What’s Next For UFC’s Expansion and MMA in Asia

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In the past few years, mixed martial arts and specifically UFC have made a huge inroads in the Russian and Australian fight scenes, with current champions Khabib Nurmagomedov and Robert Whittaker, respectively, as torch bearers. 

UFC consistently holds events in the Asian market, but how big would the impact be if an Asian-born fighter became a UFC champion?

The Asian market had a significant role in shaping what global MMA is today. Japan’s Pride Fighting Championships was major organization in its heyday, setting a standard for putting on the biggest MMA fights possible. Pride FC, founded in 1997, put on 23 events with at least 30,000 people in attendance in less than 10 years of existence. In the UFC’s 25 years, only three events have exceeded 30,000 tickets sold.

Pride FC’s popularity and its roster of fighters were the biggest reasons why ZUFFA (UFC’s parent company at the time) acquired the promotion in March 2007. UFC boss Dana White is fond of saying he wants to put the “best fighters against the best fighters.” Swallowing Pride FC enabled the UFC to put on legendary matchups that might not have come to fruition if not for the sale.

But it’s taken about a decade following the sale of Pride FC for MMA in East Asia to restock its rosters and rebuild its image. Now, Rizin Fight Federation and ONEChampionship are increasingly on the radar of global MMA fans.

On Dec. 31 at Rizin FF 14, legendary American boxer Floyd Mayweather will fight young Japanese kickboxing superstar Tenshin Nasukawa in an “exhibition boxing match” at Saitama Super Arena. The dynamic striker Nasukawa, 20, will be limited to just punches — no kicks — because Mayweather isn’t ready to tango in a full MMA-rules fight. Many speculate the fight is a stunt for Mayweather to burnish his image in Asia ahead of a potential boxing rematch with Filipino megastar Manny Pacquiao.

Singapore-based ONE Championship also has been in the headlines in North America recently. ONE Championship and UFC engineered the first MMA organization-to-organization “trade” in October: UFC sent former men’s flyweight champion Demetrious Johnson, who holds the UFC record for most consecutive title defenses, to ONE Championship for the undefeated Ben Askren (18-0-1). This came after Johnson’s title-defense streak was snapped against Henry Cejudo in August at UFC 227. White wanted to bring the undefeated former Olympian Askren to UFC for a trial at the highest level of MMA.

ONE Championship CEO Chatri Sityodtong wasn’t done. ONE Championship signed a UFC blue-chip prospect Sage Northcutt and former UFC champion Eddie Alvarez. The promotion also reached a three-year broadcast deal with Turner Sports to broadcast 24 ONEChampionship events on TNT and Bleacher Report Live starting in 2019.
Another sign of UFC’s attempts to make inroads in East Asia came when the company announced it will open its second ever performance institute in Shanghai. The first state-of-the-art UFC PI in Las Vegas has hosted many champion fighters’ training camps. The Shanghai affiliate is a $13 million, 93,000-square-foot project that is slated to open in the second quarter of 2019.

It’s unfortunate that the legendary Pride FC organization shuttered, but UFC’s efforts on a major fighter trade and building a facility in China hint at a serious expansion push into the Asian fight scene. Expect an Asian-born UFC champion sooner rather than later — a dream marketing opportunity. UFC’s ambition is to take MMA global: Next stop is the Middle East.

Follow Isaac Feldman, Pete Hoffman, and Outside the Cage on Twitter for all your MMA and UFC coverage. Listen to their "Outside The Cage" podcast. The next live post-fight show is Dec. 30 after UFC 232 from midnight-2 a.m. ET on CBS Sports Radio.