To many people, mixed martial arts (MMA) is a US phenomenon characterised by large, tattooed, aggressive men who brawl with each other inside a cage (or in a parking lot) for nothing but the sheer pleasure of beating someone up, watched by a small band of like-minded men who cheer at the sight of blood and broken bones.
Perhaps, this is true in some areas and to some extent. But this perception is fast changing and people around the world are becoming more and more educated as to what MMA really is, and businesses are realising the myriad of opportunities that are available – not least in Malaysia.
MMA is a fighting sport that brings together all of the different martial arts that are practiced around the world, many of which have their roots in Asia, such as Muay Thai, Karate, Taekwondo, Wushu and Silat. Two fighters meet each other inside of a ring, often called a cage, and usually battle each other for up to five, five-minute rounds with the aim of ‘submitting’ his onher opponent through chokes, knock-outs, judge’s decision, submissions and soon.
MMA is said to be the fastest-growing sport on earth and is popularised by the American MMA promotion, Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), who’s top fighters earn tens of millions of dollars. Its through the UFC that interest in MMA has skyrocketed, attracting thousands of fans, businesses, gyms, sponsorships, media and more to the sport.
While MMA has grown and grown over the past ten years, it is here in Asia that fighters, businesses and consumers are beginning to wake up to the sport and are realising the potential that it holds.
Did you know, one of the top MMA fighters in Asia hails from Sarawak? AJ Lias Mansor started life as a school teacher, but decided to become a full time MMA fighter and coach and has fought in some of the top competitions in Asia, including the largest competition, ONE Fighting Championship (ONE FC).
Another fun fact: the first female to fight in ONE FC also hails from Borneo. Ann Osman is from Sabah and in October will fight against Singaporean Sherilyn Lim in front of thousands at the ONE FC event in Singapore.
However, economically from a fighter’s perspective, life is still hard. Mansor, despite being one of the top fighters in Asia, has spoken about the lack of financial support available, affecting his ability to travel and train with the right people.
Ann Osman still holds down a job in property while training full time for one of the biggest promotions in the world. With the rise in popularity and interest, though, ONE FC says that the welfare of their fighters will rise with it and that 90 per cent of their fighters are able to train full time.
The rise in interest in MMA has benefitted the various MMA gyms that dot the towns and cities across Asia. Some of the top training camps in the world exist in Asia, such as Evolve MMA based in Singapore, and attract not just top Asian talent, but fighters from around the world.
But it is not just the high-end training camps and gyms that are experiencing a rise in interest. City gyms catering to office workers are now including Muay Thai, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ) and other martial arts to their services.
Gyms that would offer only one form of martial art are now including others as demand and knowledge of MMA’s benefits has increased among the average, health conscious consumer, especially when they realise that MMA training is, in fact, non-violent.
A perfect example of this phenomenon is Monarchy MMA, a gym located in the centre of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Established in January 2012, Monarchy grew quickly and now welcomes over 200 students and teaches all disciplines of martial arts associated with MMA. But these students are not just expats looking to continue where they left off in the West, more and more locals are signing up, attracted by the healthy lifestyle, and 50% of them are female.
Popular classes in many gyms are scheduled for after work hours to cater for the office crowd with lunch times also busy as office workers and corporates take to the mats or relieve their stress against a punching bag. The health benefits are slowly making their way into popular consciousness and many who taste MMA for the first time realise that donning a pair of gloves, or a Jiu Jitsu Gi, and spending an hour or two training is much more beneficial that an hour on a treadmill.
It is here that the largest opportunities for businesses and opportunities lie – the everyday consumer and gym goer. Interest is only going to rise and don’t be surprised if your local gym will start offering evening Muay Thai classes.
The big money, though, lies in major MMA promotions. The USA has the UFC, a multi million dollar behemoth that all but dominates the MMA scene in the country (and arguably, the world).
Oliver Ellerton is the chief marketing officer at Inside Investor, the owning company of www.investvine.com, a business and finance news portal focusing on Southeast Asian economic topics as well as trade and investment relations between Asia and the Gulf Cooperation Council. The views expressed are his own.