The Ultimate Fighting Championship is returning to Japan after a two-year absence on Sept. 23, when it will host UFC Fight Night Japan at Saitama Super Arena.

UFC events were held in Japan every year between 2012 and 2015 under the organization’s previous ownership. Now, as it prepares to return under new ownership, the world’s biggest mixed martial arts promotion intends to accelerate its globalization even more while also being recognized more as a legitimate sport.

The UFC changed hands in the summer of 2016, when it was acquired by worldwide sports and entertainment representation firm William Morris Endeavor-International Management Group from previous owner Zuffa, LLC.

“The UFC started definitely U.S.-centric as a Las Vegas-based headquarters, and then through the years it expanded internationally,” Kevin Chang, UFC’s vice president of Asia Pacific, said in an interview with The Japan Times in Tokyo on Friday. “But it was still very much focused on the U.S. market. But it’s expanded internationally to have several satellite offices around the world, including Asia.

“What I think (of) the transition after the acquisition from the WME-IMG, the biggest change is that this is a company that’s established internationally. It’s not a U.S. company, it’s not a European company, it’s not an Asian company. It’s one that has offices in every single major city in the world.”

He went on: “In Asia alone, I think they have 450-plus employees. So it just gives us the breadth of expertise, it gives us the relationships with the media, sponsors and everything else to just take our sport to the next level.”

The brand of the UFC, which originally began in 1993 in Denver, is already known in Japan and other countries where mixed martial arts are popular.

The popularity of MMA in Japan was greatly pushed by the PRIDE Fighting Championships, which gained wide recognition by assembling the world’s best fighters and was a rival promotion of the UFC in the early 2000s.

But PRIDE was purchased by Zuffa owner Lorenzo Fertitta in 2007 and eventually died out, which led to MMA’s decline in Japan.

Rizin Fighting Federation, a recent promotion that kicked off in late 2015, has had events televised on network TV and has tried to fill the MMA void in the post-PRIDE era, and there are other smaller organizations around Japan.

But Chang, 41, insists that the UFC is trying to be seen as a mainstream sport and perceived as a genuine athletic promotion, rather than advertising itself as an entertaining, yet brutal show, as has been the case in the past.

“We aim to change the perception of what the UFC is and stand apart from the rest of the MMA world,” said Chang, who first come to the UFC in 2011 after working as an international media director for the NFL. “So the important thing for us is, we are not a spectacle, we are a sport. We work with the USADA (United States Anti-Doping Agency).”

He added: “We’ve invested millions of dollars in this performance institute. We have strict rules, regulations.

“You see the productions even, of our events. Institutional frames, there’s no kind of theatrics to it. It’s a pure sport. We standardize uniforms and everything else. That’s how we brand the UFC.

Chang insisted that the UFC is headed in the right direction.

“This is a real sport, and we are heading into the mainstream in every country that we are in,” he said.

The UFC has also joined forces with EXOS, which has several training facilities for professional-level athletes in the United States, in order to give its fighters world-class training.

Chang said that delivering the UFC’s media content through social networking platforms in local languages is “hugely, hugely important” because it draws more direct and deeper communication with MMA fans and helps get local fans engaged with the UFC.

In Japan, the UFC has a Facebook page and Twitter and LINE accounts and has provided some tailor-made content to fans in Japanese.

“(The social network platforms) are not going to just go international with English and everything, so we need to localize,” said Chang, a Honolulu native. “All of the different social media here that’s adapted to the Japanese market is critical.”

Under the direction of Chang, the UFC, which currently has Asian offices in Shanghai and Singapore, is actively expanding its market reach in Asia. It has held events in Macau, Seoul, Manila and Singapore.

Brazilian Mauricio “Shogun” Rua, who was one of the top fighters in PRIDE, will take on Ovince Saint Preux of the United States in a rematch as the main event for September’s UFC Fight Night Japan event. Up-and-coming fighter Naoki Inoue, 20, and female competitor Syuri Kondo have also been announced as part of the card.

Chang said the event will have a mix of international stars and homegrown heroes.

“We always look to choose the card that really makes sense for the market,” he said. “So PRIDE was (bigger) here, and Shogun is a legend in PRIDE. So he’s a big name and he definitely will attract the hard-core MMA fans who have been following PRIDE and the UFC in the last 15 years.”

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