With a Spinning Elbow and Flying Kick, Mixed Martial Arts Squares Up to Asia

New reality series The Ultimate Fighter set to help Mixed Martial Arts become the region's next big sport

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Romeo Ranoco / Reuters

Japanese lightweight King of Pancrase Koji Oishi fights ONE Fighting Championship (FC) featherweight world champion Honorio Banario (bottom) of the Philippines during the ONE FC mixed martial arts (MMA) tournament at the Mall of Asia Arena in Pasay city, metro Manila May 31, 2013.

On Dec. 7, around 830 million households will be introduced to spinning back fists, flying knees and the guillotine choke when the reality series The Ultimate Fighter debuts on Chinese television. The show’s basic format will remain the same as its popular U.S. counterpart — 16 Chinese fighters will live, train and brawl together, with two emerging as champions.

After a grueling tournament, the finalists are set meet in Macao in early March to battle it out at the Venetian’s Cotai arena for a couple of six-figure Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) contracts. In between, stars will be born, underdogs unexpectedly triumph and rivalries forged as the world’s most populous nation is introduced to mixed martial arts (MMA) — a fighting competition without the narrow rules of, for example, boxing or judo and where, almost, anything goes.

Although the fastest growing sport in the world, this Western-born aspirant has not until now been embraced in Asia — the spiritual home of Kung Fu, Karate, Muay Thai and a host of other iconic fighting styles. That, however, looks likely to change with UFC — the original and largest of dozens of MMA promotions currently in the U.S. — aggressively staking a claim.

“Historically, The Ultimate Fighter has been a great show to introduce the sport of mixed martial arts, and the UFC as the leader of the sport, to wider audiences,” UFC Asia managing director Mark Fischer told TIME. “We expect it to be a similar type of game changer in China as we bring out the Chinese version.” Although there have been significant inroads into Southeast Asia in recent years, promoters believe the Middle Kingdom’s huge population remains the golden ticket.

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Yet MMA’s domestic nascence was far from smooth. When the U.S. reality television series first hit the airwaves on Spike TV in early 2005, the sport was still nursing the black eye it had earned a decade earlier when it was little more than sanctioned street fighting. There were only three rules when UFC debuted in the early 1990s — no biting, eye gouging or fish hooking. Weight classes were nonexistent, neither were judges or rounds for that matter. Bouts ended when fighters tapped out, were knocked out or threw in the towel. A backlash against the gruesome spectacle saw 36 states bar the sport. (Senator John McCain famously derided MMA as “human cocking fighting” and pushed for an outright ban.)

Then Las Vegas came into the mix. In 2001, Station Casino executives Frank Fertitta III and his brother Lorenzo bought the UFC brand for a meager $2 million. The owners embarked on a massive overhaul to professionalize the sport and began sanding down the barbaric edges that provided MMA with a cult following among hardcore fight fans but kept it firmly out of the mainstream.

Eventually, MMA turned the corner after bringing in weight classes, rounds, judges and a plethora of rules, as well as another $10 million in positive publicity. “It paid back in spades because it introduced all the background to the sport, putting a human face on it, telling all the stories and drama behind the sport,” says Fischer. Five years later, UFC’s President Dana White boasted of a promotion worth well over $2 billion and growing. MMA had crossed the Rubicon.

And the latest push is to bring MMA to Asia — the continent responsible for the myriad martial arts disciplines that provide its essential building blocks. Signs are already positive as the Internet and new promotions have begun to steadily introduce MMA to the Asian masses. Gyms that offer MMA training are sprouting up across the continent, with the promise of getting clients into fighting shape regardless of whether they harbor any ambition to actually face off in an actual bout.

At Hayabusa, a martial arts fitness center in middle of the Hong Kong’s pulsating financial district, white-collar bankers practice straight rights and sweeping kicks alongside aspiring amateur and professional fighters. In the year since opening, the gym has already attracted more than a thousand clients. “It’s more than we expected actually,” says Hayabusa director Andy Lai. “Hopefully, we will expand after Chinese New Year.”

In Thailand, professional and amateur fighters from Korea, China, Japan and Malaysia, along with throngs of Westerners, are heading to sparring camps near the country’s famed white beaches to sharpen their traditional Muay Thai kickboxing skills, but also improve their jujitsu holds and grappling — essential tools for MMA. Will Elliot, the director of the Tiger Muay Thai in Phuket, says within just seven years his gym “went from pretty much a ragtag operation to a full-blown place where people can get world class pre-fight training under UFC veterans. I’ve seen a huge progression.”

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Or take Malaysia. According to Victor Cui, owner and CEO of ONE Fighting Championship, until now the largest MMA organization in Asia, few were interested when the company first arrived in the country just two years ago. Today, there are more than 30 MMA gyms operating across the capital Kuala Lumpur alone, and ONE FC has held two sold out events.

“We have a major blue chip telecomm sponsor and the Ministry of Youth and Sports of Malaysia has formally acknowledged that they will focus on the sport of mixed martial arts,” he says. “You’ve gone from zero support to government support, corporate support to public support to grassroots.”

Since launching, the Singapore-based promotion has already laid claim to 90% of MMA’s market share across Asia and packed out stadiums in Manila, Jakarta, KL and Singapore. “I’m watching this business grow into a multi-billion dollar empire in North America, but it was non-existent in Asia three years ago or four years ago,” say Cui. “Asia has always been ready for mixed martial arts… but nobody has approached it from a media-side like ONE FC has.”

Behind the scenes, Cui has made some of his largest investments in ensuring that not only his business thrives but that MMA also spreads deep roots across the region. One of Cui’s initial moves was to host a MMA summit in Singapore where he brought together about 500 people from the industry — gym owners, trainers, promoters and fighters from across Asia to discuss a cooperation scheme. Now he boasts approximately 2,000 fighters signed to exclusive contracts, and a 10-year deal with ESPN Star Sports puts ONE FC in touch with 450 million viewers in 25 different countries.

Naturally, he’s brimming with confidence. “Marital arts have been practiced in Asia for the past 5,000 years. Everybody gets it,” says Cui. “We know it. We love it. We follow it. It’s not unusual for us to see someone flying through the air and people kicking each other.” And with fans like that, the sport will always have a fighting chance.

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