Just as other western companies curtail their presence in Russia, American mixed martial arts promotion company Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) is betting on Russian growth in the former Soviet state, ESPN reports.
UFC executives are in Moscow this weekend to host their first live fight in the country as New Zealander Mark Hunt takes on Ukraine-born Alexei Oleinik on Saturday night. The Las Vegas-based UFC anticipates the fight will help Russia leapfrog into its top 10 countries by revenue in a “short period of time,” said Chief Operating Officer Lawrence Epstein. Russia is currently in the top 20, he said.
Western energy companies and banks have cut investment or headcount in Russia amid greater sanctions and a weaker economic outlook. However, that isn’t hampering the expansion prospects for the fight organization in the nation of 147 million.
“Russia has all the characteristics of a major market for the UFC. We have a lot of athletes that come from the market. There is a cultural affinity for the product as people in Russia enjoy combat sports. And you have a large economy,” Epstein said.
More and more Russians are gravitating toward mixed martial arts, according to local media. Russian President Vladimir Putin, a black belt in judo, has visited at least eight mixed martial arts fights since 2007, according to sports.ru.
About 17 million people in Russia identify themselves as UFC fans, said Epstein. That would equate to nearly 12 percent of the population. Currently, there are 27 fighters from former Soviet states including Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and Kyrgyzstan, on the UFC roster, Epstein said. They account for about 5 percent of UFC athletes.
Among them is Khabib Nurmagomedov, who will defend his lightweight title against Conor McGregor on October 6 in Las Vegas in the biggest fight of the year. Valentina Shevchenko from Kyrgyzstan is a top female fighter.
Epstein said entry into Russia became possible after William Morris Endeavor, a talent agency group, purchased UFC in 2016. The new owner has more financial and human resources to expand the sport, he said.