The sport of mixed martial arts (MMA) has grown exponentially in Asia in recent years with a steep and noticeable acceleration in the past 3 years alone. Evidenced by fans, promotions, gyms, and professional athletes mushrooming and multiplying from all corners of the continent today, the sport has quickly found mainstream acceptance in many of the major cities. Once a powerhouse for MMA, Japan was one of the first adopters of the sport. However, today, the tide has shifted dramatically as countries like Singapore, Malaysia, Philippines, Indonesia, and Korea and more welcome the world’s leading MMA promotions with open doors, spawning a whole new industry in these countries. MMA Insider takes an in depth look at the key leaders who have been responsible for this titanic shift towards mainstream acceptance for the sport of MMA in the world’s most populous continent of 4 billion people.
1. Victor Cui
The man at the helm of ONE Championship since it’s inception in 2011 has been Victor Cui. The face of Asia’s largest MMA promotion, Cui has been responsible for sealing landmark deals that have changed the face of MMA in Asia. A regular speaker at global sports and media conferences, Cui has brought global recognition to the fast growing sport of MMA in Asia with massive mainstream media coverage. Cui is also a veteran in sports media having held executive positions in ESPN prior to launching ONE Championship. ONE Championship has made its presence felt in just about all the major cities in Asia including Manila, Kuala Lumpur, Taipei, Jakarta, Phnom Penh, Yangon and its home city of Singapore. In 2014, the promotion also held its inaugural Middle Eastern event in the city of Dubai. Back to back press conferences this month saw Cui announcing a slew of blockbuster events to cap off 2015 with promise of even more to come in 2016.
2. Chatri Sityodtong
To date, two of Sityodtong’s sports-related companies, ONE Championship and Evolve MMA, have invested a reported $40 million into the sport of MMA in Asia. As the Founder and Chairman of ONE Championship, Asia’s largest sports media property with a global broadcast to over 1 billion homes in 70+ countries, the Harvard-educated Sityodtong prefers to take a low profile, but arguably carries the largest global rolodex of anyone in Asian MMA. ONE Championship has held sold out events in iconic cities across Asia in stadium capacities of up to 20,000 and it is backed by blue chip brands that include SONY, Haier, LG, Canon, Tune Talk, Casio, Kawasaki and a host of others. Each event is broadcast live on television around the globe and ONE Championship recently announced a landmark deal that will see it hold 26 events in mainland China across the next 2 years.
3. Nobuyuki Sakakibara
One of the original founders of Pride FC, which at one time was the biggest MMA promotion in Asia, Sakakibara is back with a brand new promotion as he looks to reclaim his share of Asian MMA. He took a hiatus from MMA after Pride FC was bought out by Zuffa in 2007, but has recently announced the launch of Japan-based Rizin Fighting Federation (RFF). Given his astounding influence within MMA in Japan, Sakakibara’s years of absence has not stopped him from getting some Pride FC stars to feature on the new organization’s inaugural card. Matchups announced include the return of Sakuraba, fighting for the first time since 2011, and Fedor returning after a three-year absence. Sakakibara has booked the Saitama Super Arena for three nights at the end of December and will put on at least two fight cards during that period.
4. Matt Hume
Known as “The Wizard” due to his legendary exploits as a fighter in the early days of MMA, Hume now centers his “wizardry” on the match-making for ONE Championship. No stranger to Asian MMA, Hume served as Rules Director for Pride FC and has intimate knowledge of the growth of the sport since its earliest days. Though he avoids the media spotlight, Hume is responsible for some of the greatest and most anticipated matchups that Asian MMA has ever witnessed, including the upcoming rematch of Ben Askren and Luis Santos on 13 November in Singapore. With Hume driving the matchmaking, it is little wonder that ONE Championship fight card announcements are highly anticipated events for MMA fans and sponsors in Asia. His knack for creating matches of international acclaim puts him clearly at the forefront of the most powerful men in Asian MMA today.
5. Moon Hong Jung
The CEO and owner of Korea’s biggest MMA promotion, Road FC, Moon Hong Jung was an MMA fighter and is a multimillionaire businessman worth over US$150m. With a reputation as an aggressive go-getter Jung has access to almost every Korean fighter in Korea. Many top Korean fighters are signed to his organization and/or are close to signing. As the top local promotion, Road FC has jumpstarted the careers of top fighters like Kang Kyung-ho and Soo Chul Kim, both of whom have gone on to compete on global organisations like the UFC and ONE Championship respectively. Having done 6 events in Korea this year with a 7th scheduled in December, Road FC is a clear leader in the local MMA scene with events broadcast live on a major cable TV channel CJ E&M in Korea. The promotion is known for being extremely effectively in garnering mainstream attention, be it by putting a Korean comedian on one of its cards or converting a ring girl to become a professional mixed martial artist. As the man behind the rapid rise and globalization of Korean MMA, Jung says he is pleased with the progress that his promotion has made.
