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Saturday May 18, 2013

The growth of mixed martial arts

ONE Fighting Championship combines the history and tradition of martial arts with Las Vegas-style
glitzy entertainment. ONE Fighting Championship combines the history and tradition of martial arts with Las Vegas-style glitzy entertainment.

The recent ONE Asia MMA Summit in Singapore underscores the growth of mixed martial arts in Asia.

THERE was a particularly funny and memorable moment at the ONE Fighting Championship (ONE FC)’s Asia MMA Summit recently. Robert Lee, 65, the younger brother of martial arts legend Bruce Lee, asked two audience members at his talk to join him on stage for a little demonstration. The two – Pakistani mixed martial arts (MMA) fighter Bashir Ahmad and Evolve MMA Academy’s head trainer Heath Sims – looked nervous, not knowing what to expect.

“Relax,” said Lee with a smile, “nothing’s going to happen.”

In the end, all Lee got them to do was to stand staring at each other, and make a sound if one sees the other move, even if it’s only a blink of the eyes.

“See, I told you nothing was going to happen,” said Lee after it was over, prompting laughter from the audience.

Humour aside, there was something serious going on. What Lee was demonstrating was his late brother’s almost spiritual approach to fighting – to feel the moment and anticipate an opponent’s next move. Prior to his talk, a clip from Enter The Dragon was shown to the audience.

“Don’t think, feel,” Bruce Lee said in the short clip. “It is like a finger pointing away to the moon. Don’t concentrate on the finger or you will miss all that heavenly glory.”

With all the MMA action going around these days, especially with the US’s Ultimate Fighting Championship dominating the West, we often forget that martial arts has had a 5,000-year history here in Asia, a fact that ONE FC’s CEO Victor Cui loves to quote.

ONE FC’s lightweight title holder Shinya Aoki (left) training at Evolve MMA Academy in Singapore. ONE FC’s lightweight title holder Shinya Aoki (left) training at Evolve MMA Academy in Singapore.

In securing the presence of Bruce’s siblings, Robert Lee and older sister Phoebe, at the summit held at Singapore’s Marina Bay Sands earlier this month, ONE FC seems to be reminding the MMA world that it owes much to the late actor and martial arts master, often regarded as the “father of MMA.” He was the first person to popularise the idea of taking the best of the different fight disciplines and combining them. The reminder also extends to the fact that martial arts is so much more than just training and dieting. It is also a philosophical way of life, like how Bruce often reminded us to “become like water, my friend”, to be “shapeless” and “formless”.

“He wanted to show that there really are no set ways of fighting,” said Lee, who resides in Los Angeles. “And there is no limit to using combinations of different techniques from existing fighting styles, and even creating new ones.”

Asked when it was that he first heard his brother mention the concept of MMA, Lee replied: “In 1969 when I first went over to the US to further my studies. Before he left (Hong Kong) in 1959, he would always tell me how great wing chun was. But when I saw him in the US in 1969, he was totally changed. At that point he had already had contact with other different styles of martial arts.”

The Asian philosophical approach to martial arts takes hold in various ways. Take for instance, Evolve MMA Academy’s founder, Yodchatri Sityodtong, 42, whose rags-to-riches story is a fine example of how martial arts philosophy is life-changing.

When Yodchatri was in his 20s, fresh out of university and about to apply for Harvard Business School, his family went bankrupt, and they ended up homeless. Yodchatri, who has trained in muay thai since he was a boy, said his martial arts instincts kicked in during those times of hardship.

“Martial arts gave me mental strength and the warrior spirit to overcome adversity,” said Yodchatri when met at Evolve in Singapore. “It taught me to be a fighter not just in the ring, but also in life. If you have not honed that warrior spirit within, it would be easy to crumble during tough times.”

He said that was why he named his MMA academy “Evolve”. Incidentally, Lee also mentioned that his brother’s philosophy is based on how life always evolves and changes.

‘Bruce always
said that we,
as human
beings, change
and evolve. So
why can’t
martial arts do the
same?’ says
Robert Lee. ‘Bruce always said that we, as human beings, change and evolve. So why can’t martial arts do the same?’ says Robert Lee.

“I wanted everybody, be they instructors or champion fighters or students and staff, to evolve to become everything they want to be in life,” said Yodchatri. “Martial arts is really about unleashing your potential physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually.”

Yodchatri is today a self-made multi-millionaire, and Evolve, which was launched in 2009, is now widely recognised as the top martial arts organisation and gym in Asia. It is also home to many world-class fighters such as Shinya Aoki and muay thai legend Namsaknoi Yudthagarngamtorn.

Chatri was one of the speakers at last year’s ONE Asia MMA Summit and also spoke at this year’s. The exclusive, invitation-only summit is part of ONE FC’s aim to build a ONE Network consisting of what it deems as the best in the business, from regional fight promotions, gyms, trainers and fighters, to the media and entrepreuners. This year’s attendance, 500, almost tripled that of last year’s.

In just under two years since its inception, ONE FC has managed to corner 90% of the market share in Asian MMA. Cui’s approach seems to take a leaf out of Bruce Lee’s book. Cui described it as taking “the best practices from the East and West and creating a distinctly Asian approach to the business.”

