SINGAPORE: The world's biggest mixed martial arts organisation, the Las Vegas-based UFC, Thursday announced its long-awaited return to Asia with a Singapore show and an "ambition" to debut in mainland China.
Ultimate Fighting Championship, which has shot to sporting prominence by making global stars of fighters such as Conor McGregor and Ronda Rousey, said it would host three events in Asia and two in Australia and New Zealand, though only confirming the Singapore date on June 17.
While UFC has previously hosted two events in the southern Chinese semi-autonomous city of Macau, UFC Head of International and Content Joe Carr said its sights were now firmly fixed on the lucrative Chinese mainland.
"We're definitely working on our first event in mainland China," he said at a press conference in Singapore.
"We've had a couple of events in Macau but it's completely different going to a Beijing or a Shanghai. I have nothing to announce but it's definitely a priority and a focus for the organisation. We were successful in Macau and that's fine but our ambitions are mainland China."
Carr added that UFC was on the verge of signing China's "biggest MMA star", without naming the fighter.
The Singapore card will look to cash in on the continued rise of mixed martial arts across the Asia-Pacific region and will be the first staged in Asia by the UFC since Seoul, South Korea, almost 18 months ago.
The UFC had planned to hold an event in Manila in October but was forced to cancel when headliner BJ Penn injured his ribs during his pre-fight camp.
Carr said UFC would stage another show in Tokyo later this year, while another in Asia, probably in Seoul, and Australia and New Zealand events, were also planned.
"I will admit that we've been a little inconsistent in our event calendar," said Carr.
"We had a Manila event that was cancelled and we had some venue issues in Seoul. We expect to be back in Seoul early next year. There's been some challenges but we think our Asian talent is at a higher level than it's ever been."
Despite the lack of UFC events, Asian fighters have continued to emerge as a force, led by the likes of Chinese welterweight Li Jingliang, a UFC winner last month, and South Korean featherweight Chan Sung-Jung, who won a UFC bout three weeks ago.
"We're aware of the need for an Asian champion as we've never had one," said Carr. "That's really the last piece of the puzzle for us."
The Singapore-based ONE Championship has been a main force behind the mixed martial arts boom in Asia, with 18 events confirmed for 2017.
The organisation's founder Chatri Sityodtong said he was not worried about UFC muscling in on his organisation's turf.
"The market is way big enough out here for all of us," he said. "I think it's great to see Asian heroes on the world stage. Asians are the best in the world at martial arts."