be made after the standalone Fight Night Singapore on Saturday (Jun 17), which will be the first time in three years that UFC have staged an event in the country.
"We really want to see how we perform this week,” said UFC’s head of international and content Joe Carr to Channel NewsAsia. “We're already above a million Singapore dollars in gate (receipts), so I think we're 100 per cent confident that we can come back on a regular basis."
“Singapore makes probably the most sense for us across the board," Carr added. "Operationally, it's easy and clean.”
If an annual event is confirmed, Fight Night Singapore will join the likes of the HSBC Women’s Champions, HSBC Singapore Rugby Sevens, Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) Finals, and the Formula One night race in being a fixture on the Singapore sporting calendar.
'WHAT THEY’RE REALLY DOING IS SETTING THE TABLE FOR UFC'
UFC would then likely go head-to-head with ONE Championship for the MMA fan dollar.
The regional MMA promotion has been a lot more aggressive in Asia, particularly in the Philippines, where it recently claimed to have broken TV viewership records. ONE Championship has scheduled 24 events in Asia in 2017, while UFC has only three.
When asked if this had left UFC playing catch-up, Carr said that while his promotion had been growing worldwide appeal, ONE Championship had focused on the Asian “grassroots".
“It's no different than the local soccer leagues here in Southeast Asia and comparing them to the Premier League, it doesn't mean you can't be fans of both, but you still know the difference in quality and that the Premier League is probably the pinnacle of club soccer,” said Carr. “That's kind of how I see the ONE Championship-UFC dynamic.”
That dynamic, Carr added, would not extend to a possible cross-promotional fight, a move mooted by ONE Championship founder and CEO Chatri Sityodtong recently.
The Thai had called for a possible showdown between ONE’s women’s atomweight champion Angela Lee and UFC women’s strawweight champion Joanna Jedrzejczyk - a possibility Lee had said she was open to as well.
But Carr said he believed there were only five or six athletes on ONE’s roster who were up to UFC standard - and Angela Lee was not one of them, for now.
“Angela Lee, for starters is 105 pounds, and our women's division starts at 115, so that would be a pretty big jump for her from a weight-class perspective,” said Carr. “I think she's a long way away from competing against like a Joanna Jedrzejczyk or a Claudia Gadelha, that's just night and day."
"I think it's good for her to continue fighting at ONE and get that experience and grow," he added. "And then maybe at some point where she wants to test herself against the best in the world, then it'd be great for her to come over to UFC and try to do that when the time is right."
CARRYING A TORCH
Still, Carr knows that the key to marketing a largely Western product to an Asian audience lies in identifying and grooming talent from the region, including in Singapore.
It’s a model that has worked elsewhere, such as in Latin America. Mexican featherweight Yair Rodriguez for instance, rose through the ranks at one of UFC’s fighter development programmes to become a credible competitor.
Moves to replicate such efforts in this region are still preliminary – just 22 fighters out of a roster of more than 500 hail from Asia.
But Carr pointed to the handful of South Koreans and Japanese helping UFC make inroads into North Asia, as well as Filipino flyweight Jenel Lausa, who is doing likewise in the Philippines.
“When we were last (in Singapore) in 2014, Royston Wee fought for us,” recalled Carr. “When you look at a market like Ireland that I think only has six million people, but you have one Conor McGregor who's the best fighter in the world, it only takes one."
“With an individual sport like mixed martial arts, you can have one prodigy emerge and be that hero that carries the torch for the country," he said. "I think that's what our hope is, that in some of these countries we can find that one transcendent star to really transform the market."