Interviews

Article courtesy of Dragon Group Asia (http://dragongroup.asia/)

Interview/ Liling Mo & Tian Wu
Editor/ Danny Zhang & Tian Wu

The Rebel Fighting Championship, a mixed martial arts (MMA) promotion headed by CEO Justin Leong, has been operating on the ground in Mainland China for a few years now. MMA recently made headlines in China, as UFC made its Mainland debut just last week in UFC Fight Night 122, marking the first time that the world’s largest MMA promotion had held an event in China. The challenges that both entities have faced in exploring a totally new market have proved to be trying, but nonetheless a great case study on foreign sports entities trying to muscle their way into selling their brand and experience in China. Justin has always been passionate about MMA, but it is his unique background in finance that makes him uniquely qualified to lead an MMA entertainment company, and his passion for the sport gives him the motivation and know-how to succeed in the business of MMA. Dragon Media recently sat down with Justin, and got to know more about his background, the business side of fighting in the octagon, and how MMA can be promoted in China.

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DGA: Dragon Group Asia

JL: Justin Leong

DGA: How did you first become interested in MMA?

JL: My mother’s father was a boxer, so she loves fighting. One day I was watching TV with her, and we saw this event happening in a full stadium in Las Vegas. The atmosphere was crazy. Two half-naked guys walked into an eight-sided octagon cage and started fighting. At the time I thought it was very intense and brutal, like fighting in a prison, but I was very intrigued to see fighting in a cage. When the fight started, they were punching and kicking each other. One of the guys fell to the floor, so I figured the referee would ask him to stand up, but the other fighter went to the floor and tried to strangle him, and that basically ended the fight. I was like what in the world is this! When you see it the first time you see it as very violent. 

I remembered the three letters on the TV said “UFC”. I wanted to go to the gym to learn UFC, so I called up the gym and said that I wanted to learn UFC. The gym responded "There's no such thing as UFC. There's only this thing called Mixed Martial Arts." I then Googled MMA, and three results come up. UFC, Bruce Lee and some other names. Bruce Lee is sort of the first guy to do mixed martial arts, where no style is style, and it was very controversial in the 60s. The other result was the company called UFC, which has the idea of “what’s the most effective martial art form in the world? Would a Judo guy beat a boxing guy?” as a test ground for martial arts. 

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                                           Justin Leong (left) with MMA fighter Takeshi 'Lion' Inoue 

DGA: Since you have a background in finance, how does that help you to either gain the support or found the financial foundation for REBEL FC?

JL: I would say it is fundamental or even a competitive edge to have a background in finance in the MMA business. Historically, owners of MMA companies have been MMA gym owners, fighters themselves or yakuza. Very few have been able to mix the love of MMA and the commercial and business side of the sport. In the US, a lot of business owners own sports teams, such as Microsoft ex-CEO Steve Ballmer, who owns the Los Angeles Clippers, and Mark Cuban, owner of the Dallas Mavericks. They are able to drive the business and create business models, and therefore monetize the business and grow it. But you need to balance the two. If you do not have a passion for the sport, you won’t understand the sport from the audience's point of view. You won’t be able to put on exciting shows to attract casual and hardcore MMA fans. You have to understand the dynamics and how the game proceeds. There are only probably 10 guys in the whole world who would be able to execute this business successfully. 

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                                  Rebel FC 2: Battle Royale, Gyo Pyung Hwang vs. Chris Barras

DGA: Do you have the connection to legendary fighters before you start the REBEL FC? How do you develop the relationship with the fighters?

JL: One word, Facebook. I started REBEL FC in May 2013 with zero event experience in the business. I needed to find a fighter match maker in the MMA business. I was speaking to a journalist based in Thailand, an MMA journalist who has connections to a lot of gyms and interviewed a lot of fighters. He volunteered to be my match maker and helped me find access to fighters all over the world. Technology and Facebook are amazing, they enable you to contact those fighters directly, even those that are under other agencies' management. Half of them have contracts with other agencies, half of them are self-managed. The MMA scene in terms of sport is sort of like Wild Wild West.

DGA: How did you gain the confidence and decide to fund the REBEL FC?

