But according to key stakeholders in its MMA scene that Yahoo! Singapore recently met in Tokyo, Japan, that stage is set to shift to the affluent island-state of Singapore.
Playing a pivotal role in this movement is Singapore-based MMA organisation ONE Fighting Championship (ONE FC).
“I hear that in Singapore, MMA is getting bigger because of ONE FC,” said Nobuyuki Sakakibara, former president of Japanese promotion Pride Fighting Championships, which once organised the most globally popular MMA contests before shutting down in 2007.
Going by ticket sales alone, Sakakibara is not wrong. The last three ONE FC events, held at the Singapore Indoor Stadium between 2011 to 2012, saw a progressive spike in attendance from 7,000 to 9,000.
ONE FC’s upcoming tournament at the Indoor Stadium next Friday will be headlined by an all-Japanese affair, with lightweight champion Kotetsu Boku defending his belt against highly-rated ground fighting specialist Shinya Aoki.
Aoki’s mentor Yuki Nakai, himself a legendary Brazilian jiu-jitsu practitioner in Japan, put it simply when asked who currently holds the seat of power in Asian MMA: “The biggest events are in Singapore.”
With Aoki now training out of Singapore’s Evolve gym as well, it might just be that the "biggest" Japanese fighters could be in the country too, if not already.
“Fighting in Singapore, and in ONE FC, are big status symbols among fighters in Japan right now,” claimed Hikaru Adachi, who served as a judge in Pride and is also an MMA coach.
Adachi believes this is due to Japanese stars like Aoki taking to Facebook and Twitter to constantly declare “how awesome it is to fight in Singapore”. Additionally, the 50-year-old said that in Japan, ONE FC has earned a reputation for “really taking care of its fighters... and offering big money.”
When asked what he felt were the reasons for Singapore displacing Japan’s foothold in Asian MMA, iconic Japanese fighter Norifumi "Kid" Yamamoto was quick to joke, “The money.”
ONE FC was unwilling to reveal the prize purse at stake for its fighters, but released a statement describing the organisation as “generating the biggest gate revenues, biggest list of sponsors, biggest balance sheet” in Asia, backed by “billionaire shareholders”.
“I want to see my guys in ONE FC,” said Yamamoto, who is also the founder of the Krazy Bee gym that Boku fights out of. “The people in Singapore have fresh thinking… They’re flexible. Many ideas that Japan didn’t have.”
Yamamoto was likely referring to the Japanese MMA industry’s inadequate response to the crisis that developed after Pride folded operations.
During its heyday, the sport attracted millions of Japanese viewers on three out of six free-to-air TV channels in Japan, and could easily sell out the 20,000-capacity Saitama Super Arena. Today, the most popular MMA shows are held at venues which hold 2,000 people at best. MMA events are also no longer broadcast on national TV.
The reasons for the decline?
“Poor economy, bad press, backstabbing, betting, possible yakuza involvement, business deals gone bad and later, the earthquake, tsunami and Fukushima,” rattled off ex-Pride and current ONE FC ring announcer Lenne Hardt.
Hopefully, ONE FC’s “original philosophy and concept”, as lauded by both Sakakibara and Adachi, will prove durable enough should such trying times materialise.
But this "concept", in Hardt’s opinion, hinges less on Singapore’s role as a hub than on the creation of a uniquely “Asian MMA culture”.
“ONE FC just happens to be headquartered in Singapore. What it’s doing for Asian MMA is extending an area that had up until now been limited to Japan,” said Hardt, who first started announcing MMA in 2000 and has lived in Japan for 25 years now.
Go Matsuyama, editor-in-chief of leading Japanese MMA magazine Gong, weighed in with an equally nuanced argument. “It’s not the time to decide where is the base of Asian MMA. It’s time for Asian fighters to improve together with the many small promotions throughout Asia, at grassroots level.”
Theirs is a view shared by Nakai as well as Yuji Shimada, head official of ONE FC and a veteran MMA referee with over 1,000 bouts to his name.
“It doesn’t matter which country it is,” argued Shimada. “The important thing is that MMA gains popularity throughout Asia.”