- Event promotes fighters who have overcome adversity
- Reserved Singaporean crowd needs to be encouraged to enhance atmosphere
- Bout combines traditions of martial arts with elements from more modern fight promotions
It would be easy for a taxi driver to make assumptions about what a tourist would be doing in Singapore.
A trip out to the Gardens by the Bay, perhaps, and a visit to the Flower Dome or the Cloud Forest. Perhaps a couple of relaxing hours at Raffles with a Singapore Sling or maybe Chinatown, with its non-stop buzz day and night.
But no, I was in town for the ONE World Championship ‘Dynasty of Heroes’ event at the Indoor Stadium.
‘Ah, mixed martial arts!’ my driver replied with a proud smile, for if there was one sport that defines Asia, this would be it.
Lots of established Western sports are beating an expansion path here (next up in the National Stadium is Lionel Messi’s Argentina) but this fierce-yet-honorable pursuit remains close to the heart of everyone in Singapore (where more than three quarters of the population are Chinese and more than half the remainder are Malaysian).
So, what is ONE Championship? If you’re assuming it’s the Asian version of UFC, you’re more or less right, but with some stand out differences too.
For one thing, it is not some big brash ‘in-your-face’ thing. UFC’s Conor McGregor isn’t known for his deference and humility, of course, but if you’re thinking that MMA Asian-style is just a sequence of ceremonial encounters, you’d be way wide of the mark too.
The ONE Championship combines the honourable tradition of martial arts with the energy of a live fight, the athleticism and commitment of Olympians and the noise and adrenaline you would expect at a rock concert. Some of that is still pretty much UFC, but then there’s the thing that really starts to differentiate ONE from the competition: the fighters themselves.
The typical ‘top of the bill’ ONE fighter has overcome adversity to get where he or she wants to be. Agilan Thani, for example, is fast becoming a household name over here, but his path was more difficult than most, as we were all to learn later at the venue from a short video showing how he had overcome child obesity and being bullied before finding his own path.
The evening’s experience was to show me that this message is part of the pan-Asian appeal of the sport since it promotes positive values at an individual and national level.
At the top of the bill Angela Lee, the great homegrown hero and atomweight champion, would be facing Istela Nunes, the challenger from Brazil, while there was also huge interest in seeing if Agilan Thani could stop world welterweight (and previously Olympic) champion Ben Askren, a Milwaukee-based force of nature with a perfect record, and a gladiatorial hairstyle.
Image: Angela Lee defeats Istela Nunes of Brazil (Suhaimi Abdullah/Getty Images)
This event was something I didn’t want to miss. The fact that I nearly did was down to three taxi drivers who found various excuses not to take me there (“I’m finishing my shift”, “I’m booked somewhere else”, “It’s too close”, etc.). Raymond, my reserved concierge, could barely contain his annoyance. “This is illegal,” he told me (although how that was going to help the situation wasn’t immediately clear).
At that moment, as if written into the script, the trainer of ‘Rock Man’ Chen Lei (the Chinese fighter who was to win the evening’s first bout) came screeching up to the hotel in his car.
The plan had been for his man to emerge into the arena, proudly holding his country’s flag before entering the cage and doing battle. Except the flag had been left behind. Spotting an opportunity, Raymond asked if I could hitch a lift and, within seconds we were on our way at some considerable speed.
The first thing that caught my eye at the arena was the crowd building up around the VIP entrance. A series of well-known Asian super-celebs were expected and the paparazzi were fighting for space.
When Eun Jiye (one of ONE Championship’s famous Ring Girls) arrived with her beautiful cohorts several minutes later, the same group of photographers were fighting for breath.
Once in the stadium and with the help of the fan next to me, we managed to spot Anthony Tan (founder of ride-hailing platform Grab), Tony Fernandes (founder of Air Asia), and Joseph Schooling, a Singaporean who won the gold medal at the 100m butterfly in the 2016 Olympics.
These were the big hitters whose presence reflected ONE Championship’s brand values: the belief that anyone can achieve their dreams, regardless of their circumstances.
Heroes in the cage
The really big hitters, however, were the heroes in the cage, so I joined the line of fans waiting to pass through the security check. It took a long time, but it was reassuring and the scanning process itself was actually carried out with little fuss.
In the concourse, there was food and drink (see prices below), a decent range of merchandise (the ONE Championship black tee shirt was popular) and some photo opportunities too, but most fans made straight for their seats.
Inside, Go Daddy provided T-shirt guns for the ONE Ring Girls to shoot merchandise into the crowd. Promotion for June’s releases of Tom Cruise’s re-boot of ‘The Mummy’ and the latest in the Transformers franchise were as ubiquitous as the #ONEFightNight hashtag.
Each fighter had his or her own entry tune, ranging from hard rock to rap. After the opening blitz of an urgent remix of Eminem’s ‘Without Me’, American fighter Rebecca Heinzman Rosewski leapt out from the main stage to House of Pain’s ‘Jump Around’.
I learned that ONE does quiet and loud very well (and light and dark too). Firework explosions gave way to moments when the lights were cut and, each time there was a pause in the soundtrack, a heavy metal chord would thunder back in to shatter the calm.