JL: UFC branded MMA as a very violent sport initially; eight men enter the cage, only one leaves, no rules. Everything that is extremely brutal, violent and not family-friendly is not supported by the government, so it was banned, unable to operate in 46 states in the US. But the sponsors had a vision for it, and bought it in 2001 for 2 million dollars. By 2013, I was in Singapore looking at my computer, and it says the company is valued at 2 billion. At that time, I thought, “wow you only need 2 million to turn into 2 billion dollars.” It’s a very interesting sport, with a very interesting background. I saw a business opportunity if MMA were packaged and marketed correctly.

DGA: How do you differentiate REBEL FC from UFC and ONE FC?

JL: UFC is a mixed martial arts organization based in the United States, which promotes 80% US fighters. ONE FC is very Asian-focused, promoting MMA in Southeast Asia. China is the best place for MMA, where you can build up local Chinese fighting champions and let them compete against fighters worldwide. REBEL FC focuses more towards the entertainment side of the business. The sport’s audience in the world is very small, especially in China, where reality shows and entertainment shows have way more of an audience. REBEL FC wants to bring other elements into MMA, like celebrity fighters, as the Chinese market is very celebrity-focused, with wanghong culture. REBEL FC wants to grow MMA in a new way other than the sports-focused way that UFC did. 

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      Justin Leong at REBEL FC 5 - Battle Royale: Quest For Glory press conference

DGA: What are the challenges you’ve faced since coming to China in 2015?

JL: There are too many entertainment choices in China (live-streaming, karaoke, reality shows, etc). One is to learn about the landscape of China as well as how to operate a business in China, especially the government’s relationship with the business as well as the media, for which it’s more complex than in Singapore, where there is just Media Corp and YouTube. Developing a business model in China is challenging too, because a lot MMA organizations find it difficult to become profitable.
 
DGA: What’s the difference between promoting MMA in China and in Singapore?

JL: Singapore is a very secure and rich country, but it lacks passion. There is not much of a patriotic sporting culture in Singapore, as most Singaporeans are passionate about food and movies instead. Singapore is safe and stable, not as diverse as the western world, or a big country like China. In China you have to be aware of government's views on things, whereas in Singapore your success depends on your own capabilities, and you don't need the government. Due to the media censorship in China and the fact that TV stations are state-run, the messages and values you want to promote have to be in line with the government's policies, such as yi dai yi lu (One Belt, One Road), or the Chinese dream. One beautiful thing for now is that President Xi loves sports such as boxing and soccer, and is not a big fan of entertainment shows. The Chinese government is thus careful about what values are instilled into young peoples’ minds. 

DGA: How do you apply One Belt, One Road to REBEL FC?

JL: One gold belt to one champion. Yi dai yi lu, from my understanding, means that China is exporting its culture, values, business and technology to the world. REBEL FC would be exporting Chinese fighters to the world stage and showcasing what Chinese fighters are capable of.

DGA: What has REBEL FC’s reception by Chinese audiences been?

JL: A lot of state-run TV stations like Jiangsu TV or CCTV have aired the show. From a brand perspective, we have been doing well, as CCTV runs the country’s biggest sports channel.

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                               REBEL FC 6: China Vs The World Poster

DGA: What is your view on the burgeoning Chinese MMA scene?

JL: When McDonalds first came into China, it was not that well known. Chinese people had to try it, had to have a taste of the burger and gradually grow to like it. It is the same deal with MMA. It’s been in the West for 20 – 25 years but in China it's been here just 2 years. To outsiders, MMA just looks violent, and is simply people fighting each other. Other companies promote under the assumption that the audience knows everything about MMA, but REBEL FC promotes assuming that the audience knows nothing. In China right now, people just watch fights without understanding techniques such as Brazilian jiu-jitsu or what it takes to win the fight. REBEL FC wants to take the time to nurture the audience and educate them on the public level and event level. Whoever can tackle that takes the cake. For UFC and ONE FC, Kunlun Fight does all these events, but they don’t take the time to educate the audience. Educate, show them who the fighters are and do something different. Young people in China want to express themselves and want to be individuals with their own styles. MMA is the perfect sport for them because it is about individuals, and whoever can showcase fighters as individuals to the young generation will have a very powerful impact.

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                            Justin Leong at REBEL FC 1: Into The Lion's Den press conference

DGA: How will you help foster and bring Chinese MMA fighters to next level?

