Building a Legend: Hong Kong MMA Hits U.S. PPV

By Chris Nelson Jan 26, 2011

Days before their promotion’s pay-per-view debut, Legend Fighting Championship co-founders Michael Haskamp and Chris Pollak aren’t forecasting numbers or stressing over buyrate projections.

In the first place, it’s nearly impossible to gauge the audience for something that’s never been done before. Moreover, the Hong Kong-based promoters tell, they’re simply happy for the chance to show their wares.

“There’s never been a pay-per-view coming out of China,” says Pollak. “We’ve never operated one before and the operators haven’t taken one before, so really, nobody has a great benchmark. At this point, we’re just excited to share what’s happening out here with the U.S. audience.”

What’s happening out there is the emergence of a high-quality fighting organization in one of the world’s most speculated regions for MMA.

Haskamp and Pollak, longtime friends who met while attending Columbia Business School in New York City, conceived of Legend over beers in the spring of 2009. The pair began researching the potential for running an MMA show in Hong Kong, where Haskamp was raised and had since returned to.

“The vision was to do something different,” says Haskamp. “There’s a lot of MMA promotions and organizations out there, some angling to be state-specific or even city area-specific. We think that this part of the world, the Asia-Pacific in general, has a huge amount of potential for the sport.”

By January 2010, Pollak had quit his full-time consulting job and relocated to Hong Kong, and the company staged its first event. The show -- a “market test” which wasn’t produced for television -- drew the attention of Kix, a network backed by Lions Gate Entertainment that had also broadcast programming from K-1, Strikeforce and Bellator. Legend’s second and third cards aired on Kix throughout Southeast Asia; in June, the company signed a deal with Now TV, Hong Kong’s largest pay-TV provider.

Almost exactly one year after their debut event, Legend 4 is set to be broadcast on pay-per-view across the U.S. and Canada this Friday. Pro fighter Vaughn Anderson and rugby commentator Mike Rehu will provide the English-language play-by-play.

Australian Adrian Pang and South Korean Yui Chul Nam earned “Fight of the Night” honors for their first meeting, a back-and-forth, three-round thriller which headlined the inaugural Legend show. However, the match ended in a majority draw, a decision so dissatisfying that the two men staged an impromptu arm-wrestling rematch on the ring’s canvas afterward. Now, the fighters get to do it again, this time with Pang’s Legend FC lightweight title -- which he earned by defeating Nam’s training partner, Woo Sung Yu -- on the line.

The Pang-Nam main event, along with the rest of the Legend 4 bill, serves as a mini-mission statement of sorts, a handshake to new viewers unfamiliar with the promotion. Legend’s matchmaking includes prospects both heralded and unknown, sourced from all corners of the Asia-Pacific.

“We spent several weeks when we first started traveling around the region and watching a few tournaments, and meeting as many fight teams as we could,” says Haskamp.

The scouters have quickly become the scouted, however. As the ever-expanding Ultimate Fighting Championship seeks to make inroads to the Asian marketplace, regional promotions with high-caliber fighters serve as an unofficial farm system. One Chinese lightweight, Tie Quan Zhang, was signed by Zuffa on the heels of a successful Legend outing, and others could soon follow.

“They’re always looking at all of the China guys pretty closely,” says Pollak, who pegs welterweights Jing Liang Li and Wang Sai as fighters likely on the UFC radar. “Li is, I think, a little more well-rounded than Wang Sai and is probably the guy they’re looking at more seriously. But I’d say a huge number of guys on the card have the potential to catch the UFC’s eye.”

Legend isn’t worried about the big show snatching up all of its best fighters, though.

“With the UFC having 200-something guys under contract at any given time, there’s only so many Korean, Chinese and Australian fighters that are gonna make the cut and be there,” asserts Haskamp. “There is the ability for us to basically not be in direct competition with them, for the relationship to be, in some ways, symbiotic. Guys with a huge amount of potential take their competition to the next level with us, and if they have what it takes, then maybe they can graduate on to the UFC.”

Likewise, the promoters see no downside to local competition. Although martial arts have existed in the Asia-Pacific region for thousands of years, MMA is still in its infancy. Legend has taken up the task of educating the public, cooperating with local Hong Kong gyms and promoters to show people the sporting side of MMA.

For Legend, growing the sport involves making medical oversight a priority. With no local or regional sanctioning body for MMA, the promotion looked to the requirements of the California and Nevada State Athletic Commissions when determining its own medical standards. Fighters are required to submit blood work, EKG results and a health profile one month before the event, as well as a CT or MRI scan if they’ve suffered a knockout in the past 12 months. Once competitors arrive in Hong Kong, they must be cleared to compete by Legend’s staff doctors.

“You can look at the development of MMA in Hong Kong and in China as the U.S. in the early or mid-90s, where there was a very limited understanding of the sport,” says Haskamp. “I think there were, or there are -- and this is going away over time -- but there are still some negative misconceptions about the sport and the people that compete in it.”

To help combat those misconceptions, Legend has produced videos and public relations material highlighting sportsmanship in MMA, explaining how various submissions work, and particularly profiling those fighters crossing over from sanshou, or sanda, one of China’s traditional martial arts.

The approach seems to be working: Legend has seen its attendance grow with each event, and Legend 4 -- which takes place Thursday at the AsiaWorld-Expo Center in Hong Kong -- is on pace to draw a record crowd. Beyond simply pulling fans in the door, though, Haskamp and Pollak are keen to get spectators truly excited -- something of which they saw a glimpse during Legend 3 last September.

“The audience really clicked for the first time that night, sometime around the second or third fight,” says Haskamp, who cites that instant as his proudest to date as a promoter. “The Hong Kong audience is somewhat comparable to the Japanese audience. Even if they really like and appreciate something, they frequently just stay silent and applaud at the end. But they really got into it. They really switched on.”

Pollak, for his part, says his most memorable moment came immediately after their first event.

“We had our little celebration with the athletes in this tiny little backroom of our first venue,” says Pollak. “We handed out the ‘Fight of the Night’ bonus, the ‘Submission of the Night’ bonus. Nam had broken his hand. But, for everyone in that room, I think there was a sense of real achievement and the beginning of something.”
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