Because Singaporeans are renowned for their reserve (I later learned that Buddhism is the most practised religion), this was a show with extra emphasis on creating atmosphere.
You would only have to open the venue doors in Manila for MMA fans to go nuts but here the MC was making a massive effort to encourage the people to MAKE SOME NOISE. Happily, for all of us, the people obliged.
Although much of what the ONE Championship promises is different, I was pleased to see that the traditional approach to announcing a fight was still a central part of the experience.
All of the ingredients were in place: a stage announcer with a high octave voice, an ability to enunciate extravagantly and the power to extend vowels to unnatural lengths. His ability to negotiate Thai ‘strawweight’ contender Dejdamrong Sor Amnuaysirichoke’s name without the tiniest of slips was also admirable.
The bouts themselves ranged from three five-minute rounds to five rounds for the bigger fights (and one 15-minute round for the grappling bout).
MMA has strict rules allowing a combination of martial arts including striking, grappling and holding, so instead of the lawlessness that the presence of the cage might infer, what happened presented moments of intensity, but also periods of zen-like calm and chess-like focus, with the adversaries inching their strategies forward as the video man leaned over the cage to capture every single movement.
In the end, there were a range of outcomes, from submissions and knock outs to split decisions and a couple of fights stopped by the referee too.
For novices like me it was good to see the stats summary on the main stage screen at the end of each fight before the adjudication. I also loved the heartbeat that boomed ominously around the arena during each fight, doubling in speed as the bout progressed while reminding those of us of a certain age of the intro and outro to Pink Floyd’s ‘Dark Side of the Moon’.
The two main fights were one-sided. Ben Askren approached his bout like he had a plane to catch, needing less than three minutes to extract a submission from Agilan Thani, while Angela Lee easily retained her belt (and the adoration of the home crowd) with a submission from Nunes in the second.
Those who were concerned that the fighting would go on until after the MRT transport system closed need not have worried. Lee took the acclaim of a now frenzied home crowd and the night was over.
Afterwards, I reflected on the traditional razzmatazz of major fights: the detailed choreography of the big event, the personalities, the music, the effects and even the clichés too.
I wondered how ONE would go about building more messages about determination, perseverance, honour and tradition into a sport that, to many fight fans, is often as much about the spin and decoration around it as it is about the endeavours in the cage.
But ONE, true to their name, have one big thing going for them. This is Asia’s sport. It was born on this continent more than 5,000 years ago and its values, as I learned from the pre-event publicity, www.onefc.com and the impressive #ONEFightNight souvenir programme (with a very handy ‘rule book’ for the uninitiated) are important to people here.
That’s why it mattered to have local gold medal-winning Olympian Joseph Schooling welcome Angela Lee on to the main stage with a proud wave of the nation’s flag. Because he’s just like her.
They’ve both been on the same path. They’ve shown that anything is possible if you’re prepared to work hard enough for it.
The ONE Championship fan experience strives to convey that message with its pre- and post-fight features and in-show biographical details and it will undoubtedly find new ways to make these values resonate and to maintain its extraordinary growth.
- ONE Championship ‘Dynasty of Heroes’
- 7-11pm, Friday, May 26, 2017
- Location: Singapore Indoor Stadium
- After three initial bouts, the main event (seven bouts) was streamed live via www.onefc.com (virtual HD ticket for S$9.99)
- Tickets via www.sportshub.com.sg ranged from free ‘(unallocated’) seating without a view of the LED and Bronze level seating for S$28 to Gold category for S$148 and from cage-side for S$548 or, if you like something a bit more special, a VIP cage-side box for S$2,140
Image: The Secret Fan's ringside view
Extract from refreshments menu (S$1/$0.72/€0.64)
- Farmland Potato Chips (Crisps) S$4.30
- Prawn Crackers S$3.10
- Supreme Pizza S$5.00
- Gourmet Hot Dog S$4.00
- Vegetarian Baguette S$4.00
- Various beers (S$14-15)
- Soft drinks (S$4.00)
The taxi driver insurrection didn’t help but that was beyond the organisers’ control. Long security lines probably did delay some people getting into the stadium but ticket purchase was easy, the MRT drops you right outside the stadium and parking is plentiful in the vicinity.
Although the two main events were over in a matter of a couple of minutes, this was much more than just a series of fights. There were extensive videos, striking and well-timed sound and lighting effects, good stats sharing, fantastic video screen presentation –and some engaging partner activations. The evening went by in a flash and yet I’d been there for more than four hours.
I am a fight novice. I’d never been to a boxing match, never mind seven bouts of MMA and, considering myself a sensitive soul, I did worry that I might be put off by the violence. But this isn’t cage fighting in the ‘lawless’ sense. This is intricately managed; intimately refereed and carefully designed to produce an honourable sport rather than a post-pub brawl. I found myself surprised at how it drew me in: my head bobbing backwards and forwards between the cage and the giant video screens to see what was happening.
Mark Bradley is the founder of the Fan Experience Company, an organisation that provides consultancy services to sports teams and institutions looking to improve the way they engage with and retain their fans. He has also written extensively about customer service excellence and is an accomplished speaker on the subject. Follow @FanExperienceCo on Twitter.