I've been spending a lot of time in the Philippines lately attending boxing events and mixed martial arts (MMA) events and visiting various camps all over the country and and I have come to the conclusion that the difference in popularity between the two sports is nowhere near as wide as I thought it was.
At Pinoy Pride 17 earlier this month, which was billed as 'the biggest boxing event in Manila for a decade' (I think this was hyperbole given that Manny Pacquiao fought here in 2006) the brand new SM Mall of Asia Arena was nowhere near half full as Filipino fighter AJ Banal failed to win the WBO Bantamweight belt against Pungluang Sor Singyu.
This really put into perspective the significance of seeing something in the region of 16,500 fans fill the Smart Araneta Coliseum to see ONE FC's first ever show in Manila. It's worth noting that Pinoy Pride 17 would have easily attracted an audience in excess of 10,000 had it been held in Cebu and while Banal and Rey 'Boom Boom' Bautista are well known they are still not on the level of iconic Filipino boxers such as Pacquiao and Donaire.
However there is no question now that the likes of Eduard Folayang and Eric Kelly are sporting superstars who are every bit as recognizable as the vast majority of their boxing compatriots. Whereas boxing has been around in the Philippines for over a century MMA is only around ten years old and its remarkably rapid evolution here is almost entirely down to the efforts of the URCC.
The UFC is hugely popular here and ONE FC is already firmly etched onto the consciousness of the public and the media but it is the URCC which has really laid the foundation upon which Filipino MMA has been built. It launched the careers of Folayang, Kelly, Kevin Belingon and Honorio Banario and also gave Tiequan Zhang his first taste of fighting outside China.
This year marks the tenth anniversary of the URCC and to celebrate it is putting together a special card on December 1st at the SM Mall of Asia Arena which will see ONE FC title contenders Folayang and Kelly make a triumphant return to the organization that gave them their break.
I caught up with URCC founder Alvin Aguilar to discuss a decade of Filipino MMA and the upcoming URCC 22 card...
When you first founded the URCC did you ever imagine it would last for 10 years?
I knew after the third event that I would keep doing this forever. Time blew by so fast I didnt even realize that it was ten years. Now that we've gone ten years I'll make sure that we keep going a hundred more!!
The URCC is unusual in the modern era with 10 minute rounds and the use of a ring, is that something you would ever consider changing or do you think they are fundamental to the URCC's identity?
When other promoters saw the UFC they were all like "hey lets copy dat," We were doing these sort of matches way before the UFC. If you recall the first mma bouts in the UFC did not have time limits. They only put the time limits in so they could sell their PPV as they could not afford unlimited air time. Look at the fights now that have 5 min rounds the fighters dance, take the guy down, hold him down while the guy on the bottom can just chill out as he only has a minute or seconds to go by this time.
In the URCC one of the reasons why there are more finishes is that fighters all go for it as they don't wanna fight another 10 mins. So more finishes always as you cant hang on especially if you have more than five mins left in the round. I also trained with the founder of the UFC Rorion Gracie. He used the cage only so it would look good in cable and to differentiate it to the U.S. market from pro wrestling, boxing and kickboxing. His family however ALWAYS fought in the ring. He got the idea from the Mel Gibson movie (I forgot what it was) . He actually considered a moat filled with crocodiles as a fighting area. So imagine if that went through what the people who say "MMA should be in a cage" would be saying?
Lastly the reason we fight in a ring here is only the chickens fight in a cage in the Philippines!
How happy are you to see URCC fighters doing so well in ONE FC?
I'm very happy about this as this was always my goal, to showcase our MMA fighters to the world. When I said that ten years ago people laughed at me, who is laughing now?
Eduard Folayang is set to fight for the ONE FC belt against Kotetsu Boku, how do you see that fight going?
Both will be prepared for that fight. The one with the best fight plan will win for sure.
Eric Kelly and Eduard Folayang are the two most famous mixed martial artists in the Philippines, how excited are you to have them both fighting on a URCC card?
Actually they are two of the most successful fighters from the Philippines but we have lots who share the same popularity they do and are also raring to showcase their skills abroad. We all saw how well they have done in the Asian circuit but now next year when we are in the U.S. they should both be prepared for the Americans.
People will always think that I just got a bunch of foreigners to get slaughtered but this isn't the case. We only get the best opponents for our champions (no tomato cans) The American fighters are different from the Asian fighters. America has the best MMA training systems now.These guys are upcoming guys like Lowen Tynanes (Eduard's opponent). This guy was 11-0 as an amateur, 2 x Hawaii State Wrestling Champ, 2 x All American, was the Destiny Champion, X-1 Champion, 808 Battleground Champion, he is 3-0 as a pro King of the cage veteran and Heat (Japan) veteran.
He is one of the upcoming Lightweights there and this will be an awesome match up for Eduard as he will be facing somebody with a deep wrestling background who strikes really well. This is the prototype of the American MMA fighter. We must see if Eduard can handle this type of opponent so we know if we are prepared for the U.S. next year.
This will be your first show at the new SM Mall of Asia Arena, are you expecting the highest attendance in URCC history?
Yes as this is our tenth year and we have made and continue to write history not only in our country but Asia as well.
What are your favourite memories from the 10 years of the URCC?
There are so many but one of them was on our first show we were only expecting 500 people and 5000 people showed up. This is where i knew that this would be the start of something very big. Ten years later I was right because here we are with the best homegrown fighters in Asia and with the longest running MMA promotion in the region.
Do you still have plans to expand the URCC beyond the Philippines?
Yes next year.
You seem to be more focussed on putting on regular regional shows with only the occasional big 'numbered' event in Manila. Why is that?
I want to get the best fighters per area and make them fight in the big show. Plus how can something be special when its always there? Not everybody is like you and me that can watch this forever!
Will URCC 22 be streamed on the internet?
The fights involving Eduard and Eric are both booked but can you tell us who else might be on the URCC 22 card?
Its on our website go to www.urccmma.com, check out this guy 'hungry man' Jilmar Tangayan though. I discovered him in Bacolod, he was stabbed by three guys, fought back knocked them all out then fought two weeks later in the ring and still won.