It is exactly 12 months ago that ONE Fighting Championship was launched and it has been perhaps the most eventful year in the history of Asian MMA. Organizations have come and gone in that time, but on the eve of its biggest show yet ONE FC has well and truly made good on its stated ambition to be the single biggest promotional player in the continent. Today ONE Fighting Championship is Asia's largest MMA organization with approximately a 90%+ market share in Asia.
Rewind to last June and ONE FC announced that it would be holding a press conference on July 14th to announce its formation and ambitions, which included a show at the Singapore Indoor Stadium in September. This news wasn't universally well received and Legend FC, a Hong Kong based promotion which was just about to put on it's first ever show in the neighbouring territory of Macau, also had dreams of Asian domination.
On the eve of the ONE FC press conference, Legend FC put out a press release to announce, amongst other things, that it would be putting on shows in Singapore and Indonesia in 2012. It was little short of a declaration of war and this rivalry was only reinforced when Legend FC chose to wait until midway through ONE FC: 'Battle of Heroes' in Jakarta in February to announce that it's eighth card would be taking place in exactly the same city the following month.
At the time, it appeared that the two promotions would be going head to head and Legend FC seemed determined to take on ONE FC, deliberately timing the announcement of a distribution deal with ESPN to coincide with a ONE FC press conference to announce a 10 year partnership with ESPN Star Sports. It was a provocative gesture which succeeded in that much of the media gave both announcements equal significance, although whereas ONE FC coverage is now broadcast regularly on both the ESPN and Star Sports channels Legend FC has yet to appear on a single ESPN affiliated channel.
What appeared to be blossoming into an epic inter promotional rivalry has since subsided because Legend FC has suffered a series of setbacks. Legend FC's Jakarta show was cancelled not once, but twice amid rumours of poor ticket sales and financial difficulties. At the same time, URCC, the largest Filipino MMA organization announced that it had lodged a complaint against Legend FC for unethical and illegal conduct with the Games and Amusement Board.
To add insult to injury, Chinese promotion RUFF took advantage of Legend FC's lack of financial muscle to start systematically signing up some of the best fighters on the roster including reigning bantamweight champion Jumabieke Tuexan as well as Haotian Wu and Wang Guan. For a Chinese promotion losing so many local fighters has been a serious setback and is one of the reasons that, while the UFC is heading to the 16,000 capacity Venetian in Macau, Legend FC still struggles to sell more than a thousand or so tickets at a small ballroom nearby.
While Legend FC's relationship with other promotions has deteriorated to the point that some have pursued formal complaints ONE FC has pursued a much more inclusive policy, attempting to unite the entire continent through the ONE FC Network. This approach also contrasts sharply with that of the UFC which is known for its aggressively exclusive strategy and it has allowed ONE FC to form alliances with the likes of the URCC, Road FC, DREAM and DEEP which means the roster effectively includes around 90% of the top fighters in Asia.
While Legend FC has stagnated with the promised shows in Singapore and Indonesia apparently no closer to materializing ONE Fighting Championship has routinely sold out major stadiums in Singapore, Jakarta, and Kuala Lumpur and next month's event in Manila is reportedly on course to completely sell out the 16,500 capacity Areneta Coliseum in the Philippines.
ONE FC has succeeded in attracting a number of blue chop sponsors including Sony, Energizer, Schick, Carl's Jr, Toyota and Chevrolet which should help to guarantee the long term financial future of the promotion and also allows it to pay by far the highest purses in Asia. PRIDE, DREAM, Strikeforce and Bellator veteran Shinya Aoki has been telling people that the contract he recently signed with ONE FC was the most lucrative of his entire career and the budget has also been used to good effect elsewhere as anyone who has seen the ESPN Star Sports broadcast will testify that ONE FC is currently the only Asian MMA organization which can compete with with the world class production of UFC.
If it was a war between the two promotions, and there is plenty of evidence to suggest that this was the case, there has only been one clear winner. ONE Fighting Championship has become the superpower of Asian MMA while Legend FC has completely failed to fulfill its ambition to expand outside the Chinese territories and looks increasingly like a a small town show.
One of the most significant moments of the past year came when the MMA media reported that after years of financial difficulties DREAM was finally dead. This news instantly rendered a number of the most sought after fighters in the region as free agents and ONE FC has been the main beneficiary, fending off the challenge of the UFC to sign Shinya Aoki, Bibiano Fernandes, Masakazu Imanari and, reportedly, Tatsuya Kawajiri. At present ONE FC is the only Asian promotion competing to sign world class fighters and has access to by far the best roster in the continent, particularly when you take into consideration the ONE FC Network.
Another interesting development has been the formation of the Super Fight League in India. This organization has wealthy backers which makes it a major player, but it is focussed exclusively on a market which, to date, has shown little to no interest in the sport of MMA and the SFL has struggled to sell tickets or attract sponsors not already affiliated to the owners.
The SFL is not ready to give up just yet and took the extreme measure of deciding to give away all of its tickets for free to anyone willing to attend the last show. A reality TV show is being filmed at the moment and it appears that the money men behind this promotion are not willing to admit defeat just yet, despite such a slow start.
A year ago there were a number of promotions vying for regional supremacy but the landscape has been radically altered as ONE FC has left rivals in its wake by putting out sold out shows in some of the biggest indoor arenas in South East Asia.
The UFC signed a TV deal with Fox which finally made it available across Asia and also returned to Japan for the first time in almost a decade, with an excursion into Macau already booked for November. I predict the rivalry between ONE FC and the UFC is likely to be the biggest story of the next 12 months as these two MMA juggernauts start to go head to head.
Dana White has been promising to put on a card in the Philippines for years and Singapore has also been mentioned as a destination by UFC officials but, by booking the biggest indoor arena in Manila, ONE FC has achieved in just under a year something the UFC has been struggling to make any headway with for the best part of five years.
ONE FC has already got the better of the UFC once by signing Fernandes from under their noses after it had been announced that the DREAM Bantamweight Champion was already booked to appear at UFC 149. After leaving the smaller local promotions like Legend FC trailing in its wake expect ONE FC's next big battle to be waged with the UFC.