Someone asked me how my blog and newspaper column came to be titled "Bleachers Brew". It's like this, it's an amalgam of sorts of two things: The bleachers area in the stadium/arena where I used to sit when I would watch baseball, football, and basketball games and Miles Davis' great jazz album Bitches Brew. That's how it got culled together. I originally planned on calling it "The View from the Big Chair" that is a nod to Tears For Fear's second album, Songs from the Big Chair. So there.

Friday, May 2, 2014

ONE FC: Rise to power and of Heroes

ONE FC: Rise to power and of Heroes
by rick olivares

There has been a buzz about ONE FC: Rise to Heroes more than the previous three events held in Manila.

Asia’s largest Mixed Martial Arts organization comes back not only with its savvy reputation for promotion and organization but also for its boldness and perhaps more importantly, its Philippine roots.

ONE FC is the first huge international MMA circuit to wrap a championship belt around a Filipino’s waist (Honorio Banario), to bring in a Filipina of Australian lineage (Christine Hallauer) to become a ring girl who has become a sensation and crowd favorite herself, and is the first to put a Pinoy fighter in the co-main event of a fight card on foreign soil (Kevin Belingon in ONE FC: War of Nations in Malaysia).

And its impresario and president is a Canadian of Philippine ethnicity who has not only championed the Filipino fighter on an international stage but is also mover and shaker in international sports.

Six fighters stood on the makeshift podium for the ONE FC: Rise to Heroes press conference at the SM Mall of Asia. Save for Brazilian Bibiano Fernandes and local boy Eugene Toquero and to some extent, Malaysian fighter Gianna Subba, the others weren’t known to the assembled media horde. Up to the dais strode Victor Cui, ONE FC’s President. He immediately cast a presence amidst the assembly of some of the toughest and most badass men on the planet. Despite being dressed nattily in a suit, one could tell that Cui was well built; a carry-over from his days as a taekwondo practitioner. His grip affirmed that. Tough, tight, and a cast-iron guarantee that this is a man who means business.

A former ESPN Star Sports Executive, Cui has been engaged in MMA promotions for over a decade. With Singapore as his home base, he set up Martial Combat, a series of MMA promotions that ran for nearly a year in the Lion City. He improved on Martial Combat’s formula to conceive One Fighting Championship. “Martial Combat was the test project to gauge the viability of MMA in the region,” revealed Cui of the hugely popular fight series that took place at Resorts World Sentosa. “It verified that MMA was the future of the Asian sports scene.”

Since July of 2011, ONE FC has had 15 events spread across four countries in Southeast Asia – Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines. Every promotion draws an average of 20,000 fans while the television coverage on FOX Sports reaches up to a potential of one billion people.

“One of the advantages of being based in Asia is our ability to understand each market and tailor our strategies to fit each market,” explained ONE FC’s president. “Every country that we go to has a different culture and being able to really immerse ourselves in that country allows us to understand our fans better. We have been able to find out what works in each country and that is reflected in the world-class entertainment that we put on each time.”

The meteoric rise of the sport as well as ONE FC is such that even before Jujeath Nagaowa opens the preliminary cards fights of ONE FC: Rise of Heroes, the next promotion, ONE FC: Honor and Glory is being set up in Singapore for its late May offering. By 2015, ONE FC hopes to stage two fight promotions every month.

“There is a long period of preparation before every event, securing deals with venues, partners and broadcasters,” related Cui. “We launch ticket sales at least six weeks before the event. While a team prepares for the current event in Manila for example, another team is already focused on the next event.”

“When we came to the Philippines two years ago and told anybody that ONE FC will be doing two events a year at MOA Arena, nobody will have believed you. I always knew that ONE FC will be a success in the Philippines but never did I expect the exponential growth that we have experienced in the past two years.”

