Story by Andre Brinstan Frois
This November, Singapore is set to host two separate mixed martial arts (MMA) events over the same weekend for the first time.
A safe and prosperous nation with hardly any violent crimes, Singapore has gradually become one of the world’s biggest fan bases of self-defence and martial arts today. The country’s fascination with combat sports is comparable to those of other hotbeds like Thailand, Brazil, and even cities of high crime rates in the United States, where training to fight is necessary for survival and a potential lifeline out of poverty.
As the country’s first-ever “big fight weekend” looms with One Championship staging their tournament on Nov 11 and Singapore Fighting Championship having theirs on Nov 12, we investigate how exactly the fight sport became such a highly lucrative industry in safe, sheltered Singapore.
Considered as a sport by some (and not yet by others), MMA was arguably invented by Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), the industry’s most famous brand. Previously managed poorly until it was bought over by the Fertitta family, it descended from the style of Brazil’s primitive Vale Tudo (“Anything Goes”) tournaments, and the early years welcomed martial artists of all disciplines to test the supremacy of individual techniques.
As judokas and kick-boxers faced off against street fighters and sumo wrestlers, the compelling narrative of the UFC gradually evolved from “which style is the best?” into “what combination of techniques makes the ultimate fighter?”
By keeping rounds to only three of five, each five minutes, and fine-tuning the realism of their octagon’s scenarios, brothers Frank III and Lorenzo helped MMA recapture the hearts of fight sport fans who had grown tired of long 12-round boxing tournaments and the lack of practicality in other martial arts competitions.
By heavily marketing the skill and technicality that the sport comprises, the Fertitta brothers’ new iteration of MMA found a way to engage intellectuals who did not have the stomach for brutal melees. It exploded into a colossal industry — UFC made $180m in total revenue in 2006, $600m in 2015, and is projected by the Fertitta brothers to make ten times more within a decade. Just last month, they sold UFC off for $4 billion.
MMA finds a new home
“Many spectators who come to our events know someone who is fighting and want to support him or her. Other attendees are general fight sport fans, and thirdly there are the people looking for something new to see,” former UFC exponent Will “The Kill” Chope categorises of local MMA live events’ attendees. Chope has observed Singapore’s interest in MMA burgeon over the past two years and is very likely to be fighting on Nov 12 in the Singapore Fighting Championship 4 (SFC 4).
A lanky but deadly lightweight who previously resided in Sacramento, California, Chope now fights out of Singapore. He was released from the UFC after reports of alleged domestic violence inclined management to distance him from their brand. Chope was, however, welcomed by Singapore with much adulation and reverence.
He most recently finished Indonesian martial artist Budi Kalbar in the first round of his match — at the preceding SFC 3 in June this year — by repeatedly pounding his heavy fists to Kalbar’s head until the referee decided to stop the brutality.
Chope now trains aspiring ultimate fighters in Juggernaut Fight Club, tucked away in the Central Business District of a minuscule island nation whose appetite for combat sports continues to grow.
Besides Chope, Singapore has also attracted MMA heroes such as Brazilian Rafael Dos Anjos, who is regarded by many as one of the best MMA fighters in the world, as well as Japanese living legend, multi-time MMA and grappling champion Shinya Aoki, to uproot themselves and move to the Southeast Asian city-state.
“One Championship is headquartered here and Evolve is also headquartered here. When you have Asia’s largest sports media property and Asia’s largest MMA gym in Singapore, it lays the foundation for growth and popularity,” he reckons, regarding Singapore’s soaring interest and prominence in MMA.
In Japan, Aoki forged himself an unsportsmanlike reputation by often losing his temper at fight events. He deliberately broke several opponents’ arms and has made rude gestures at his floored opponents on more than one occasion.
A mild-mannered gentleman at other times, he has apologised on several occasions and apparently seeks vindication in Evolve and One Championship.
A wave of Dojos
Over the past seven years, the number of MMA gyms in Singapore has risen from a handful to almost 20, with dozens more martial arts dojos gradually incorporating MMA into the variety of classes that they offer.
“I don’t think many Singaporeans are drawn to train actual MMA,” fighter and trainer Major Overall shares. A 34-year-old featherweight of American, Irish, French, Japanese, Korean, Native American and Sudanese descent, Overall has competed across Southeast Asia, in countries like Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore.
“We (Singaporeans) have less than one active pro fighter for every one million people in the population. What Singaporeans are drawn to is a variety of martial arts offered as alternative fitness. If you look around the island, most of the MMA gyms don’t even offer MMA classes daily. They offer different martial arts but not actual MMA, and that is a strong indication that they are reacting to the demand or lack thereof.”
He sheds light on Singapore’s habitability for both residents and businesses as the reason for its burgeoning martial arts industry. “Singapore is a safe and easy place to be based if you’re going to live in Asia. Crime is low, wages are relatively good compared to other places in the region.”
Singapore’s business-friendly acumen may have also caused the explosion of training centres. Aided by the mounting trendiness of MMA, the city-state’s commercial hospitality has resulted in various martial arts promotions and attracted celebrities and gyms to set up shop in the island metropolis.
Local champions, global heroes
In January 2014, Singapore saw its first MMA exponent compete in the top flight of the sport. Royston Wee, the first Singaporean to compete in a UFC event, feels that MMA has experienced an incline not just in Singapore, but all around Asia. “I think people everywhere now are interested in training combat sports,” he disclosed. “People just want to be a part of it for any reason.”
As for SFC President Arvind “The Juggernaut” Lalwani, he feels that Singapore’s increasing affluence has enabled folks of diverse backgrounds to get into MMA. His martial arts trainees include the likes of medical professionals, bankers and business owners.
Lalwani also founded Juggernaut Fight Club, where dozens of MMA hopefuls train weekly, if not daily. Some of his students hope to one day apply their skills in a professional fighting career, others simply wish to get a few bouts under their belts. Recognising this, Lalwani opened the SFC as a beginners’ platform, and welcomes fighters from all gyms to participate in the SFC.
“I started the SFC because I wanted to provide a platform for amateur fighters. Amateur martial artists can now hone their skills in the SFC in Singapore instead of having to travel overseas to countries like the Philippines and Thailand to get fights under their belts.”
For One Championship CEO Victor Cui, his mission was to showcase and create real Asian heroes in martial arts. “We want to show everyone and spread the values of martial arts such as discipline, honour, respect, courage, integrity, and humility,” Cui declares, suggesting that perhaps MMA’s attractiveness in Singapore is due to neither violence nor survival, but the virtues and inspiration that it comprises.
“As audiences around the region see more of our shows and learn more about our Asian heroes, their interest in martial arts will grow accordingly, and they’ll want to pick up martial arts that their heroes train in too,” he explains.
Report by Andre Brinstan Frois; Editing by Ilyas Sholihyn