Real Talk | Justin Leong; MMA in the Middle Kingdom

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The Rebel Fighting Championship, a mixed martial arts (MMA) promotion headed by Justin Leong, has been operating on the ground in Mainland China for a few years now. MMA recently made headlines in China, as UFC made its Mainland debut just last week in UFC Fight Night 122, marking the first time that the world’s largest MMA promotion had held an event in China. The challenges that both entities have faced in exploring a totally new market have proved to be trying, but nonetheless a great case study on foreign sports entities trying to muscle their way into selling their brand and experience in China. Leong has always been passionate about MMA, but it is his unique background in finance that makes him uniquely qualified to lead an MMA entertainment company, and his passion for the sport gives him the motivation and know-how to succeed in the business of MMA. Dragon Media recently sat down with Justin, and got to know more about his background, the business side of fighting in the octagon, and how MMA can be promoted in China.

DM: How did you first become interested in MMA?

JL: My mother’s father was a boxer, so she loves fighting. One day I was watching TV with her, and we saw this event happening in a full stadium in Las Vegas. The atmosphere was crazy. Two half-naked guys walked into an eight-sided octagon cage and started fighting. At the time I thought it was very intense and brutal, like fighting in a prison, but I was very intrigued to see fighting in a cage. When the fight started, they were punching and kicking each other. One of the guys fell to the floor, so I figured the referee would ask him to stand up, but the other fighter went to the floor and tried to strangle him, and that basically ended the fight. I was like what in the world is this! When you see it the first time you see it as very violent.

I remembered the three letters on the TV said “UFC”. I wanted to go to the gym to learn UFC, so I called up the gym and said that I wanted to learn UFC. The gym responded “There’s no such thing as UFC. There’s only this thing called Mixed Martial Arts.” I then Googled MMA, and three results come up. UFC, Bruce Lee and some other names. Bruce Lee is sort of the first guy to do mixed martial arts, where no style is style, and it was very controversial in the 60s. The other result was the company called UFC, which has the idea of “what’s the most effective martial art form in the world? Would a Judo guy beat a boxing guy?” as a test ground for martial arts.

DM: What were you doing before starting REBEL FC?

JL: My father was an accountant, so I studied accountancy due to family pressure. After I finished my degree at the Singapore Institute of Management, I worked at the Harbourfront in Singapore, managing a cruise ship with a casino on board. The ship was owned by Stanley Ho.

Rebel FC chief executive Justin Leong with renowned Japanese MMA Takeshi ‘Lion’ Inoue (centre) and Rebel FC matchmaker Chad Sanderson

DM: Since you have a background in finance, how does that help you to either gain the support or found the financial foundation for REBEL FC?

JL: I would say it is fundamental or even a competitive edge to have a background in finance in the MMA business. Historically, owners of MMA companies have been MMA gym owners, fighters themselves or yakuza. Very few have been able to mix the love of MMA and the commercial and business side of the sport. In the US, a lot of business owners own sports teams, such as Microsoft ex-CEO Steve Ballmer, who owns the Los Angeles Clippers, and Mark Cuban, owner of the Dallas Mavericks. They are able to drive the business and create business models, and therefore monetize the business and grow it. But you need to balance the two. If you do not have a passion for the sport, you won’t understand the sport from the audience’s point of view. You won’t be able to put on exciting shows to attract casual and hardcore MMA fans. You have to understand the dynamics and how the game proceeds. There are only probably 10 guys in the whole world who would be able to execute this business successfully.

REBEL FC 2, Battle Royale, Gyo Pyung Hwang vs. Kris Barras

DM: Do you have the connection to legendary fighters before you start the REBEL FC? How do you develop the relationship with the fighters?

JL: One word, Facebook. I started REBEL FC in May 2013 with zero event experience in the business. I needed to find a fighter match maker in the MMA business. I was speaking to a journalist based in Thailand, an MMA journalist who has connections to a lot of gyms and interviewed a lot of fighters. He volunteered to be my match maker and helped me find access to fighters all over the world. Technology and Facebook are amazing, they enable you to contact those fighters directly, even those that are under other agencies’ management. Half of them have contracts with other agencies, half of them are self-managed. The MMA scene in terms of sport is sort of like Wild Wild West.

DM: How did you gain the confidence and decide to fund the REBEL FC?

JL: UFC branded MMA as a very violent sport initially; eight men enter the cage, only one leaves, no rules. Everything that is extremely brutal, violent and not family-friendly is not supported by the government, so it was banned, unable to operate in 46 states in the US. But the sponsors had a vision for it, and bought it in 2001 for 2 million dollars. By 2013, I was in Singapore looking at my computer, and it says the company is valued at 2 billion. At that time, I thought, “wow you only need 2 million to turn into 2 billion dollars.” It’s a very interesting sport, with a very interesting background. I saw a business opportunity if MMA were packaged and marketed correctly.

