The world’s largest mixed martial arts organisation is looking to knuckle its way into Asia amid warnings the move could spark a brawl with regional promotions over a slice of the lucrative market.
The Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), which has made cage fighters such as Conor McGregor and Ronda Rousey into household names, earlier this year announced five events beginning with a card in Singapore on June 17 after a 19-month hiatus from Asia.
The Las Vegas-based UFC's return to Asia represents the organisation's latest crack at expanding its foothold in the birthplace of martial arts.
UFC have held shows in Asia from Tokyo to Manila but analysts say the efforts have yielded mixed returns on their investment compared to record-breaking triumphs in North America.
"Dana White (the UFC president) has come out here before and that's kind of his style to come out and say amazing things: 'We're so focused on Asia. China's going to be our next big things for us'," Matt Eaton, editor of the Hong Kong-based Rough Magazine, told AFP. "But it never really played out."
The UFC made a concerted push to enter the Chinese market throughout 2014.
They held two shows in the southern Chinese city of Macau and produced a season of its signature reality TV series “The Ultimate Fighter” that aired in the mainland featuring Chinese contenders battling for a UFC contract.
But less than a year after the show hit the airwaves the company shuttered its Beijing office and relocated operations to Singapore.
"They have not penetrated the market in Asia as they think they may have thought they would five, six, seven years ago," said Marc Raimondi, assistant editor at MMAFighting.com.
During a press conference in Singapore in February the UFC’s top brass promised their sights were firmly fixed on Asia.
"We're aware of the need for an Asian champion as we've never had one, said Joe Carr, UFC Head of International and Content. "That's really the last piece of the puzzle for us."
- 'Home of martial arts' -
But the UFC’s re-entry into Asia comes after regional promoters have spent years grooming local talent and signing television deals throughout the continent, introducing millions of new fans to the ways of cage fighting.
In South Korea the country’s largest promoter Road FC has tapped the sport’s growing popularity by hosting dozens of shows while exhibiting international ambition by holding three events in China and a night in Tokyo.
In Japan, Rizin has also risen to prominence since launching in 2015, drawing hardcore fans with its old-school styled tournaments and bouts featuring aging legends of the sport.
But leading the way has been Singapore-based ONE Championship — the main muscle behind the MMA explosion in Asia claiming 90 percent of the region’s market share.
The company has hosted more than 50 shows in 13 cities across Asia to date with more than a dozen events confirmed for this year.
"Culturally, it's a sport that lends itself to the region," said ONE’s CEO Victor Cui. "Asia is the home of martial arts so the adoption rate has been very quick."
The promotion is set to square off with its North American rival on its home turf when it holds its own Singapore show weeks ahead of the UFC’s fight night in the city state.
The card will feature the organisation’s top young star, atomweight champion Angela Lee, and a host of homegrown fighters from around Asia.
The UFC meanwhile has announced bouts featuring Belarusian heavyweight Andre Arlovski and Brazilian welterweight Rafael Dos Anjos, who are widely respected veterans of the sport but lack the superstar punch of the company’s leading athletes.
"When ONE runs a show in Singapore, they’re putting their best talent on that card. They’re putting on Angela Lee… they’re putting on people that are known the world over in Singapore,” said Raimondi. "UFC has Las Vegas and ONE has Singapore.”
But in the MMA business a competitive fight -- whether in the cage or marketplace -- means potentially more money and athletes for the young sport. And as the UFC sees it, the sport's growing popularity offers chances to discover talent worldwide.
"Regional promotions allow a young MMA athlete to hone his/her craft," says Carr. "And chase the dream of eventually making it to the UFC mountaintop."