With a population of 1.3 billion people, the fastest growing economy in the world and a tradition of martial arts that is centuries old, China is widely believed to be the biggest potential market for mixed martial arts (MMA).
However few, if any, Chinese fighters have gone on to enjoy genuine success on the international stage. It's not that the country doesn't produce plenty of talent, but the majority of mixed martial artists are content to compete exclusively for local promotions.
This is one of the reasons that ONE Championship CEO Victor Cui sees China as such an exciting market. His promotion has put on shows in five cities there as well as territories like Macau and Taiwan and believes Chinese mixed martial artists have tremendous potential.
"MMA is well on its way to becoming one of the most popular sports in China. With such a huge population, the size of the talent pool is simply staggering, especially given China’s massive sports culture where children train and compete from an early age."
PPTV recently paid a staggering $700 million for the rights to show the English Premier League (EPL) in China. Hundreds of millions of fans there watch these matches despite the total absence of any Chinese players from this particular competition.
Cui is excited by the potential viewing figures that a major sporting event which did feature Chinese stars could generate.
"Local Chinese athletes are also gaining more and more influence in their home country, which in turn drives the need for locally relevant sports content with Chinese heroes. That’s where we’re perfectly placed to come in. After all, it is ONE Championship’s mission to showcase the beauty of martial arts through Asian heroes, and inspire people to overcome adversity in their daily lives."
He believes that Chinese fans will be more willing to get behind a fighter who has gone on to enjoy success outside of the country.
"ONE Championship has consistently been grooming these potential Chinese stars with our shows in the country and even around the world, with athletes such as Li Kai Wen, Ma Jia Wen, and Bu Huo You Ga leading the charge."
So determined is Cui to break the Chinese market that he relocated there late last year and now calls the country home.
"I made the move in December and I’m still excited about it now. We are targeting 10 events in China this year, and have opened two offices in Beijing and Shanghai. Without a doubt, it is one of our top priorities. A lot of the company’s resources and focus will go into China. After all, it is the most populous nation in the world."
There is a ONE Championship show booked for Beijing on June 30th. It will be the third time the promotion has visited the country's capital and Cui promises more events are about to be announced.
"In the past couple of years, we have had events in five different cities in mainland China, including a pair of shows in Beijing, and also a show in Macau. ONE Championship is less than six years old, and we’ve mainly concentrated on the region outside of China for now, but that’s about to change."
Last year ONE Championship secured a major investment from a national wealth fund owned by the government of Singapore. The country has traditionally had close ties to China and Cui feels this deal will help to expedite his ambitions for expansion there.
"We recently secured a pivotal eight-figure investment from Heliconia Capital Management, a division of Temasek Holdings, in 2016. They are a company with connections and dealings with the highest level of government across China. They are also heavily invested in almost every major outlet in the country. That is our hugest advantage over foreign competitors."
During his stint as a senior executive at ESPN Star Sports, Cui helped to bring the X-Games to China. He thinks the market there brings a unique set of problems which western MMA promotions have struggled to get to grips with.
"Western promotions faced the challenge of not understanding the market. They can’t just take their product as it is and transplant it here to China and Asia."
Cui also sees some key differences between ONE Championship and its U.S. based rivals like the UFC.
"Arrogance, trash talking, and disrespecting your opponent is very prevalent in western MMA. We are the complete opposite of that. We espouse the traditional values of martial arts such as respect, humility, honor, and work ethic, and this is why we resonate so well with our partners and audiences in the region."
In other territories ONE Championship has put on events exclusively in capital cities. China presents a different challenge and that's why Cui is so excited about the potential which the country holds for his promotion.
"Even tier two cities here have a population of close to 10 million, and there are fifty of those. There is just massive potential in every possible aspect of our business and we’re going to recreate the success ONE Championship had had in the rest of Asia here in China."