The last 12 months has seen Asian MMA continue to grow with more shows held than ever before, despite the UFC retreating entirely from the continent in 2016.
ONE Championship continues to go from strength to strength, putting on sold-out events in cities all across multiple countries in Asia, while local promotions such as Full Metal Dojo in Thailand and Kunlun Fight in China continue to push the sport forward.
These are the key figures in the industry who are using their power and influence to help the sport expand at an unprecedented rate.
Chatri Sityodtong is a multi-millionaire entrepreneur from Thailand who made his fortune on Wall Street. Sityodtong carries the largest global rolodex in Asian MMA when it comes to the martial arts industry as well as the mainstream business industry.
A lifelong martial artist, he is the chairman and founder of ONE Championship, and is now 100 per cent fully focused on leading and growing Asia’s biggest MMA promotion.
Since its inception in 2011, the organization has put on 49 mega events in the largest stadiums across the continent. With 24 more events booked for 2017, ONE Championship will further widen its considerable lead over the competition in Asia.
CNBC recently named ONE Championship as a finalist for its Unicorn Award, which recognizes startups in Asia most likely to surpass the US$1 billion valuation mark.
Sityodtong also recently spoke at the Forbes Global CEO Conference where he shared a stage with major players from the worlds of business and politics, including Indonesian President Joko Widodo and AirAsia Group CEO Tony Fernandes.
2. Victor Cui
Victor Cui is the CEO of ONE Championship, and the man who helped take the Singapore-based promotion from being just a concept in 2011 to becoming the biggest global rival to the UFC in 2016.
Under his watch, ONE Championship has held events in Singapore, Jakarta, Manila, Kuala Lumpur, Dubai, Taipei, Phnom Penh, Beijing, Guangzhou, Yangon, Changsha, Macau, Bangkok, and other cities.
Cui has also secured television deals all over the world, putting ONE Championship in front of 1 billion people in 118 different countries while selling out some of the largest indoor stadiums in Asia.
Formerly a senior executive at ESPN Star Sports, he has decades of experience operating at a corporate level in the sports entertainment industry, and he has led ONE Championship to win numerous awards, including being named ‘Best Live Sports Event’ at the recent 21st Annual Asian Television Awards.
3. Nobuyuki Sakakibara
Nobuyuki Sakakibara was the man behind Pride, which was the biggest promotion in Asia before being purchased by Zuffa in 2007.
He recently returned to the MMA industry for the first time since that historic deal to launch a new promotion called Rizin FF. Since being founded last year Rizin FF has put on four events in Japan, and featured established stars the likes of Fedor Emelianenko and Kazushi Sakuraba.
By booking some of the biggest names from Japanese MMA’s golden age as well as some of the ‘freakshow’ style matchups which were synonymous with Pride, he has helped to establish his new promotion as a major player on the global stage.
Rizin FF will be holding two events at the Saitama Super Arena at the end of the year.
4. Matt Hume
Matt Hume is an Asian MMA pioneer who fought on some of the early Pancrase events and went on to serve as the head official for first Pride and then DREAM in Japan. He is widely regarded as being one of the greatest coaches in the history of the sport and has a wealth of experience and knowledge that is unparalleled.
Hume is currently the Vice President of Operations & Competition at ONE Championship, where his responsibilities include fighter recruitment and matchmaking. He has helped the promotion secure the signatures of some of the most sought after fighters on the planet including Bibiano Fernandes, Ben Askren, and Shinya Aoki.
He has also helped ONE Championship develop the most sophisticated and modern set of rules and regulations currently seen in the sport.
5. Masakazu Sakai
Masakazu Sakai is the man currently in charge of Pancrase, one of the world’s most venerable domestic MMA promotions. It is a role he has held since 2012, and the organization has enjoyed a renaissance in recent years, booking some well known international fighters alongside the ever-present stable of Japanese talent.
There have occasionally been Pancrase events outside of Japan, but these have been few and far between. In the early days, Pancrase featured the likes of Matt Hume and Ken Shamrock, and in recent years the promotion has seen fighters like Koji Oishi, the former ONE Championship Featherweight World Champion, enjoy success on the international stage.
In the modern era, Pancrase events are streamed live online, and can be watched anywhere in the world.
Shigeru Saeki is the president of long running Japanese promotion DEEP and has been involved in the Japanese MMA scene for decades. DEEP has helped launch the career of Japanese legends such as Ryo Chonan, Ikuhisa Minowa, and Shinya Aoki, with the latter going on to become the ONE Championship Lightweight World Champion.
DEEP’s spiritual home is the 1,246 capacity Differ Ariake Arena in Tokyo, and under Saeki’s watch the promotion has emerged as a stable presence on the Japanese MMA scene.
7.Moon Hong Jung
Moon Hong Jung is the CEO and owner of Road FC, which has emerged as the biggest MMA promotion in Korea. Jung was a successful kickboxer, and is a trained martial artist as well as a multi-millionaire businessman.
He has signed some of Korea’s top fighters, and has given a platform to the likes of Kang Hyung Ho and Soo Chul Kim, who have gone on to fight for the UFC and ONE Championship respectively.
Road FC is set to finish 2016 with an event in Seoul on 10 December, which will be broadcast by the Super Action channel in South Korea.
8. EJ Calvo
EJ Calvo is the CEO of Pacific Xtreme Combat (PXC), a Guam-headquartered promotion that regularly puts on events in the Philippines.
The promotion has put on semi-professional cards in multiple Filipino provinces, with shows taking place in Baguio, Bicol, Cagayan De Oro, and Lipa. PXC also puts on bigger cards in Manila featuring professional fights, and has emerged as the major domestic force in the Philippines.
The promotion continues to put on regular events in Guam, where Calvo’s family own both a TV network and a production company. Numerous PXC fighters have gone on to star for ONE Championship and the UFC, including Eugene Toquero, Hyun Gyu Lim, and Jon Tuck.
9. Jason Lo
Jason Lo is the man behind Malaysian Invasion Mixed Martial Arts (MIMMA), the biggest amateur MMA tournament ever held in Asia. Founded in 2013, MIMMA recently completed its third season, and holds trials all over Malaysia as part of an annual tournament which attracts hundreds of mixed martial artists.
Lo is also a famous rock star in Malaysia, as well as the CEO of telecommunications company Tune Talk. In the latter role, he helped to establish an official partnership between Tune Talk and ONE Championship, and in addition MIMMA champions such as Keanu Subba, Agilan Thani, and Muhammad Aiman have gone on to earn contracts with Asia’s biggest MMA promotion.
10. Ha Dongjin
Ha Dongjin is a former wrestler who founded Korean Top Team in 2003, at a time when Asian MMA was still very much in its infancy. It quickly emerged as the most successful MMA camp in South Korea, launching the career of UFC fighter ‘The Korean Zombie’ Chan Sun Jung, among others.
In 2013, Dongjin set up a bespoke promotion called Top FC, which has quickly emerged as a serious rival to Road FC with events broadcast live by IB sport in South Korea. Current Korean Top Team stars include Hyun Gyu Lim, Dongi Yang, Kwan Ho Kwak, and Tae Hyun Bak.