Asia Tomorrow

Asia is grappling with this billion-dollar industry

ONE Fighting Championship

Despite having its origins in Asia, mixed martial arts is still relatively new to the region but as demand for the sport booms, businesses are betting on a strong future.

"Mixed martial arts (MMA) has the potential to become Asia's number one sport; it is on track for that," said Victor Cui, CEO of ONE Fighting Championship (ONE FC), Asia's largest sports media company.

Cui's Singapore-based company organizes MMA events throughout Asia and boasts 90 percent regional market share. It is Asia's equivalent to the U.S.-based Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) – the world's largest MMA organization.

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"Asian fighters are very relevant on the global arena, but as an entire [organized] sport, MMA is still relatively new in Asia," Cui told CNBC. "But the learning curve is very fast and we are building a strong foundation."

Impact MMA, a Singapore-based gym that specializes in combat sports, has seen its membership increase dramatically since opening its doors in 2010, with 400 to 500 active members at any given time.

A ONE FC event in Singapore
ONE Fighting Championship

"Asia has a long way to go. The journey has just begun. If you look at the growth of the UFC in the U.S., internet interest, pay per view and live gates took 8 years or more to fully grow and mature. MMA has really come on the scene here about 3-4 years ago," said the gym's owner and founder Koh Kok Kwang.

"We have been surprised to see that more and more schools, even public schools, are open to conducting MMA courses. MMA has essentially become more of a mainstream sport," Kwang added.

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The level of demand for the sport is huge, Cui said, estimating the business is worth billions of dollars. He receives more than 200 e-mails a day from aspiring fighters and coaches who want to perform at ONE FC events.

Asian origins

While MMA is often associated with the UFC's blood-soaked cages, the sport is decades-old and has origins in Asia, said martial arts teacher Sifu Bertrand Lim. He frequently trains with the son of acclaimed Chinese martial artist Grandmaster Ip Man.

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"Bruce Lee was said to be the father of MMA, because he put together the four pillars of martial arts. In reality, MMA is just a term made popular these days because many believe it to be muay thai, boxing or Brazilian jujitsu," he said.

"But many of the old [Asian] styles already incorporate MMA elements, such as punching, kicking, locking, and throwing," he added.

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An unlikely hub

As the sport grows, Singapore is fast becoming Asia's MMA hub.

In addition to ONE FC, the city-state is home to Evolve MMA – widely touted as Asia's training destination of choice for aspiring world champions. Evolve Founder and former Wall Street hedge fund manager Chatri Sityodtong told CNBC last month that the group plans a third location in Singapore and aims to expand internationally.

"When we first started out, we had a hard time finding enough competitive events for our fighters. We never dreamed that would see the UFC in Singapore or even in Southeast Asia. Now, we have ONE FC, and many other events across the region for our fighters to participate in," said Impact's Koh Kok Kwang.

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Kwang is also the manager for several of Singapore's professional fighters, including one of the country's first pro MMA fighters Bruce Loh and Singapore's only UFC fighter Royston Wee.

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Even the UFC who popularized MMA in North America is now looking east.

Around 40 percent of the UFC's $2 billion in annual revenue comes from outside the U.S., so it's no surprise that the organization is expanding in China with a third event scheduled in Macau this August.

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"2013 was when we first aired here [in China], 115 million people watched it. Now, six months into this year, we've already exceeded that. We've signed over dozen Chinese fighters and as guys start to break into the top 10 group and become world champions, China will explode," said UFC President Dana White in an interview during his first pan-Asian trip.

Singapore's One FC also targets China. Earlier this month, the firm announced a ten-event deal with promotion company AMC Live; it will hold events in ten different cities next year. While it's too early to estimate the value in China's market, its scalability is huge given the country's population, Cui said.