ONE Championship stamps its claim as top MMA promotion in Asia

MMA powerhouses in ONE Championship (ONE) and the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) have gone head-to-head.

Chatri Sityodtong
File photo of ONE chairman Chatri Sityodtong One Championship

With Singapore emerging as Asia's hub for mixed martial arts (MMA), two global MMA powerhouses in ONE Championship (ONE) and the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) have gone head-to-head to determine who reigns supreme in the Lion City.

The UFC, with the latest iteration of its Fight Night series recently held at the Singapore Indoor Stadium last Saturday, dealt the latest hand in this battle for market dominance. The event featured a marquee headline bout between former UFC women's bantamweight champion Holly "The Preacher's Daughter" Holm (10-3) and Bethe Correia (10-2-1), with Holm taking victory via head kick knockout.

With both events taking place at the Singapore Indoor Stadium, however, it is hard not to compare the UFC's efforts with that of Asia's premiere MMA organization, ONE Championship.

Just a little over a month ago, ONE held the first of two shows in Singapore this year with ONE: DYNASTY OF HEROES, which featured Asian MMA darling "Unstoppable" Angela Lee in the main event opposite Brazil's Istela Nunes.

Lee, a representative of Singapore on the global stage of MMA, is the ONE Women's Atomweight World Champion, and universally recognized as one of the fastest rising female fighters in the world.

Whenever Lee headlines shows in Singapore, it is always a sold-out event as evidenced by the extreme difficulty in procuring available tickets. ONE's event last May packed the rafters of a capacity 12,000-seater stadium.

"Overall feel of the show, entertainment-wise, as a fan I thought ONE was better," said Arvind Lalwani, head and owner of local gym Juggernaut Fight Club, who was present at both shows.

"A lot of the fights (at the UFC event) were kind of disappointing. I heard quite a lot of people who came out of the stadium and regretted paying for the event, especially those who paid for the expensive seats. Fights were quite boring. As a fan, I want to be excited by fights. Out of all the fights, maybe two fights were exciting."

This is a stark contrast from what ONE Championship has claimed to offer in their shows. ONE Championship Chairman and CEO Chatri Sityodtong has long harped about ONE's unique unified ruleset that allows for the "purest form of combat" inside the ONE Championship cage, one that fosters an environment for much more exciting contests ending in thrilling finishes as opposed to ending via decision.

As a reference, seven of Lee's eight fights have all ended in spectacular finishes, with the most exciting bout the only one to go the distance. That says a lot about the quality of Lee's fights in particular.

Sityodtong, who thinks very highly of Lee, has proposed a cross-promotional superfight between the Singaporean and UFC women's strawweight champion Joanna Jedrzejczyk. The UFC however, in a statement made through its Senior Vice President of International and Content Joe Carr, claimed that despite Lee's obvious talent, she is not on the level of current UFC strawweights.

The UFC, with its revamped strategy aims to reclaim a portion of the Asian market and is no doubt on the lookout for top Asian talent.

"I am disappointed by the western arrogance displayed by the UFC, especially as guests in our home of Asia. The theme of foreigners coming here and bashing Asians is not a new one," said Sityodtong. "If they (UFC) really believe they are the best then they should have no issues accepting our humble invitation of our world champion versus their world champion."

With Lee emerging as one of Asia's biggest MMA stars, it is hard to fathom how the UFC would be able to downplay her role and impact on the Asian market. Lee on her own could sell out an entire arena, and she isn't alone in ONE which has a slew of top marketable talents like welterweight Ben Askren, Filipino superstar Brandon Vera, among others.

With the UFC barely holding enough events to rival ONE's influence in Asia, the war is evidently tipping towards the Asian promotion's favor.

ONE has held at least one event every month in a major city in Asia, while the UFC has held just UFC Singapore in the past couple of years. UFC Manila was scheduled for 2016 but had to be cancelled at the last minute when headliner BJ Penn fell to injury, leaving a bad taste in the mouth for fans who had spent their hard-earned money to purchase tickets.

Sityodtong believes it is because ONE's overall end product differs vastly from that which the UFC offers.

"Metrics indicate that ONE Championship is at least five to 10 times larger than UFC is in Asia, depending on the country," said Sityodtong.

"The reality is our product resonates with Asia because of our values and our celebration of true martial arts. Those values of humility, courage, discipline and honour. What the UFC does doesn't resonate in Asia."