Well it wasn’t exactly like holding a UFC event in Beijing, but Saturday’s UFC Macao: Franklin vs. Le, the mixed martial arts giant’s first event on Chinese soil, was a good start.
Taking place in Cotai Strip, Macau, a special administrative region just off of mainland China, the sold-out crowd of 8,415 were treated to nine entertaining fights featuring more than a handful of notable names. While the first seven went to decision, the final two delivered some emphatic finishes, capped by the fan favourite Cung Le pulling off a stunning knockout of veteran Rich Franklin.
The 40-year-old Le, who as a native of South Vietnam, which is less than 500 miles from Macau, was essentially fighting in his own backyard, spent the first two minutes of his bout feeling out his opponent before landing a solid and perfectly placed overhand right to knock Franklin out cold.
“That’s the biggest fight of my life,” Le said post-fight. “Thank you Rich Franklin for the opportunity, the UFC, Dana White, Lorenzo, the Fertitta brothers, I couldn’t ask for anything more. I’m just grateful. I don’t know what to say. Lucky punch.”
The affable Le was very humble in victory, but the fact is he executed an excellent punch. And while he said he was thankful for the opportunity, it was always a given that he would be showcased on this card as the UFC eyes a move into yet another Asian market. A kickboxing legend and budding actor, Le is a star in East Asia, and with the UFC only having one Chinese fighter on its roster — Tiequan Zhang, who also fought on Saturday — it was no-brainer to have him in the main event, and a fight against the ultra-company man Franklin made sense.
But we’re not sure many expected him to actually win. Certainly not in such impressive fashion. The former Strikeforce middleweight champion was coming off his first UFC victory over Patrick Cote following a loss to Wanderlei Silva in his Octagon debut, but at his age and against the more stacked UFC roster of middleweights, it seemed he was destined to play the role of merely a showcasing fighter. With Saturday’s win, he is now very relevant in the UFC’s 185-pound class.
Still, make no mistake, the fighter versed in Chinese martial arts like Sanshou played the role the UFC needed Saturday quite well.
“I feel that I represented all Asian people, not just the Chinese, but everyone, all Asians around the world and I fought my heart out and I got a big win for the Asian people,” Le said.
While it still may take some time before the UFC can enter mainland China, the response to Saturday’s show is a positive. The event reportedly had a gate of $1.3 million, not bad for a relatively small crowd of 8,415. According to UFC Asia managing director Mark Fischer, that represented a sell out for the configuration the UFC had at the CotaiArena in Venetian Macau Resort Hotel.
Earlier in the week, Fischer said they were laying the groundwork and the time was right to continue the UFC’s expansion into China. It was the organization’s second event of 2012 in Asia — the first being Saitama, Japan for UFC 144 in February. There closer to 20,000 filled the more MMA-frequented Saitama Super Arena, but the crowds in Macau may have been just as loud for the fights Saturday, both in cheering for their favourites like Tiequan, despite his decision loss to Guam’s Jon Tuck, and booing when fights became clinch-heavy (their seeming impatience for grappling contests notwithstanding).
But the UFC has already announced a return to Japan in March and a media partnership in Indonesia, where it plans a future event. You can expect it will be looking to return to China as soon as possible. And it will be hoping to visit the mainland sooner rather than later.
NOTES: Choosing the fight bonuses was pretty easy for the UFC staff, since Le’s stoppage of Franklin was the only knockout, while Thiago Silva’s third-round triangle choke of Stanislav Nedkov in the co-main event was the only submission. The Fight of the Night honours went to Takanori Gomi and Mac Danzig, with the Fireball Kid earning a split decision over Danzig.
The previously unbeaten Nedkov looked pretty good early in his light-heavyweight bout against Silva, but he tired as the fight went on and appeared to be undersized against the bigger Silva. A move down to 185 pounds may be advisable.
Dong Hyun Kim looked very impressive against a dangerous Paulo Thiago, employing a well rounded game and winning by unanimous decision. And the UFC welterweight division continues to get deeper than ever.
Thankfully there was no “home decision” for Zhang in his fight against Tuck. While he fought hard, all three judges appropriately gave the nod to the visiting Tuck after he outworked the Mongolia native, who had likely the most pressure of anyone on the card to represent.