VICTOR CUI’S cellphone buzzes. He is speaking at a seminar in Bangkok and does not answer it. Try calling Cui any time during a given week and chances are the 45-year-old is anywhere in the world, but home.
He has been travelling quite a bit since launching ONE Championship (previously ONE FC) in Singapore with business partner Chatri Sityodtong in 2011, but the frequency has increased these days – it comes from running Asia’s foremost mixed martial arts (MMA) enterprise. And it has been a phenomenal story that vindicates both men. In starting ONE, they set up a clash with the world’s biggest and richest MMA property, Las Vegas-based Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), which had its eye on expanding in Asia.
But the American giant, which had established regional headquarters in Beijing a year earlier, shrugged off the sudden emergence of ONE. In interviews, executives made light of its rival’s shows, and saw ONE as preparing Asian audiences for UFC’s fight cards. To drive home the point that UFC’s events were of unequalled pedigree, they even declined interviews where ONE and its shows might be narrated alongside theirs.
As things turned out, ONE has surged ahead with a whopping 54 shows and its footprint today extends the length and breadth of Asia, with a solid hold on China. The franchise’s most significant moment came last May when it held a fight card in Thailand, which was previously resistant to MMA competing with the indigenous muay thai on its home soil.
In the interim, UFC, founded in 1993, struggled. After moving its regional headquarters from Beijing to Singapore in 2013, the American company suffered an exodus of top executives, including managing director Mark Fischer. A head start in Asia with three events in Japan between 1997 and 2000 was of no help. It has been able to stage only 11 shows, since returning to the continent fi ve years ago. So where did the Singapore-based company get it right and UFC didn’t?