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Justin Leong, center, is the CEO of mixed martial arts promoter Rebel Fighting Championship, a company he founded at 27 years of age. (Photo courtesy of Rebel Fighting Championship)
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Defying censors, combat startup looks to crack Chinese market

Rebel Fighting Championship has an unusual growth strategy

SINGAPORE -- While other families would file into church on Sundays, 12-year-old Justin Leong worshipped at the altar of weekend morning boxing matches. "And that was kind of our religion," recalled Leong. He and his mother would attend bouts in East London, afterward obsessively picking apart the fighters' strategies.

On a trip to Las Vegas in 2013, Leong stumbled on the spectacle of mixed martial arts. Within months, $2 million seed capital from his father in hand, the then-27-year-old entrepreneur had set up MMA sports entertainment company Rebel Fighting Championship in Singapore.

"It kind of blew my mind watching it. It was almost like the Roman gladiator days. ... When I saw it, a light bulb came [on]," Leong said.

Rebel is an ambitious newcomer to the MMA market, riding a wave of interest in a sport that is on the cusp of the mainstream in Asia. The company is dwarfed by the region's market leader, One Championship -- whose billion-dollar valuation is more than seven times that of Rebel -- but Leong hopes to thrive by cracking the huge, complex Chinese market, where the potential of Asia's largest MMA audience is tempered by Beijing's hard stance against promoting violent blood sports.

"We looked at China -- 1.3 billion people, largest consumer market in the world, thriving economy. And whenever there's a thriving economy ... Boomtown Charlie: hotel, travel, luxury goods, tourism, drinks, alcohol, cars, and also sports as well," Leong said.

Rebel has held its live events in the tier one cities of Shenzhen, Guangzhou and Shanghai, to an audience mostly made up of 18- to 35-year-old men. Since its first tournament in China in 2015, the company has grown its audience to an average of around 13 million viewers per event, broadcasting through commercial television channel Tianjin Sports and digital streaming platforms like iQiyi, Youku, and PP Sports. Next year, it will cast a wider net with shows in the smaller cities of Wuhan, Chongqing and Chengdu. Most of the company's revenue comes from sponsorship, and Rebel has signed deals with chip manufacturer Intel, computer gaming gear maker Wicked Bunny and coffee company Origo.

China has proved a difficult market for fighting sports. Although martial arts has a long history in the country, authorities are quick to stamp down on public spectacles that promote violence or "decadent culture." Leong said that so far he has had no pushback from authorities around his events, although Rebel's "live" broadcast has to run on a delay of a few minutes, so that broadcasters have time to remove any scenes deemed to be too violent.

Leong plans to ramp up the number of events from fewer than five a year to up to 10, and expand his roster of 14 fighters to 20; his content production arm will also launch an MMA talent-spotting reality TV show in the third quarter of 2020, supported by the recent $7.2 million acquisition of Singapore-based audiovisual producer Expo AV-InSync. This puts Rebel head-to-head with One Championship, which already has a production arm, One Studios, and is on a similar push for content production.

Both One Championship and the Ultimate Fighting Championship, the U.S.-based global market leader, have held bouts in China and have been trying to cultivate the market.

Rebel's deals with local media could give it a leg up, according to Mohit Lalvani, chief executive of sports broadcaster 1 Play Sports. "They already have an impressive presence in China," he said. "As they focus on that market, they should be able to create their own brand and sustain growth." However, he added, competing with the UFC, which has a huge amount of financial firepower, will be very difficult, even in Rebel's own backyard.

Leong has an ambitious plan to gain more financial backing for his loss-making company. Rebel has begun discussions with bankers ahead of a planned listing on Nasdaq next year, seeking to raise $15 million to $20 million. "If you're going to upgrade, you might as well upgrade to one of the largest stock markets in the world," Leong said.

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