JL: UFC is quite lucky in a few aspects; sports training in the US is very advanced, hence them producing the best sportsmen. They are advanced in systems, technologies and how to train effectively. For Chinese fighters, you are not seeing their potential because they don’t have the right training systems or guidance that will enable them to reach their true potential. Whoever can solve this problem and give them the opportunity to showcase their capabilities will see success. Chinese people are very patriotic in the sense that they love their greatest athletes, such as Yao Ming, Liu Xiang and Li Na. The athletes represent the dreams of the people. That is also the reason why the movie Rocky is so successful because it shows that if you work hard enough and if you believe in yourself with no one believing in you, you can still make it. Currently, no one in the Chinese MMA scene has been able to deliver this message.

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                                  Rebel FC 6: China VS The World, September 2nd 2017, Shenzhen, China

 

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Ying Wen

Capoeira
Name:
Fight Name:
School:
Course:
Association:
Height:
Weight:
Born:
City:
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Fighting Exp:
Ying Wen
Gata Mimosa – “Pampered cat”
National University of Singapore
School of Business (Major in Marketing)
NUS Capoeira Club
155 cm
57 kg
25 May 1991
Singapore
Singapore
Capoeira
2 years

 

 

 

 


 

THE PATH TO GREATNESS

A petite sophomore at the National University of Singapore (NUS), Ying Wen’s joy at being a part of the NUS Capoeira Club comes to the fore as she engages in complex action sequences that spell danger for any who cross her path. A fluid martial art that has its origins in Brazil, Capoeira combines elements of dance, music, and acrobatics and is known for its quick, intense moves that require exponents to be quick and agile of mind and body as they execute a series of kicks and spins.

A swift, flowing demonstration highlighted Ying Wen’s growing proficiency at the ancient martial art, one that she demonstrates to great effect at the monthly inter-school sparring sessions that bring together capoeira clubs and associations from tertiary institutions, allowing for healthy competition amongst the student trainees.

When asked what drove the spunky young lady to be a part of the NUS Capoeira Club, Ying Wen replied, “Upon my acceptance into NUS, I sought out many active, athletic programmes to join up with. None of them made me feel as welcomed as I did when I linked up with the capoeira team. The friendships I’ve built here have sustained me through difficult periods, and capoeira as a martial art has helped me grow as a person, teaching me discipline, respect and giving me peace of mind.”

A 2nd year student in the School of Business, Ying Wen dreams of becoming a Marketing Specialist, consultant to the best firms and driving marketing campaigns that will have audiences sitting up and taking notice. A dream set to take flight in 2015 upon her graduation, Ying Wen is grateful to have had discovered capoeira whilst studying, crediting the martial art with bringing her much needed relief in the face of challenges from pursuing her academic degree.

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AhmadAsyraf



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Ahmad Asyraf

Silat

Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) is about taking the very best of different components of various martial arts styles, and combining it together to counter one’s opponent and to get a victory under one’s belt. So every week, Rebel Fighting Championship will interview individuals from different martial arts to find out more about their martial art, what it teaches them and their future ambitions. Ahmad Asyraf’s eyes light up when he talks about his favourite sport – Silat. Having recently walked away with a Gold medal for Singapore Institute of Management (SIM) in the Silat during the Institute-Varsity-Polytechnic (IVP) games, Asyraf speaks about Silat with renowned passion and enthusiasm. 

Beyond just his recent win for SIM, Asyraf has represented Singapore previously for a total of five years, and even captained the Silat National Team for three of those years. Asyraf breaks it down simply for those who are unsure of what Silat is all about. “Silat is very culture based. Different places practice different styles and it comes from different parts of Indonesia, like Western Java. So different places have different cultures, and different cultures have got different kinds of needs – and that is where they adopt different types of fighting like the Tiger style. The best thing about Silat is that it’s very versatile, so you can find new styles wherever you go.”

After being in the sport for 13 years, like any sportsman, Asyraf felt his passion for Silat waiver, admitting “it isn’t easy, there were ups and downs.” However, his love for the sport ensured he found his way back to training and competing and made the National Team in 2001.




