The MMA scene in Asia has evolved so rapidly in the last year that even the UFC is struggling to keep up and, having seen most of the local talent snapped up by ONE FC, it is desperately trying to add Asian fighters to the roster.
ONE FC has provided a platform for the best fighters from places like the Philippines, Malaysia and Singapore to fight in front of sold out stadiums and arenas on shows that are televised by ESPN Star Sports, something which would have been unthinkable a couple of years ago.
This rapid expansion has caught the UFC, who had been working for years to put on a card in Manila without making any tangible progress, by surprise and the response by MMA's original superpower has been to scour the continent in order to pick up any Asian fighters who might still be available.
These efforts have ruffled a few feathers among existing Asian promotions with some voices of dissent making themselves heard this month. Firstly Moon Hong Jung (pictured with ONE FC CEO Victor Cui), the man behind Korean promotion Road FC, lashed out. He was frustrated at seeing Kyung Ho Kang snapped up by the UFC immediately after becoming the inaugural Road FC Bantamweight Champion,
"They use their reputation to recruit talent, while the talent-builders like us get nothing. Do you know how much of our resources we spend to discover and develop talent? However, Kang really wanted to go, so I let him, even though UFC didn't pay anything to our organization."
Moon is a former fighter himself who is still heavily involved in the coaching side and cornered his student Soo Chul Kim for his recent ONE FC title fight. He did not get into the MMA business in order to deny the dreams of fighters but at the same time losing Kang, who will be appearing at UFC on Fuel TV 6, without receiving any compensation still rankles,
"They (the UFC) use their reputation to recruit talent, while the talent-builders like us get nothing. I really believe Korean fighters have great potential on the international stage. With a constant talent drain for nothing, however, it's really tough to keep the domestic scene competitive."
Another Asian promotion, Legend FC, was faced with a similar dilemma when the UFC wanted to put it's welterweight champion, Bae Myung Ho, on the Macau card. They showed the Zuffa money men short shrift and were left with an extremely disillusioned fighter as the Korean made his disappointment known,
"I was actually supposed to fight at UFC Macau and had gotten a contract offer, but Legend FC would not let me fight in another organization. There was actually a contract dispute because I did not know such a rule was in place, I thought it would make more sense for champions of smaller orgs to fight in bigger orgs to prove how strong that organization was."
"I have nothing against Legend FC but my dream is to fight in the UFC, and it left a bad taste in my mouth that Legend FC would not let me fight in the UFC when I was prepared physically to do so. It is not a fun situation right now, but I have not thought too much on whether or not I will ever fight in Legend FC again."
Although it appears that Legend FC successfully rebuffed the UFC's approach the situation has left them with a welterweight champion who may never defend his title and has also left Ho in limbo as he is exclusively contracted to an organization he clearly does not feel committed to.
In the world of soccer contracted players are regularly traded between clubs but it is up to the two teams to negotiate a mutually acceptable price. There doesn't seem to be much precedent for this taking place in the MMA world but it seems that it would be a satisfactory solution.
The UFC has the budget to spend big bucks on 'signing' fighters and there is no reason that this cash shouldn't start finding it's way directly into the pockets of the promotions who made them. It sounds like Road FC would have happily let Kang walk for a reasonable price, while if Legend FC could simply set a figure for Ho at least there would have been some potential for negotiation.
Some organizations revel in the role of 'production line' for UFC talent. Jon Tuck and Hyung Gyu Lim are both on the Macau card with the full blessing of PXC who are proud of their track record of preparing fighters to appear on the big stage.
This attitude is not as prevalent as it once was, perhaps because with a bigger roster and more frequent events a UFC contract does not necessarily bring the level of fame it would have done in the days when there were only the numbered cards and the UFC Fight Nights.
The ability of ONE FC to sign the best fighters in places like the Philippines has been largely due to its willingness to work with local promotions. The URCC is happy to let fighters like Eduard Folayang and Eric Kelly compete for ONE FC because it boosts their popularity and increases their profile without preventing them from also appearing on URCC cards.
The ONE FC Network is an innovative idea because it simultaneously serves the interests of the promotions and the fighters. It allows the likes of Folayang and Kelly to increase their fanbase by competing in places like Stadium Negara or the Singapore Indoor Stadium while the URCC, which launched their careers, can still bring them back periodically to appear on its shows.
The UFC, by contrast, only offers exclusive contracts. Occasionally contracted fighters are allowed to appear for other promotions but that is generally because they are doing so badly that they need to temporarily fight outside the UFC in order to get a win on their record.
Perhaps this is partly the cause of Moon's frustration. After putting so much effort into building the career of Kang he knows that the only way Road FC will ever get the fighter back is if he fails in the UFC and loses a few fights, which is hardly going to enhance his promotability.
If there was a market on which contracted fighters could be traded it would save promoters from facing the dilemma of whether to stand between a mixed martial artist and his dream. Instead of being put on the spot and asked to make a yes/no decision it would be a question of coming up with a figure and then seeing if the UFC wanted them badly enough to pay it.