Thursday, 8 November 2012

Fowlkes: In China, UFC expands its empire - but is bigger always better?

If you thought the end of presidential campaign season in the United States meant you could stop hearing about China for at least a little while, think again. After months of arguments about who is and is not shipping jobs to the world's most populous nation, the UFC heads to the "special administrative region” of Macau for its official debut in the People's Republic of China for UFC on FUEL TV 6 on Saturday.

In case you haven't noticed, the UFC is pretty serious about this whole global expansion thing. That's why it's continuing to invite the guaranteed headache that comes with breaking into new markets all while the existing markets are complaining about being taken for granted. Sorry, England. And no offense, Germany. But there are more than 1 billion people in China, and the UFC has to get to work explaining to them what the rubber guard is all about.

Maybe Macau is the best possible place to start. Sure, the UFC has offices on the mainland in Beijing, but Macau is its own little world, operating by its own rules, and choking with its own casinos. In other words, it's an environment the Las Vegas-based UFC can relate to. Also, like Rio de Janeiro, it's a port that's been dealing with the Portuguese for the past 500 years, so maybe they'll at least have a head start when it comes to understanding some of those Brazilian jiu-jitsu terms (OK, maybe not).

The UFC always has its work cut out for it when it has to introduce an admittedly brutal sport to a new audience while also downplaying the brutality. That's a tough little tightrope to walk. How do you show off your highlight reel full of bloody battles and concussive blows without freaking out your uninitiated viewers? You almost have to add a disclaimer that promises: "No fighters were hurt (at least not seriously) during the making of this film.” Even then, there's the chance that people simply won't believe you.

This past summer, I was asked to give a talk about sports in American culture to a group of Chinese college students visiting the University of Montana. After showing them one round from the first Arturo Gatti-Mickey Ward boxing match, the lone male in the group calmly informed me of his opinion that, "This, I think, should not be allowed.” Guess it's a good thing I didn't show them a clip of Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira getting his arm snapped by Frank Mir.

But breaking into new markets isn't just a matter of inviting the same old criticism from fresh new sources. There's also the problem of what happens when you're too successful for your own good.

As you may have noticed, the UFC's done a pretty good job of cultivating strong fan bases wherever it goes. U.K. fans were pumped about it when the UFC first began exporting big-time MMA across the Atlantic, then Canadians got even more pumped, and now Brazilians seem like the most pumped of all. Just when things are going so well in both hemispheres, the UFC decides it needs to test the enthusiasm level in China, where interest from even a minuscule portion of the population could translate to millions of new fans. As UFC Asia's Mark Fischer pointed out, Macau is "within three-hour flights of more than 2 billion people,” which makes it a pretty attractive destination for anyone in the business of putting butts in seats.

Still, as Genghis Khan (who might have found a kindred spirit in UFC President Dana White) learned while criss-crossing the Chinese mainland 800 years ago, expansion can test an empire as surely as stagnation can. It's great to see the UFC spreading the gospel of MMA far and wide, but there's a risk that it will spread itself (and its already overworked employees) too thin in the process.

We've all heard White's allegories about the universal appeal of fighting, which he insists transcends cultural barriers on the street corners of the world. No one's ever accused White of suffering from a lack of ambition. It's his energy and enthusiasm that has helped propel the UFC to foreign shores, where "Ultimate Fighter” shows are threatening to pop up like McDonald's franchises while new populations find out for themselves why you shouldn't leave it in the hands of the judges.

At the same time, even with a private jet and a tireless staff – the modern equivalent of what made The Great Khan so formidable in his time – you can't be everywhere at once. As inspiring as it is to see the UFC expand its MMA empire, let's hope it remembers that bigger doesn't always equal better.

For more on UFC on FUEL TV 6, stay tuned to the UFC Rumors section of the site.

(Pictured: Dana White)

Melanie Griffith Arline Hunter

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