 

THE PATH TO GREATNESS

With every sport, you’re bound to take away some core values and lessons in which you will be able to impart in your every day life. For Asyraf, it’s discipline. “I can actually be quite a joker. However Silat has taught me to be disciplined with certain things, like when things need to be done, it just has to be done, especially when planning for competition.” It never hurts to dream a little, especially when a martial artist talks about fighting professionally. Ambition has brought Asyraf this far and he still harbours belief in his own ability to want to fight professionally one day. “If it’s possible, why not? I’ve been doing it for 13 years and competing for almost 10 years.”

We wish Asyraf and SIM Silat all the best in their upcoming competitions!

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Syafiq “The Slasher”

Weight Class : Lightweight

Determined. That’s probably the best way to describe Syafiq “The Slasher” Samad. If you have any clue about local Mixed Martial Arts (MMA), then this name will definitely ring a bell.

Syafiq is currently pursuing a Diploma in Sports and Exercise Science in Republic Polytechnic, and at the same time, trains at Juggernaut Fight Club and fights professionally in MMA and Boxing.

His journey towards becoming a professional MMA fighter is not as straightforward as it seems. As a young boy, he started out with a dream of becoming a professional soccer player out of his love for the sport but according to Syafiq, “it didn’t turn out well.”

What instead ignited his passion for fighting was through self-defence. Reflecting on an unfortunate slashing incident by 15 Chinese gangsters during his teenage years which left him with scars on his leg and arms, he chanced upon “The Contender Asia”, which is a reality television that follows 16 aspiring Muay Thai fighters who compete in a variety of challenges and fights.

“I wanted to be like them so I started looking for Muay Thai gyms in Singapore and that was when I found Fightworks Asia and met Arvind,” Syafiq describes, full of passion and gratitude.

Arvind Lawani has been a mentor to Syafiq throughout his fighting career. It is no wonder Syafiq describes him fervently, acknowledging that he’s been a “big brother and like a second father to me”. It was also Lawani who convinced Syafiq to join Juggernaut Fight Club when he thought about quitting the sport altogether.

 


 

THE PATH TO GREATNESS

Syafiq started his fighting career with a focus more so in Muay Thai and Boxing. It was Andrew Leone, one of his former coaches at Juggernaut Fight Club, that convinced him to try out MMA and he has never looked back since.

“I only had six weeks to train for my first amateur MMA fight, especially the Jiu Jitsu and Wrestling aspect. I just tried my luck and did it and won in the first round via TKO against a Japanese oppenent. That’ s when I got interested in MMA and wanted to fight professionally.” Syafiq admits gleefully, letting his amiable personality shine through.

He started off his professional MMA career in DARE FC against Donald Tong, which he won via submission. It was then when PXC came calling and offered him a three fight contract. In the PXC ring, Syafiq was up against Wesley Machado, who was on a three-fight unbeaten streak. The odds were definitely stacked against Syafiq but he didn’t let that get to him. Instead he worked hard and studied his opponent to see how he could get the better of him.

“I thought his striking was alright but when I look at his Jiu Jitsu, it was not that good. So that’s when I thought that my gameplan would be to try to get him on the ground and submit him.” Syafiq mentions, with a fire in his eyes, and indeed he did, with Syafiq taking the match against Machado via submission.

However, the road to success never comes easy. Syafiq admits it’s a constant struggle to balance school, training, work and social life but good time management is key to ensuring he copes with every aspect of his busy schedule.

Syafiq gaily admits that besides time management, the biggest challenge for him in the lead up to a fight is his diet, because of his love for his local Malay cuisine and his sweet tooth.

“Usually the diet is really hard for me, especially for the first two weeks. You can’t eat the food you like, and I like to eat Malay food sometimes like Rendang or Nasi Lemak but I can’t,” says Syafiq, with a hint of sadness in his voice.

However like any athelete, he definitely has the bigger picture in mind, knowing that hard work and sacrifice now will lead to greater glory. In the lead up to his fight, he will put in a 30 to 45 minute run, followed by two hours of martial arts training.

“The hardest part is mid week when your body is sore and you think to yourself, I have to go to the gym and your friends are all sitting down and chilling out but that’s when I tell myself I have to go because I have a fight coming up. I’m always thinking of that!” exclaims Syafiq with a certain grit.

So what does a local MMA rising star want to tell any aspiring local fighter who wants to make it to the big stage?

“Just do the hard work and let God do the rest” Syafiq mentions earnestly. “When you work hard, one way or another, something will go your way. If it doesn’t, then just take it as a learning experience.”

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