DM: How do you differentiate REBEL FC from UFC and ONE FC?

JL: UFC is a mixed martial arts organization based in the United States, which promotes 80% US fighters. ONE FC is very Asian-focused, promoting MMA in Southeast Asia. China is the best place for MMA, where you can build up local Chinese fighting champions and let them compete against fighters worldwide. REBEL FC focuses more towards the entertainment side of the business. The sport’s audience in the world is very small, especially in China, where reality shows and entertainment shows have way more of an audience. REBEL FC wants to bring other elements into MMA, like celebrity fighters, as the Chinese market is very celebrity-focused, with wanghong culture. REBEL FC wants to grow MMA in a new way other than the sports-focused way that UFC did.

DM: What are the challenges you’ve faced since coming to China in 2015?

JL: There are too many entertainment choices in China (live-streaming, karaoke, reality shows, etc). One is to learn about the landscape of China as well as how to operate a business in China, especially the government’s relationship with the business as well as the media, for which it’s more complex than in Singapore, where there is just Media Corp and YouTube. Developing a business model in China is challenging too, because a lot MMA organizations find it difficult to become profitable.

Justin speaking at a press conference for REBEL FC, Battle Royale, Quest For Glory

DM: What’s the difference between promoting MMA in China and in Singapore?

JL: Singapore is a very secure and rich country, but it lacks passion. There is not much of a patriotic sporting culture in Singapore, as most Singaporeans are passionate about food and movies instead. Singapore is safe and stable, not as diverse as the western world, or a big country like China. In China you have to be aware of government’s views on things, whereas in Singapore your success depends on your own capabilities, and you don’t need the government. Due to the media censorship in China and the fact that TV stations are state-run, the messages and values you want to promote have to be in line with the government’s policies, such as yi dai yi lu (One Belt, One Road), or the Chinese dream. One beautiful thing for now is that President Xi loves sports such as boxing and soccer, and is not a big fan of entertainment shows. The Chinese government is thus careful about what values are instilled into young peoples’ minds.

DM: How do you apply One Belt, One Road to REBEL FC?

JL: One gold belt to one champion. Yi dai yi lu, from my understanding, means that China is exporting its culture, values, business and technology to the world. REBEL FC would be exporting Chinese fighters to the world stage and showcasing what Chinese fighters are capable of.

DM: What has REBEL FC’s reception by Chinese audiences been?

JL: A lot of state-run TV stations like Jiangsu TV or CCTV have aired the show. From a brand perspective, we have been doing well, as CCTV runs the country’s biggest sports channel.

Poster for REBEL FC’s first Fight Night, Into the Lion’s Den, back in 2013

DM: What is your view on the burgeoning Chinese MMA scene?

JL: When McDonalds first came into China, it was not that well known. Chinese people had to try it, had to have a taste of the burger and gradually grow to like it. It is the same deal with MMA. It’s been in the West for 20 – 25 years but in China it’s been here just 2 years. To outsiders, MMA just looks violent, and is simply people fighting each other. Other companies promote under the assumption that the audience knows everything about MMA, but REBEL FC promotes assuming that the audience knows nothing. In China right now, people just watch fights without understanding techniques such as Brazilian jiu-jitsu or what it takes to win the fight. REBEL FC wants to take the time to nurture the audience and educate them on the public level and event level. Whoever can tackle that takes the cake. For UFC and ONE FC, Kunlun Fight does all these events, but they don’t take the time to educate the audience. Educate, show them who the fighters are and do something different. Young people in China want to express themselves and want to be individuals with their own styles. MMA is the perfect sport for them because it is about individuals, and whoever can showcase fighters as individuals to the young generation will have a very powerful impact.

Justin speaking at a press conference for REBEL FC, Into the Lion’s Den

DM: How will you help foster and bring Chinese MMA fighters to next level?

JL: UFC is quite lucky in a few aspects; sports training in the US is very advanced, hence them producing the best sportsmen. They are advanced in systems, technologies and how to train effectively. For Chinese fighters, you are not seeing their potential because they don’t have the right training systems or guidance that will enable them to reach their true potential. Whoever can solve this problem and give them the opportunity to showcase their capabilities will see success. Chinese people are very patriotic in the sense that they love their greatest athletes, such as Yao Ming, Liu Xiang and Li Na. The athletes represent the dreams of the people. That is also the reason why the movie Rocky is so successful because it shows that if you work hard enough and if you believe in yourself with no one believing in you, you can still make it. Currently, no one in the Chinese MMA scene has been able to deliver this message.

 

Rebel FC 6, Shenzhen, September 2nd

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For more information on REBEL FC, please visit their official website at https://www.rebelfightingchampionship.com/en/