This past Saturday, the Ultimate Fighting Championship returned to Japan for a third straight year to host a show, dubbed UFC Fight Night Japan, at Saitama Super Arena.
Used to hosting huge mixed martial arts events like K-1 and PRIDE, Japan remains one of the most MMA-crazed countries in the world and an important place for the UFC in terms of its globalization.
But the UFC, virtually the only truly global MMA empire, has now begun to turn its attention beyond Japan to a broader area of the Asian map.
Just like other major sporting leagues, such as soccer’s English Premier League, basketball’s NBA and Major League Baseball, the UFC has been eager to expand its brand outside of the United States and considers the Asian region its next destination.
Joe Carr, vice president of the UFC’s International Business Development, told The Japan Times in an interview last week in Tokyo that the UFC, which held its first event in Colorado in 1993, had been “so U.S.-centric for so long,” but has now realized that the future of the company is in international growth and globalization.
Carr insisted that expansion into Asia is a natural move for the UFC because of the huge population, especially China and India, and many other fast-growing economies, particularly in Southeast Asia.
“When you look at Southeast Asia, most of those Southeast Asian economies are growing at a much faster pace than the more developed markets in the rest of the world,” said Carr, a 30-year-old Harvard University grad. “So it’s just a massive opportunity for us.”
Asked if it was vital for UFC to expand further than the U.S., Carr agreed, because of intense domestic competitions with major professional sports leagues and also college sports, a situation which probably cannot be matched anywhere else in the world.
“There’s massive opportunities internationally to grow UFC,” Carr said. “It’s not as crowded in Europe and in Asia. In those countries, there’s usually one, two or three big sports. Hopefully, we can move into that third or fourth position in these markets.”
The UFC went to Europe, to Ireland, Sweden and Germany, for the first steps of its international extension. Afterwards the company went to Brazil, which has produced so many champions in the past. Now it’s time for the UFC to look east: to Asia.
But Carr said that while Asia is the birthplace of most mixed martial arts, and the people have better understanding of the sport, there are challenges for the UFC to overcome in order to have concrete success in the region. That mainly pertains to talent development.
Carr said Asia is “country specific,” and the success of events would be dependent on finding local stars in the countries where it would have shows. For example, a Korean champion would not be a star in Japan or China. UFC has to find a star in each of these countries.
“I think it’s really going to depend on how we develop talent in this market . . . to move the needle,” Carr said. “I remember when I was growing up, I was a big fan of baseball. I remember when Hideo Nomo first came over, and then Ichiro and Hideki Matsui. I can’t imagine how big it was over here. Those guys were extremely successful in the U.S.
“You can call it ‘a (a former NBA star center) Yao Ming phenomenon’ in China as well. I think that’s where we have to get to in Asia.”
While other major sports leagues have attempted to expand internationally, Carr referred to the Premier League as the genuine rival for the UFC. He added that the NBA is catching on globally and is getting bigger in places like China and Brazil, yet it’s not as big in Europe because the European countries have their own professional leagues.
“In my mind, it’s really the Premier League at this point,” he said. “Because it’s definitely a global sport. You see how big the World Cup is. And you see the Premier League is kind of top of the food chains for club soccer.”
The UFC has hosted 34 shows so far in 2014, 13 of which were held outside North America. Five of them, including Saturday’s Saitama show, were held in Asia (Abu Dhabi, Singapore, and twice in Macau). The UFC schedule has 12 more events before the end of this year, and six will be hosted outside North America.
“Hopefully, (the UFC) can really revive the fight scene here in Japan,” said New Zealand’s Mark Hunt, a former K-1 world champion who defeated Roy Nelson in the main match of the Saturday show, during the UFC media day last week. “Hopefully, it works out. Since PRIDE died here, there no fighting market here in Japan. K-1 and PRIDE drew big audience. It was massive. So hopefully, the market grows here and in Asia as well.”
Carr hinted that the UFC would have more emphasis on Asia “in 2015 and 2016.”
Reportedly, the UFC is looking to break into mainland China and the Philippines in the near future. South Korea is another destination it intends to get to.
Yoshihiro Akiyama, a former judoka who made his name through DREAM, which succeeded PRIDE after its extinction, said that the UFC should have come to Asia earlier, considering the size of the Asian markets.
“I think that there’s a lot of business needs in Asia and a lot of fans there,” said Akiyama, who posted a win over Amir Sadollah on Saturday. “I thought it was a little late.”
Born a Zainichi — ethnic Korean resident of Japan — who later took Japanese citizenship, Akiyama said that he hoped to contribute when the UFC hosts a show in South Korea.