Far East Expansion
The UFC made its MMA debut in China for UFC on Fuel TV 6 in November, and FIGHT!’s one-man roving reporter John Morgan hopped planes, trains, and automo- biles to provide you with his first-hand account.
I hate to admit it, but I’m still not exactly sure whether or not I’ve been to China. The 15,000 miles I added to my frequent flyer account suggest I have, and I definitely remember enduring a full week away from my wife and six-month-old son. But after spending the week of UFC on Fuel TV 6 in Macau, I’m just not entirely sure what exactly that means, since Macau is actually one of two “special administrative regions” of the People’s Republic of China.
Depending on whom you ask, Macau is either China’s equivalent of Las Vegas or the country’s red-headed stepchild, hand- ed over from Portuguese rule in 1999 and promised 50 years of autonomy. The latter seemed to be true when I first arrived.
I consider myself a fairly educated traveler, so I did my research well in advance. I knew that one of the simplest and cheap- est routes to Macau was a flight to Hong Kong and then a ferryboat ride from the airport to Macau’s Taipa terminal, where I would be a short taxi ride away from my hotel. Ah, if things were as easy in reality as they are in our plans.
When I arrived to Hong Kong, I discovered that it was too late in the evening to take said ferry to Macau. The people of the region, however, offered a simple solution: take a one-hour train from the airport to the downtown Hong Kong train station, catch a cab for a quick ride to the downtown ferry terminal, and then you can hop on an alternate one-hour boat to Macau. Oh, but be- cause Macau and Hong Kong aren’t really China (or maybe they are), you have to clear immigration each time you enter or leave one of those territories.
The Macanese money you thought you were so smart to secure before you flew 14 hours from the U.S., yeah, that’s no good in Hong Kong. Sure, sure, I know the Maca- nese pataca is worth the exact same as the Hong Kong dollar, but you can understand why they simply won’t take it, right?
Things weren’t shaping up well in my first few hours in Asia, and the mysterious doughy creations I was served on the boat—complete with room-temperature fruit and yogurt I decided I should probably avoid—did little to make me believe I was going to enjoy my time in Macau.
And then, I finally arrived.
As a Sin City resident, bright lights and fancy buildings don’t really grab my attention. I see the world-famous Las Vegas Strip every time I head to my local grocery store. But Macau’s Cotai Strip is something spe- cial. In terms of land area, the Cotai Strip pales in comparison to its North American counterpart, but the individual hotels and casinos are far grander in scale. Take, for instance, the host venue for the week—the Venetian Macau. While it looks very much like its sister property in Las Vegas, the Venetian Macau boasts the world’s largest casino and is the sixth-largest building of any kind on earth. Let that sink in.
As I walked through the casino, it was hard not to notice just how busy the gambling areas were. A Las Vegas casino would kill to have that many players placing sizable wagers well into the night and early morning. And these people are serious about their gambling. Looking for a beer on a blackjack table? You won’t find it. The focus must remain high, and alcohol won’t help.
Everyone in the hotel speaks English, so checking in, ordering a meal, placing a bet—it’s all tremendously easy. It doesn’t take long at all to almost forget you’re in China. It all feels so familiar. And then comes the kicker. The Venetian Macau—you know, the one IN MACAU—only accepts Hong Kong dollars. Seriously. A territory with its own currency that would generally prefer using bills and coins of another territory—see where the confusion is created? (On a side note, I’ve got a stack of Macanese patacas sitting in my office that I would be happy to sell you on the cheap.)
When traveling abroad for UFC events, getting there is always the hard part. Once you’ve settled in, fight week is a pretty routine process. There are open workouts, press conferences, weigh-ins, and then fight night. This particular event was different. It was like hopping into a time machine and dialing back 20 years. MMA is simply a foreign concept to the Chinese public. Sure, traditional martial arts have long played a significant part in the country’s culture, but they are generally viewed as an actual form of art. Locking a cage door behind you and testing your skills against another man in as-real-as-it-gets combat doesn’t quite fit the mold.
There is, however, a major difference be- tween the struggles of the UFC in America during the John McCain era and the ones they face in China—the country doesn’t seem opposed to the violent nature of the sport. There are no protests of “human cockfighting” or calls for banning the sport. Creating fans may just be a matter of education.
Fight week’s press conference and open workout session was a perfect example of the UFC’s plan in China. Following the traditional panel discussion, UFC exec Reed Harris and former WEC Featherweight Champ Urijah Faber led gathered onlookers through a how-to session on MMA. UFC on Fuel TV 6 headliners Cung Le and Rich Franklin took turns showing off striking combinations, takedowns, and grappling transitions, as Harris and Faber described not only what was taking place on the mats but also the type of commitment to training and diet that is required to succeed in MMA. A UFC Rule Book was distributed to attending MMA media.
A similar education process was taking place back at the Venetian Macau. UFC officials set up a walk-through museum of sorts in one of the hotel’s main thorough- fares. A video loop played over and over with clips outlining the history of the UFC from its 1993 inception to its 2001 purchase by Zuffa to its current position on network television. There were segments where UFC executives and fighters discussed the culture of sportsmanship in MMA and also outlined the extensive medical regulations in place to ensure the safety of its fighters.
The walls were plastered with huge posters discussing the different fighting styles prevalent in the UFC, detailing how victory is achieved, and introducing the reigning champions of each division. This was China’s introduction to the UFC.
The possibilities are staggering. UFC China officials informed me that UFC on Fuel TV 6 was ultimately broadcast to about 450 million Chinese citizens, which is just one-third of the country’s population of 1.3 billion people. Following the night’s fights, UFC officials announced a deal to bring both televised programming and live events to Indonesia, the world’s fourth- most populous nation, with approximately 238 million residents.
The night’s fights were entertaining enough. Despite seven consecutive decisions to open the night, there were a few entertaining bouts to kick off the evening, and the night ended with a bang when Le leveled Franklin. All in all, it was a decent showing in terms of entertainment value.
It cer tainly won’t be an easy path to Chinese MMA domination for the UFC. Business works a little differently there, as several Chinese residents were happy to explain. The Chinese version of the FCC can shut down any broadcast it deems unacceptable, even if the board doesn’t provide a list of what exactly it expects. And most importantly, the nation needs to develop a superstar or two in order for the Chinese people to have a reason to care. That’s generally important in any developing market, but it’s especially imperative in China, where the government controls the country’s largest networks, whose sole purpose is to air programming that paints the nation in a good light. A Chinese fighter winning bouts, especially over athletes from other nations, would likely earn their attention.
I had a few hours to wander around on my final day in Macau, and as Westernized as the city seems on the outside, there is still a very traditional culture just outside the Cotai Strip. I guess some of that is evident even in the Venetian Macau’s food court, which featured more than its fair share of hanging fowl and mystery meats and fewer-than-expected burger joints and pizza shops. I did indulge in a piping hot bowl of pho, which did the trick before I star ted my 24-hour excursion back home.
That, of course, didn’t prove to be as simple as hoped—or as promised. Since I was flying American Airlines, I couldn’t take the Taipa ferry to the airport. Instead, it was a bus to the ferry terminal, a boat to Hong Kong, a taxi to a ground terminal, and a train to the airport—oh, and clearing customs twice more. My passport got an incredible workout.
Ultimately, I enjoyed my time in Macau, and I imagine UFC officials probably consider their first trip to China a success. The true measure of the market will come when the company visits Beijing or some other Chinese mainland destination. How- ever, witnessing the company’s first step into the market was something I won’t soon forget.