ANY sportsperson will tell you never to underestimate the underdog. So even though Rebel Fighting Championship (Rebel FC), a one-year-old homegrown MMA (Mixed Martial Arts) promotion, might be the new kid on the block, it's gamely stepped into the ring for a three-way bout with giants Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) and One Fighting Championship (One FC).
The former is the world's number one MMA promotion and recently moved its Asian headquarters to Singapore from Beijing, with an eye on the region's growing interest in the sport; while the latter has gone on to become widely recognised as Asia's biggest MMA promotion since establishing itself here in 2011. But the way Rebel FC's executive director and founder Justin Leong sees it, three isn't exactly a crowd. "Nobody ever complains that there are too many hawkers!" exclaims the 28-year-old, who's a lifelong boxing fan and was managing luxury cruise ships for five years prior to switching to MMA promotion.
Besides, the banking and finance graduate has a rather sound game plan up his sleeves - the lack of "emotional connection" for the MMA audience is something Mr Leong is keen to exploit. "In most of these fights, very often it's just fighter A versus fighter B, but it doesn't have to be just that," he explains. To address that, Rebel FC plans to develop and groom their roster of fighters into memorable characters; not unlike the ones seen in wrestling, though not as over-the-top or theatrical.
Instead, they will have realistic personalities that embody the aspirations of the people and can capture the imaginations of the public; Mr Leong cites Filipino boxer Manny Pacquiao rising to become a national hero because of his common-man-made-good life story as such an example.
Rebel FC has already found a star signing in May Ooi, a former national swimmer who gave up being a doctor and became a professional MMA fighter. Despite being a rookie, the ex-Olympian and multiple SEA Games gold medallist won her first competitive bout in the ring last year in a Rebel FC match where she went up against a more seasoned opponent. Mr Leong adds he hopes Ooi's story is a source of inspiration for the locals - and women, of course - to pick up MMA as a profession as the sport begins to gain traction in the local sports scene. "When we first started, there were only five MMA gyms but we now have 15," he says. "Even schools are introducing it so the sport is definitely growing here."
And his ultimate goal for Rebel FC after scouting and grooming local talents? "Success for me is when I see a Singaporean fighting against a Top 10 or Top 20 UFC (opponent) one day; that would be my three-to-five year goal."
Rebel FC 2: Battle Royale will take place on August 1 at Suntec Convention & Exhibition Centre. Tickets on sale from Sistic outlets and online. For more details, check rebelfightingchampionship.com