The sport of mixed martial arts (MMA) has swept across the globe like a tidal wave in less than a generation, charting one of the most remarkable trajectories of growth the world has ever witnessed for a sport.
From the West to the East, MMA’s influence can be seen in the sheer number of fans, primetime television spots, and packed arenas it has filled. At the tip of this spear are the biggest MMA promotions in the world that have created and led this phenomenon.
Today, we take a look at the top 5 global MMA organizations that have been responsible for taking this sport mainstream.
1. Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC)
As the first-ever major MMA promotion, the UFC is where it all began. Though it first started out in 1993 as a no-holds-barred clash of fighting disciplines, MMA has since evolved into the beloved combat sport millions of fans around the world today. This is thanks to the efforts of UFC President Dana White and owners Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta, who bought the UFC in 2001. Over the past 20 years they have worked tirelessly with US state athletic commissions and international bodies to get the sport globally sanctioned and accepted into the mainstream.
After 360 events in 22 countries around the world, you’ll be hard-pressed to find an MMA fan who hasn’t watched a UFC event. The organization now counts in its ranks the deepest roster of fighters in the world, consisting of top athletes from the Western hemisphere including global icons like Conor McGregor, Ronda Rousey, and Jon Jones. Broadcast around the world via pay-per-view and partners such as Fox, the UFC has also established itself as the top MMA organization in the world today with almost 20 million fans on Facebook alone, approximately US$600 million in revenue, and a rumoured valuation of US$4.2 billion.
2. ONE Championship (ONE)
While the UFC has a stranglehold on the Western world, the East has come under the rule of ONE Championship in just under five short years and over 40 events to date. Establishing itself as Asia’s largest promotion with the best mixed martial artists and and world champions the continent has to offer, ONE has accumulated quite a few international superstars such as Ben Askren, Shinya Aoki, and Bibiano Fernandes, with the latest addition to the ranks of the elite being Singapore-grown women’s champion Angela Lee.
ONE also has an interesting marketing strategy for a global promotion. Instead of trying to take over the global sphere of MMA, it is focusing almost exclusively on the sleeping giant that is Asia. With over half the world’s population spread across just one continent, it’s not hard to see how this could pay off in a major way in time to come. And, it would explain why ONE’s founder Chatri Sityodtong is so confident it will cross a US$1 billion milestone valuation as ONE continues its rapid expansion across the region. After all, ONE is already Asia’s largest sports media property with close to 5 million fans on social media and a global broadcast reach of over 1 billion homes across 118 countries.
3. Bellator MMA
The closest challenger to the UFC in North America, Bellator MMA probably consists of the best western mixed martial artists in the West that aren’t already signed to the UFC such as Eduardo Dantas, Daniel Straus, and Michael Chandler. It is also currently the most prominent MMA organization to use the tournament format to determine its title challengers, and has been doing so since it was founded by Bjorn Rebney in 2008.
Now headed by the ex-CEO of the now-defunct Strikeforce, Scott Coker, Bellator operates almost entirely in the US with over a hundred events to date, with a number of those taking place in Canada and Europe in recent years as proof of its growing international presence. Bellator has an accumulated following of close to 2 million fans across its social media channels. Though owned by media giants Viacom and aired on the network’s Spike TV channel, Bellator’s has recently made the foray into pay-per-view events, though it will be quite a while before it can catch up and emerge from the shadow of the UFC in this regard.
4. World Series of Fighting (WSOF)
A relatively young organization that started just in 2012, the WSOF has made a good account of itself so far with 37 events in total featuring established fighters the likes of Jon Fitch, Rousimar Palhares, and Justin Gaethje. WSOF’s events were formerly broadcast on NBC, a major coup for such a young organization, but it soon made the transition to a pay-per-view broadcast model. While it is far from being on equal footing with Bellator, let alone the UFC, the Ray Sefo-led organization has made a couple of key strategic moves to expand onto the global stage.
Starting in 2013, WSOF has been buying and partnering with several smaller promotions around the world to integrate them into a growing global network of brands. This started in Central America, and quickly moved on to Canada, Japan, and China, with further plans to do the same in the Philippines, New Zealand, and Australia. While it remains to be seen how successful WSOF would be with just 25,000 fans on social media, it is definitely growing, and doing better than most in terms of international expansion.
5. Jungle Fight
Easily the best MMA organization to come from South America, Jungle Fight was started by longtime MMA pioneer and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu world champion black belt Wallid Ismail. It is broadcast on Brazilian network TV Band and on ESPN in America, and operates almost exclusively in Brazil with a roster filled with some of the best fighters from that part of the world.
While it does seem perfectly content to remain a Brazilian local promotion with almost 320,000 fans, it has ventured past those borders before by having an event in Slovenia in its 89-event history, qualifying it to be a part of this list. There’s no indication that it might hold another international event on its own again in the future, but Jungle Fight has affiliated itself with new startup Rizin Fighting Federation in Japan, allowing its fighters to compete outside of its promotional barriers.