In a caged ring at a newly built sports arena in the Philippine capital, 20 martial artists from around the world try to choke out, knock down or submit each other for thousands of paying fans.
Scantily clad ring girls saunter on stage in between rounds to loud rock music and cheers, part of the razzle and dazzle of professional mixed martial arts (MMA), which is hugely popular in the US and is growing in Asia.
For hometown hero Eduard Folayang, MMA has been a ticket out of a career as a lowly paid school teacher and a chance to expand on his skills as one of the world’s top practitioners of wushu, an ancient Chinese martial art.
“I wanted a different, higher level of martial arts, and that was my motivation in turning pro,” said Folayang, who won a wushu silver medal at the 2006 Asian Games.
MMA pits fighters from different martial arts disciplines in a cage wearing thinly padded, open-fingered gloves, with the aim of submitting or knocking each other down. Unlike boxing, fighters can grapple, kick, choke, throw and punch their opponents.
For the past two years, the soft-spoken Folayang has steadily built a cult following among fight aficionados for his fearless striking game, rated as among the best and most exciting in the region.
He trains day in and day out for a life devoted to combat under the Singapore-based ONE Fighting Championship (ONE FC), the sport’s biggest promoter in Asia.
As MMA begins to take root in the region, fighters such as Folayang have found a way to continue with their careers and earn big money in the process.
While Folayang’s contract bars him from disclosing how much he earns, he said his career as a caged-ring fighter gave him a much more comfortable and enjoyable life than if he were still a school teacher.
“It is more than enough, and if you love what you’re doing, then everything else follows,” he said.
Folayang is a member of Team Lakay, which includes five of his former Philippine wushu teammates.
Folayang also insisted a sport that appeared brutal was in fact relatively safe.
He said bouts followed strict rules, were supervised by highly trained referees and sanctioned by gaming bodies to ensure all fighters were in good medical condition.
Victor Cui, a Philippine-Canadian who was a former executive of a major US sports network, launched ONE FC out of Singapore two years ago, looking to emulate the astonishing success of the sport in the US.
“I just could not believe the growth opportunities. You are talking about a sport that is a US$3 billion industry in northern America and it’s just at its infancy in Asia,” he said.
Rival organization UFC launched MMA in the US in 1993 and its pay-per-view TV deals now are often more lucrative than for professional boxing.
Cui said he estimated that pay per view revenues from MMA in the US averaged US$500 million a year, twice that of boxing.
While ONE FC has yet to penetrate the biggest Asian markets, such as China and India, it has started to make significant inroads elsewhere around the region.
At the recent event in Manila, 20,000 fans filled the Mall of Asia Arena to capacity. ONE FC said 12,500 people attended a Singapore fight night in April.
Organizers are hoping to stage 36 more bouts throughout Asia before the end of next year, with the next confirmed event in Indonesia in September.