6. Ken Berger
Taking the reins of UFC’s Asia office at the end of 2014, Ken Berger has quickly made his mark in Asian MMA with an inaugural event in Manila, Philippines in May 2015 and a scheduled one in South Korea in November 2015. Berger has a proven track record of business success throughout Asia, having worked across the region for the last 25 years. Before helming the UFC in Asia, Berger’s impressive resume includes management positions in IMG, ISL Marketing, FIFA, and his own startup Sports Marketing Japan (SMJ), which worked as a licensee for globally renowned sports properties like Serie A, NBA, NFL, PGA Tour, LPGA, UFC and ESPN. With the powerful backing of the world’s leading MMA promotion behind him and a wealth of experience in Asia, Berger has the potential to bring the UFC into uncharted territories in Asia over the next few years. With the current surge of interest for MMA in Asia, fans will be waiting expectantly for the UFC to make headway in local markets as they expand their current calendar of 4 events per year in Asia.
7. Masakazu Sakai
While Pancrase is more than two decades old, its current CEO Masakazu Sakai is still considered the new kid on the block, having taken the helm only in 2012. A businessman extraordinaire-turned-Japan’s MMA advocate, Sakai has led the organization in a resurgence of talent over the last few years that has put it firmly on the map of Asian MMA. Sakai has a strong focus in growing the MMA scene in Japan and has been known to turn down lucrative offers to co-promote the event outside of Japan. But his focus on the local market has not limited the promotion’s opportunities to attract international talent, as evidenced by the fact that former UFC and Pride FC veteran Josh Barnett is a current title holder for the promotion. Already a pillar of the Asian MMA scene, Pancrase will hold it’s 299th event in Japan on 1 November featuring a top Japanese prospects and former ONE Championship bantamweight title contender Masakatsu Ueda.
8. Shigeru Saeki
DEEP has been a fixture in the Japanese MMA scene since the days of Pride FC, and, in the pilot’s seat since 2001, is Shigeru Saeki. The promotion has been influential in bringing local talent into the spotlight of global MMA, with names like Ryo Chonan and Ikuhisa Minowa amongst its alumni. DEEP is also known as one of the few major Japanese organizations to cultivate Korean talent, including Dong Hyun Kim, Chan Sung Jung, and Doo Ho Choi. Both Dong Hyun Kim and Chan Sung Jung would eventually go on to forge successful careers in the UFC. The promotion made an international foray in 2010 by announcing an event in Macau in 2011. However, low levels of interest and dismal tickets sales led DEEP to cancel the event. But with a talent roster of some of the most up and coming talent in Japan and Korea, Saeki continues to be an influential figure in the world of Asian MMA as global MMA fans await the emergence of new stars from the ranks of his promotion.
9. Jason Lo
As the co-creator of Malaysia’s largest local MMA event, Malaysian Invasion Mixed Martial Arts (MIMMA), Jason Lo is personally responsible for bringing the amateur MMA talent into the limelight in the South East Asian peninsular. What started as a love for the sport led the rockstar-turned-CEO to first establish a relationship between the telco he heads, Tune Talk, and ONE Championship, as an official partner. Shortly after, he followed up by creating MIMMA along with his long-time friend and Minister of Sports for Malaysia, Khairy Jamaluddin. Using MIMMA as a platform to discover the best local talent across Malaysia, Lo has catapulted the careers of Malaysian fighters from humble beginnings onto the largest stages in Asian MMA. Former MIMMA champions Keanu Subba and Agilan Thani, who recently took victories in front of their home crowd in ONE Championship, are examples of the positive impact of Lo’s efforts into growing the sport in Malaysia. Just last month, Lo led MIMMA to the conclusion of its third season with a massive Grand Finals event in Kuala Lumpur’s 10,000-seater Stadium Putra.
10. Rich Franklin
As a two-time MMA world champion under the UFC’s banner, Rich “Ace” Franklin barely requires any introduction in the world of MMA. His highly publicized move to Asian MMA came when he accepted the post of Vice President of ONE Championship in 2014. With the promotion being the juggernaut of MMA in Asia, Franklin’s two-decades of expertise and experience in the business has incalculable influence on its direction. A mainstay at all ONE Championship events and press conferences, Franklin’s high profile in the media has helped legitimize the sport and extend its fan base in cities across Asia. Earlier in 2015, the former mathematics teacher, who also has a masters in education, retired from professional fighting and has now devoted his attention to bringing the sport to all corners of Asia.