The explosive growth of mixed martial arts (MMA) in Asia is putting the squeeze on boxing as it attracts millions of young fans and sells out venues across the region. Just a few years ago, cage fighting was seen as a niche and grisly pursuit but it is moving into the mainstream with major TV and sponsorship deals and a planned $1 billion IPO for Asia's main player. Gyms are mushrooming across Asia and fights have been held in dozens of major cities across a region which groups about 4.4 billion people, two-thirds of the world's population. MMA has also taken hold in the Americas and Europe but it has a particular appeal in Asia, which is the birthplace of the martial arts but lacks homegrown sports heroes. Its success is cutting into the fanbase of other combat sports, notably boxing, which is making a belated push for the Asian market with several big fights in Macau.
Even Manny Pacquiao, Asia's best known boxer who lost this month's "Fight of the Century" to Floyd Mayweather in Las Vegas, is a fan and investor in One Championship. The growth of the Singapore-based company, the most prominent of several Asian MMA organisations, is testament to the sport's rapid expansion in the region. In just three-and-a-half years, One Championship - renamed from One Fighting Championship - has grown to 24 events this year, including 10 in China. Sponsors include L'Oreal and Sony, and a tie-up with Disney means One Championship promotes films such as "Avengers: Age of Ultron" and the forthcoming Star Wars.
CEO Victor Cui said by the end of 2017 the company aimed to hold one event a week, and that it planned a billion-dollar share listing in three years' time. "Compared to MMA, boxing attracts only the boxing fans whereas MMA is across all the martial arts," he told AFP at a large MMA gym in downtown Singapore. In MMA fights, competitors can use a variety of martial arts to knock out their opponent or force a submission or stoppage, as well as accumulating points on the three judges' scorecards, making the action varied and sometimes vicious.
Boxing's schism with the martial arts widened this month when the International Boxing Association (AIBA) decided to pull out of the 2017 World Combat Games, preferring to maintain its "noble" image. AIBA officials were not available to comment for this story when approached by AFP. But One Championship's Cui said boxing faced "a bit of a challenge" to reach prominence in Asia. "The conversation we had with Manny (about investing) was, only Manny could fill out a 20,000-seater stadium in the Philippines, there's no other boxer who could do that," Cui said.
Boxing's cause was not helped by the disappointing "Fight of the Century," when Mayweather skilfully picked off Pacquiao while keeping largely out of range.
"Hard to watch sober," was the verdict of Singaporean cage fighter Stephen Langdown, 22, who said it compared poorly with the spectacle of MMA.
"Nobody's interested in seeing people run around for 12 rounds, pit-pat, pit-pat. It's just not good TV."
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