The fate of Chinese mixed martial arts apparently rests on a handful of guys who've never been in the fight business before.
So stamped the Chinese governmental division that controls martial arts within mainland China, the Wushu Administrative Center, which recently issued one permit to stage mixed martial arts events as a legal sport throughout the country.
While there were several suitors, including Zuffa LLC, Joel Resnick believes his startup group, the Ranik Ultimate Fighting Federation, was awarded the government sanction because it offered the right "mix between Chinese culture and Western mentality. I think that's really what did it."
"We decided right at the very beginning that if we're doing to do this, we're going to do it right. So it's going to be done as a sports event. It's going to have the backing of the government. Most importantly we have to be able to award a country's national MMA championship, which at the end of the day is what we're doing," said the 51-year-old Canadian, a longtime resident of Shanghai and principal in the Ranik Group -- a buying agent that calls Nike a major client.
RUFF is three cards into what its backers hope is the start of something massive. With the foundation of a burgeoning Chinese middle class learning what to do with its disposal income, the government handed RUFF the opportunity to develop Chinese MMA as a sport while selling it as a new entertainment option across the country.
On March 24 in Chongqing, a major city in Southwest China, 4,000 Chinese watched a nine-fight card in a sold-out arena. The event was RUFF's first since the company announced its ambitious intentions through the next Chinese new year. Capped by awe-inspiring prize money per Chinese standards, seven National MMA Champions will be crowned. Fighters aren't required to be Chinese nationals, but they must live and have a work permit in China, Hong Kong, Macau or Taiwan. Each winner will receive RMB 1,000,000, the equivalent of about $160,000. The average Chinese household brings in a bit more than $10,000 a year, so the idea is for the siren song of big money to prompt a generation of quality Chinese fighters to quickly emerge.
"We needed to make a statement out to the general public that said, 'Hey look, this is a new sport, but you guys can do this.' We needed to make it attractive," Resnick said. "We needed to draw attention. Something small wasn't going to do that."
The figure got the Chinese media talking, which is what Resnick and his partners -- Saul Rajsky along with American brothers Neil and Michael Mandt -- hoped for.
"We feel that the events we'll have in the next year will gain attention," said Michael Mandt, 40, who, with his brother, operates the Los Angeles-based production company that will deliver RUFF to tens of millions of Chinese televisions. "It will be natural for Chinese athletes to want to be involved. I think there will be a grass roots development because of the chance to win 1,000,000 RMB. It's not easy to be Yao Ming. To be a RUFF MMA champion, you don't have to be seven feet tall."
Considering the martial arts heritage of the region, China appears to be a natural fit for MMA, which is among the reasons UFC has maintained an office in Beijing since August 2010. Former NBA executive Mark Fischer operates out of the office and heads the promotion's Asians Operations division.
Just this week UFC president Dana White promised that the UFC will hold an event "in China" this year. Yet claiming that Macau, where the card is expected to take place, is in China "is similar to having a fight in Puerto Rico and claiming to be in the United States," said Resnick, who worked four years inside the bureaucracy of the People’s Republic of China before receiving the license to work with the government. "Chinese citizens require a visa to go from China to Macau. Macau is a separate territory with its own government, currency and passports."
Resnick welcomed the UFC to hold an event in Macau "as it will only bring more attention to the great sport of MMA in Asia."
For the UFC to host something on the mainland, it would need to be considered a one-off cultural event, which means no ticket sales, no revenue streams.
The idea for RUFF came about five years ago when Resnick's son, Brandon, a teenager at the time, talked about his love of MMA. Brandon Resnick, now almost 20 and a Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt, serves as RUFF's matchmaker and talent scout. RUFF fighters compete under the Unified Rules, and referees are certified under John McCarthy's C.O.M.M.A.N.D system. The Chinese government too will be a sort of talent scout via its support for MMA, especially in schools. Resnick expects the government to help with the cost of finding and grooming fighters, as well as regulating them through soon-to-be formed associations.
The government is “really excited about this because this is a growth sport here," Resnick said. "This is something the Chinese public can wrap their hands around, they can get it.
"We're finding that this can be a mainstream sport out here and people are willing to spend the money to come out and see it. As long as they get their value back."
The cheapest ticket to an event costs $15, though live attendance is insignificant compared to the potential access into China's 700,000,000 homes. Through the government, TV relationships are already opening up for the Mandt brothers in Chongqing and other major municipalities. RUFF is the first MMA organization in China permitted to advertise its events in mass media. Neil Mandt, 42, is moving to China, where he'll handle broadcast production of events every other month.
Sponsors have taken notice. Chinese arms of multinational companies -- Nike, Ford, Ducati Motorcylces and Sofitel Hotels -- have already aligned with RUFF.
"The exposure RUFF has on TV and magazines is something we're interested in," Mike Bordiga, CEO of Ducati Asia Pacific, is quoted as saying in the organization's promotional packet. "The audience has a low average age; It's exactly what we're aiming for."
There's talk of a North American-esque reality show aimed at the core 18-28 demographic. But this is first and foremost a sporting venture in a country that does not have much in the way of pro sports.
"We're starting a sports company in China," Resnick said. "That's amazing. The most amazing thing is we're bringing martial arts back to China. This is where it all started. That's the coolest thing."