[Sports & Business] UFC fights to make mixed martial arts a global phenomenon

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[Sports & Business] UFC fights to make mixed martial arts a global phenomenon


Ultimate Fighting Championship, more popularly known as the UFC, is rapidly gaining prominence to make mixed martial arts one of the most popular sports in the world.

At The Forum, a multi-purpose indoor arena in Inglewood, California, on June 5, large screens inside played videos commemorating the life of Muhammad Ali, who passed away the previous day.

They showed Ali’s trademark “Ali Shuffle” and “rope-a-dope,” as well as scenes of the legendary boxer training.

Then came videos of UFC fighters, such as Georges St-Pierre and Anderson Silva, replicating Ali’s trademark moves, as well as Ronda Rousey training in similar style as Ali.

UFC, the sport’s largest promotion, was once denounced for advocating a brutish free-for-all rather than an organized sporting event. But here, it promised the audience in the arena that it would continue the legacy of the legendary boxer Ali and the spirit of boxing.

During the middleweight championship fight that followed, Michael Bisping of England knocked out Luke Rockhold of the United States in the first round of UFC 199 to claim the middleweight title.

Korea’s ‘Stun Gun’ Kim Dong-hyun was the only Korean fighter at The Forum that day. Kim fought against Mexico’s Polo Reyes in a wild brawl that ended with a third-round TKO win for Reyes.

Despite the loss, Kim, who had promised he would fight until he dropped, received a $50,000 bonus for winning “Fight of the Night” honors that evening.

The UFC was founded in 1993, and has seen exponential growth in the last ten years. Last year, the business publication Forbes put the UFC at No. 10 on its ‘World’s Most Valuable Sports Brands’ list, estimating its value at $440 million.

As recently as March of this year, mixed martial arts events were approved in New York State, possibly doubling the UFC’s value. Although its size and popularity isn’t yet comparable to Major League Baseball or the National Basketball Association, the sport is gaining a reputation faster than almost any other. One of the reasons behind its success has to do with the way UFC answers the very primitive question of “who is stronger?”

From its outset, the UFC was criticized as being more of street fight than a regulated sport. To gain legitimacy, the UFC began to set stricter regulations and enforce harsher doping tests. It also recruited fighters from a wide spectrum of martial arts such as judo, boxing and wrestling.

Those efforts led to a substantial increase in UFC events, which grew from about five per year in 2001 to 46 in 2015. Globally, it is estimated that about 800 million households watched the UFC on television last year. The fights are currently broadcasted in 28 different languages to 158 countries.

The sudden appearance of Rousey, who was the first American woman to earn an Olympic medal in judo in 2008, in the Octagon helped the sport’s popularity surge.

It also grew on efforts to expand beyond North America and Europe to the continent of Asia. One of the UFC’s latest attempts to take root in Asia was an event in Seoul in November of last year.

The driver behind the UFC’s rapid expansion is the dynamic action it offers.

UFC fights are aggressive and the company itself constantly plans events to pique the curiosity of its fans.

Last December, Irish fighter Conor McGregor, one of the sport’s most popular figures, knocked out then-defending featherweight champion Jose “Scarface” Aldo of Brazil, who’s been on an 18-match winning streak since 2006, in 13 seconds.

But just three months later, McGregor made the rare decision to go up a weight class to fight Nate Diaz of the United States. McGregor was defeated in his first UFC loss.

In August, McGregor and Diaz will clash in a re-match in the main event of UFC 202 at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas.

It’s through dramatic victories and upsets like these that the UFC continues to create new stars and stories, amplifying its popularity around the globe.

This is all leading to big paydays, both for the promotion and its fighters. McGregor and Diaz receive as much as $1 million per match, and there’s speculation that their extra income from bonuses and pay-per-view dividends, which have likely skyrocketed alongside the surge in pay-per-view subscriptions the past few years, would be larger than the fight money itself.

In comparison, boxing, which was hugely successful through the 1990s, is seeing a steady decline in popularity. With boxing fading in prestige, it is the UFC that is quickly surfacing as the future of combat sport.

“Although they fight mercilessly, putting everything at stake, fighters are respectful of their counterparts outside of the Octagon,” said one fight fan who attended the event at The Forum. “UFC will replace boxing in the 21st century.”

BY KIM SIK [choi.hyungjo@joongang.co.kr]

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