Long before martial arts got mixed together, put in a cage, and elevated to a billion dollar business in North America, they enjoyed a certain stature in Asia in culture, tradition and mythology.
Now, the Ultimate Fighting Championship, or UFC, is hoping to tap into those centuries old legacies of traditional martial arts and market them back to Asian audiences with its own brand of mixed martial arts, or MMA.
"The potential is enormous," said the UFC's executive vice-president and managing director for Asia, Mark Fisher, in an interview with CNBC.com. "The growth in Asia will be exponential, and this is a great opportunity for us to bring this back to where it all began."
Fisher's new to the job, hired just over two months ago to run the UFC's brand new Asia office in Beijing. Previously, he was the National Basketball Association's point man in China, and enjoyed significant success in growing the NBA brand in that market. Fisher says some of the critical lessons he learned from that experience, such as connecting with the right potential partners, can be applied to building the UFC brand in Asia. Still, he admits China in particular will take some work.
"Eventually, we'd like to come to China (with UFC events)," Fisher says. "We're very respectful of the authorities here and the processes we have to follow. China is a longer-term build situation."
Elsewhere in Asia though, the roots of mixed martial arts are better established, giving the UFC a much stronger base for expansion.
Japan once had a fight promotion, Pride FC, to rival the UFC. It staged huge mixed martial arts events for a decade beginning in 1997 and developed a cult-like following among some fight fans who continue to lament Pride's demise to this day. However, Pride was wobbled by financial turmoil (it was also tainted by alleged influence by the yakuza or Japanese mob). The UFC bought Pride and shut it down in 2007. Smaller promotions, such as Dream, have emerged, but nothing on the grand scale of Pride. Fisher says the UFC has no plans to buy out such smaller promotions, however, he also says the UFC is looking at all opportunities.
Other Asian countries with strong fight fan-bases include South Korea, the Philippines and Singapore. Fisher says the UFC has work to do to learn about each country and how to market to the local crowds.
"You have to really get out there and put boots on the ground in terms of opening offices, meeting the right people and learning about the market, because every market is different and unique," he says.
Fisher says the UFC's strategy for Asia is three-pronged: get access to local markets through TV and the internet, develop a strategy for fight events for each market within two years, and identify and nurture local talent.
And that's a key part of marketing any sport — identifying potential local stars, and promoting them. The UFC's first Chinese fighter, Zhang Tie Quan , a lightweight from Inner Mongolia, had a successful debut in the UFC in September, and is hoping to follow that up with another win in a fight scheduled for December. His first fight was an eye-opener for the UFC. Fisher says it generated 50 million clicks within 24 hours on Chinese websites.
"With little fanfare or promotion, it just went viral," says Fisher.
Not quite a knockout punch for the UFC in this emerging market, but a promising opening round.