Just how big is MMA in Asia? Yodchatri said: “There are 3.9 billion people in Asia, and less than 1% has ever heard of MMA.”

That’s about 60% of the world’s population, and according to Cui, there is only 1% penetration of the Asian market. The potential for a multi-billion-dollar industry is astounding. It’s no wonder everyone wants to be on board.

Almost every country in Asia now has its own MMA promotion. In China alone, where the UFC has its Asian base, hundreds of millions out of its 1.3 billion population have been exposed to MMA via TV and the Internet. Later this year, ONE FC plans to hold a show in Shanghai. Localised promotions such as the Philippines’ Universal Reality Combat Championship and South Korea’s Road FC, have been incredibly successful.

Renzo Gracie, of the Gracie royal family of MMA, feels the soul of martial arts is here in Asia: “I do believe that Asians have a better understanding of the fighting sport. They already have it in their cultures, so it’s much easier to plant the seed here than anywhere else in the world. The roots of martial arts are here.”

UFC stalwart Rich Franklin called Asia “the cradle of martial arts.” Gracie said MMA coming back to Asia is “like a kid coming home.”

In Malaysia, there is now an amateur MMA circuit, namely Tune Talk’s Malaysian Invasion MMA Fighting Championship, or Mimma, which got a lot of attention at the ONE Summit. There is also the entry-level professional event, Ultimate Beatdown, in Johor Baru, organised by Jack Low and ONE FC fighter Melvin Yeoh.

But as KL-based French fighter Arnaud Lepont said recently, Malaysians largely regard MMA as entertainment rather than a serious sport. Most media still do not cover MMA as a sport. James Goyder, one of the most important combat sports journalists based in Asia, said he’d be happy just to see one of his MMA stories appear in the media, regardless of whether it’s in the sports section or otherwise.

Franklin related his early days fighting on the amateur circuit. He once invited his wife’s family members to one of his fights in Cincinnati.

“And one of her uncles came up to me and said, ‘I wouldn’t watch that stuff. It’s too brutal for me,’” said Franklin. “He didn’t know anything about the sport. Fast forward to five years later, and these guys are some of the biggest fans on the planet.”

It all boils down to education and understanding of the sport, he says.

Gracie explained: “Every new thing is difficult to accept. Just a few decades ago, Elvis Presley could not be filmed from the waist down, remember? So it just takes a little time for people to understand and accept it.”

Peter Hutton, senior vice-president of sports at FOX International Channels, feels the entertainment aspect is something positive.

“The best sporting moments come when you empathise with an individual, or someone fighting against the odds,” said Hutton. “Identification with an individual’s struggle is something that works the world over. As the characters of MMA become more known to a wider audience, you will find sporting credibility.”

“It’s like anything experiential. Once you experience it and understand it, you’ll like it. MMA’s got so many dramatic elements to it,” said Leonard Asper, president and CEO of Anthem Media Group which owns Fight Network, the Canadian TV channel dedicated to combat sports.

Cui identified with the times: “Sports entertainment is the world that we live in. Everyone’s on their iPads and other platforms. They want to be entertained every time they look at something.”

But everyone agrees that MMA is still in its infancy here in Asia. Bashir Ahmad, who pioneered MMA in Pakistan, said the sport is more of a subculture there, but the niche group is growing. He says about 500 people turn up at events organised by Pak MMA.

After his victory over Shannon Wiratchai at the last ONE FC event, Bashir returned to Pakistan to find a large group of supporters and members of the media waiting for him at the airport.

“(MMA’s) definitely going to rival cricket,” said Bashir. “In the next three to five years, just like how the Filipino fighters are respected and feared on the Asian MMA circuit, I think it’s going to be the same for Pakistan’s fighters.”

So, martial arts returns home to Asia and big things are happening. ONE FC will be launching the Asian MMA Development League to nurture new talents.

ONE FC vice-president of operations and competition Matt Hume, who has trained champions such as Josh Barnett and Demetrius Johnson, will lend his knowledge and experience.

Evolve has launched Evolve University, the world’s largest online university for martial arts, where anyone can study with world champions (www.evolve-university.com).

The best from the East and West will come together. And 5,000 years of martial arts culture and heritage, from shaolin monks hidden in secrecy in their temple to silat gurus meditating in caves, will meet Vegas-style sports entertainment. Perhaps this bridging of the modern and the ancient, pairing historical reverence with contemporary expectations, is the key to MMA’s entry into the Asian mainstream.

Cui believes the mixture of eastern tradition and western entertainment creates events that cannot be replicated anywhere else in the world.

It always comes back to the man who first bridged the East and the West through his fighting skills and his movies, and suggested that martial arts should evolve.

Asked if his brother would approve of modern MMA, Lee replied: “Bruce always said that we, as human beings, change and evolve. So why can’t martial arts do the same? Don’t be stuck in one set of rules or techniques. Always invent more, and sharpen and hone them better.”

ONE FC’s next event, Rise To Power, will take place in Manila on May 31. Go to www.onefc.com for details. Malaysian Invasion, the TV show, is on Star Sports (Astro Ch 813), every Wednesday at 11pm.

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