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Saturday September 15, 2012

Fight on, bro

ONE Fighting Championship’s chief executive officer, Victor Cui, answers some pertinent questions about his organisation.

Devastating floods hit Manila in early August, right when mixed martial arts (MMA) outfit ONE Fighting Championship’s (ONE FC) head honcho Victor Cui and his team were about to head to the city to begin their media blitz for Pride of a Nation.

“We were really worried,” said Cui, a Canadian of Filipino descent. “But amazingly, members of the media turned up to meet us from morning till late.”

The people of the Philippines showed their resilience in overcoming the tragedy, even fully occupying the 16,000-seater Smart Araneta Coliseum for ONE FC’s inaugural Philippines event on Aug 31.

Singapore-based ONE FC had its very first event at the Singapore Indoor Stadium in September 2011, and since then, similar events have been held in Jakarta and Kuala Lumpur. All of them have been at 7,000 to 8,000-seater venues, but the Smart Araneta Coliseum doubled that.

Building up: Victor
Cui, CEO and
founder of ONE
Championship, says,
‘My focus is on
signing fighters who
are exciting and
who fans want to
see.’ Building up: Victor Cui, CEO and founder of ONE Fighting Championship, says, ‘My focus is on signing fighters who are exciting and who fans want to see.’

Interest in MMA has been growing steadily in the region. There are occasional small MMA events in KL and Johor Baru. According to an Astro spokesperson, MMA programmes such as Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) on Fox and Bellator on Kix are among the most popular of the genre.

At one time, Japan’s PRIDE FC, founded in 1997, was more popular than UFC, but PRIDE eventually saw hard days and shut down in 2007. Many see ONE FC as the promotion that would return Asia to the glory days of PRIDE. But not everyone is glad about ONE FC’s presence.

Some have slagged it as being the poor cousin of the United State’s UFC, signing up former UFC fighters whom fans no longer care about. Early last month, Eric Holden wrote on Yahoo about ONE FC: “It’s a strange way to go about business for the promotion, which in its one year of existence and four cards to date, has been building its brand mostly by signing UFC outcasts to short-term fight deals.”

But Cui defended his signing decisions, saying that fans still want to see former UFC heavyweights such as Tim Sylvia and Andrei Arlovski who fought each other for the fourth time in Manila.

“My focus is on signing fighters who are exciting and who fans want to see,” said Cui when met in Manila. “They could be at any stage of their careers, it doesn’t matter to me. If you step into that cage, and you’re exciting, and fans cheer, that’s how we’re going to make new fans.

“An MMA fighter’s career is much longer than a boxer’s or any other sportsmen. You get fighters who hit their peak when they’re 35. If you time it right, and you have good people around the fighter, like (Filipino) Eduard (Folayang, who is 28), he’s got a 15-year career in this sport.”

When asked about competition from other outfits such as Hong Kong-based Legend FC which also focuses on Asian fighters, Cui says, “There’s not really any competition because we’re the biggest already.”

“The ONE FC network gives us access to the best fighters,” said Cui. “Like Team Lakay and Eduard – these guys are friends. I went up to Baguio myself, took the six-hour drive, just to spend time with them. When you do business in Asia, you have to go that extra mile.”

Recently, former DREAM champion Bibiano Fernandes was rumoured to be signing with UFC, but the Brazilian later sprung a surprise by joining ONE FC. Asked what ONE FC’s strategy was, Cui said: “We take care of their careers and we give them good fight opportunities. Bibiano signed with us because he wanted to build up his fanbase here in Asia.”

Our conversation inevitably turned to the issue of safety, especially after the slight controversy over the Zorobabel Moreira-Roger Huerta match-up at Destiny of Warriors in Kuala Lumpur in June. Moreira won the fight with a soccer kick to Huerta’s head when the latter was down.

ONE FC had used an open attack rule where a fighter has to wait for the referee to give the go-ahead before applying a soccer kick to the head of a downed opponent. In Manila, Arlovski also unleashed a soccer kick to Sylvia’s head but the kick was deemed illegal as the referee had not given the go-ahead. The match was ruled a no-contest.

But just last week, ONE FC reviewed its rules and decided to remove the open attack rule. Meaning, kick at will.

It must be a delicate balance between ensuring the safety of the fighters and preserving the entertainment value of fights. One would think there has to be a compromise somewhere.

But Cui insisted: “No. No, I would never, ever compromise on the safety of our fighters for entertainment. I’ll tell you why. Because a death in this sport will destroy the business. And I would never want that. That’s why everything that we implement is at a safety standard that’s higher than any other combat sport. ”

The next ONE FC event, Rise of Kings, is set for Oct 6 at the Singapore Indoor Stadium. For the first time, three title belts will be up for grabs. Filipino Honorio Banario will be competing for the featherweight belt, while French fighter Arnaud “The Game” Lepont will be meeting “master of flying submissions” and Dream lightweight champion Shinya Aoki in the Super Fight main event.

Cui confirmed that Rise of Kings will also be the first ONE FC event to be broadcast live across the US on pay-per-view. (The event will also be streamed live at www.onefc.com/livestream.) He said a grand prix tournament will also be introduced at the bantamweight category.

“When we go to other countries, we will have the typical fight card, but at the same time we will also have the grand prix tournament that will build up over time,” said Cui.

Cui also confirmed that ONE FC will be back in Kuala Lumpur sometime in December.

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