SINGAPORE: UFC boss Dana White says his mixed martial arts promotion is "ready to roll" again in Asia as it returns to the region this week after a pandemic-enforced hiatus.
The US-based Ultimate Fighting Championship will be back with a bang in Singapore on Sunday morning – prime time Saturday night in the United States – with two world title fights headlining a quality UFC 275 card.
The last time UFC staged an event in Asia was at Busan, South Korea, in December 2019 and White said he was looking to relaunch expansion plans for the US-based operation that were put on hold for more than two years because of Covid-19.
"Wherever we can get it done, I'm ready to go," White told AFP. "I want to show that as soon as we can start getting business as usual again, I'm ready to roll."
Top of the bill at the Singapore Indoor Stadium will be the light heavyweight clash between Brazilian world champion Glover Teixeira and Czech Jiri Prochazka.
It will be preceded by a women's flyweight world title fight between the Kyrgyzstan-born Valentina Shevchenko and Brazil's Taila Santos.
China's hugely popular former strawweight world champion Zhang Weili also features on an undercard stacked with top Asian MMA talent.
Ahead of that a "Road to UFC" tournament, designed to unearth the next generation of Asian fighters, will on Thursday and Friday showcase 32 fighters from traditional MMA strongholds South Korea and Japan to emerging countries such as India and China.
"Our goal in every country all around the world is to cultivate talent, and build the sport," said White, who revealed he was keen to explore adding a women's atomweight (48kg) division to the UFC with an eye on the Asian market.
Atomweight is a traditional power base among Asian women fighters but until now they have had to bulk up to strawweight (52kg) to get a chance in UFC.
"I think that we're going to have to dive deeper into Asia and start doing some more building over there but I can absolutely, positively, see us adding that division," said White, who was speaking to AFP from his Las Vegas office.
The pandemic swept across the globe in 2020 just months after UFC had opened the doors of a US$14 million Performance Institute in Shanghai – a world-class training facility established to develop MMA fighters from China and beyond.
Auckland in New Zealand did manage to stage a UFC Fight Night card in February 2020 a few weeks before the world of sport ground to a halt because of coronavirus.
But there has been nothing since in Asia or Australasia, a market that still boasts the top two biggest crowds in UFC in the promotion's history.
Melbourne saw 57,127 pack into the Docklands Stadium in 2019 to surpass the previous record of 56,214, set at the same venue for Ronda Rousey's shock defeat to Holly Holm in 2015. White is understandably keen to return to Australia soon.
"The past few years have been massive for us, absolutely massive," said White.
"Look at the amount of talent coming out of the region now.
"Singapore was incredible, working with us and pulling this thing off and it's a sold-out event. So I'd love to do more in other places."
Despite the distance between events in Asia, fighters from the Asia-Pacific region have continued to rise to the top of the UFC ranks.
The middleweight division is ruled by New Zealand's Israel Adesanya and the featherweight by Australia's Alexander Volkanovski.
China's former world strawweight champion Zhang, rising bantamweight star Song Yadong and Australian heavyweight Tai Tuivasa are all on course for title challenges.
"We now have China, Indonesia, India, Japan, Korea, the Philippines, Thailand," said White.
"To be able to pull competitors from all these different places is exciting. So any place that wants to do business now, we'll be there."--AFP