Crucial in the strategy of ONE FC has been its media relations. “The media has been instrumental in growing ONE FC and the sport of mixed martial arts especially here in the Philippines,” pointed out Loren Mack, ONE FC’s Director for Public Relations. “The media is the focal point of developing the sport on a nationwide, mainstream scale and has been the engine that drives the knowledge of the sport. Since our first promotion, the media has gotten behind ONE FC and provided us with an unbelievable amount of support.”

“MMA in the Philippines was on the verge of a major explosion onto the mainstream conscious when ONE FC entered the market in 2012,” noted Cui. “I think it is reflected in the amount of success that we had since coming here. The Philippines have consistently garnered the largest attendance in ONE FC history and the amount of media coverage and attention ONE FC gets is absolutely unbelievable. Our fighters are treated like rock stars in this country and it goes to show Filipinos’ level of passion for mixed martial arts.”

Even the fighters themselves cannot wait to perform in front of local fans. “When I heard that ONE FC was doing an event in Manila, I said, I want to be on that card,” said Brazilian featherweight champion Bibiano Fernandes. “The country has a rich history of hosting fighting events from the Thrilla in Manila to Manny Pacquiao. I want to taste and see it for myself and be a part of that history.”

Added Australian fighter Rob Lisita whose heated rivalry with Yusuke Kawanago will be one of the keenly awaited fights in ONE FC: Rise to Power, “Manny Pacquiao is my idol. I would like to do him proud by winning in front of Philippine fans.”

For all the vitriol of the Lisita-Kawanago match or Fernandes return to the cage, in the weeks leading up to ONE FC: Rise of Heroes, the MMA world has been abuzz about World Boxing Organization Women’s Bantamweight champion and International Boxing Association Super Bantamweight champion Ana Julaton who makes the transition to MMA.

Matt Hume, ONE FC’s Vice President of Operations who himself is a former MMA fighter who once participated in Japan’s famed Pancrase where he fought the likes of Ken Shamrock and Jason DeLucia, gushed about Julaton and what she brings not only to the event but to ONE FC, “Ana Julaton is the most high profile boxer to ever participate in mixed martial arts. As with any martial arts, the key to Julaton's success will be how well she adapts her primary skills and complements it with new techniques suitable for MMA. When we heard she was considering mixed martial arts, we made sure she made the right choice in choosing Asia's largest mixed martial arts organization.”

As much as Julaton is a sure fire draw, Cui praised Hume’s eye for talent and matchmaking. “We have the best matchmaker in the business in Matt Hume who put together the card (for ONE FC: Rise of Heroes). This is easily one of the best lineup of fights in ONE FC's history. Bibiano Fernandes and Masakatsu Ueda are the two best Bantamweights in the world. Bibiano has undefeated in more than three years of competition, and Masakatsu has to pass through a gauntlet of  top stars to win the ONE FC Bantamweight Grand Prix. This is the most anticipated Bantamweight clash in recent history! Fan favorite Eduard Folayang also returns to face Kotetsu Boku. Neither of them knows how to be in a boring fight and this has fight of the night written all over it. To top it off, we will see the much anticipated debut of boxing champion Ana Julaton in mixed martial arts.”

With some 200 fighters from across Asia and the Western Hemisphere flocking over to ONE FC, Hume proclaims his job as fun and easy: My job is so easy because there are so many exciting and dynamic fighters in every division in ONE FC. We take everything into consideration when setting up the fights from experience, ring rust, styles and others to determine which bout will be the most competitive and most exciting.”

And come Friday night in Manila ONE FC: Rise to Heroes will be a treat not only for the hometown fans as Eduard Folayang, Rey Docyogen, and Eugene Toquero get to fight for flag and country along with Jujeath Nagaowa and Ana Julaton but also for MMA fans everywhere. “We’ve put together a top bill of matches for the night,” summed up Cui. “You don’t have to be a Filipino to pull for the other fighters. They’ve all got stories to tell. The other fighters are real people who bleed too. And they fight for different reasons. For sure the night is going to be explosive.”

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