Sunday, 31 August, 2014

Published January 11, 2014
UFC debut hits all the right notes
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Royston Wee winning his match in a unanimous decision by the judges. - PHOTO: ZUFFA LLC/GETTY IMAGES

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WITH flashy nicknames like The Diamond, Mr Perfect, The Ace and Crusher, these buff warriors wouldn't look - or sound - a bit out of place in the World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) ring. But they are not in the business of heavily choreographed action with cheesily scripted lines. The sport of mixed martial arts (MMA), where these fighters from the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) ply their trade, is very real and not for the faint-hearted.

MMA is enjoying a boom in Singapore at the moment, having exploded onto the scene in the last couple of years. UFC's more established rival here, One Fighting Championship, has held five shows in Singapore alone and many more around South-east Asia.

UFC clearly wants a slice of the lucrative Singapore MMA pie too, having recently moved its Asian headquarters from Beijing to the Lion City. The Las Vegas-based promotion - as they are known in the industry - did its sums and priced its VIP seats at last Saturday's inaugural Fight Night event held at the Marina Bay Sands at a hefty $688 each. Even those who wanted a seat right at the back of the arena had to fork out a cool $88.

Those steep prices did not seem to deter MMA fans, who turned up in droves for the five-hour show. The event was declared a sell-out with 5,216 in attendance.

There were some question marks in the weeks leading up to the big day as to whether UFC could live up to all the hype. After all, 15 of the 20 fighters on the 10-match card were making their debut in UFC's famous Octagon ring, and there were few established stars on show.

Indeed, even the unheralded South Korean Hyun Gyu Lim could not quite believe his luck when he was first told that he would feature in the night's main event against Belgium's Tarec Saffiedine. But when it came time for them to enter the cage and do battle, these two welterweights delivered the goods - and more. What a barn burner of a match this turned out to be, worthy of being eventually named "Fight of the Night". The clock was almost midnight, but the crowd was on fire throughout for this clash.

The 27-year-old Saffiedine, nicknamed "Sponge" by one of his coaches because of the speed at which he learns, battered his opponent incessantly with a barrage of kicks and punches. Lim was the clear underdog and he got many of the fans behind him whenever he put in some good offence, especially in the early stages. He even managed to knock Saffiedine to the canvas on more than one occasion.

In the end, Lim outdid most people's expectations and lasted the full five rounds, even as he tried his best to mount what would have been a miraculous comeback in the closing minutes. All three judges sitting at cageside, however, unanimously awarded Saffiedine the win - and deservedly so.

There were many other memorable bouts throughout the night, but the home crowd was most vocal midway through the evening when Singaporean Royston Wee made his way to the Octagon for his UFC debut. His match against Filipino Dave Galera was not a classic - far from it, in fact. There were few big moves as Wee spent most of the three five-minute rounds pinning Galera on his back.

Wee's tactics weren't pretty, but they were effective as the judges awarded him the win by a unanimous decision. The 27-year-old sank to his knees when announcer Joe Martinez declared him victorious, and the crowd almost blew the roof off the Sands Expo and Convention Centre.

For its maiden outing in South-east Asia, one could say, UFC managed to hit all the right notes. Sure, there was a noticeable lack of star power on offer, but the promotion tried its best to build up the atmosphere with some well-produced introduction videos for each fighter and catchy entrance music.

And what fight night would be complete without the presence of the ring girls? In UFC's case, their Octagon girls, Miss Japan-Universe runner-up Azusa Nishigaki and Filipino-Chinese-American model Jessica Cambensy, turned up the heat whenever they strutted their stuff around the cage.

UFC Asia managing director Mark Fischer has said there are plans to have at least one show a year in Singapore, and that's good news for all MMA fans here. And according to the grapevine, there's even talk that a certain Brock Lesnar, the former UFC heavyweight champion who's also a familiar name to those who follow the WWE, might be making a surprise return to UFC sometime down the road.

What are the chances of a marquee name like Lesnar headlining a future UFC show in Singapore? Well, his return to the Octagon is still a big question mark at this point in time - and, in all fairness, highly unlikely - but hey, a guy can dream, can't he?