No fear of failure for fight promoter

By Andre FroisEvents - 12 December 2013 12:00 AM

No fear of failure for fight promoter

The intrepid entrepreneur isn’t afraid of failure, and neither does he want his fighters to be.

Justin Leong, 28, recalls being very depressed.

The former bank employee had left his job and was up in the wee hours of the morning contemplating his next moves.

On a sheet of paper, the young man desperately seeking direction decided that scribbling down all that he wanted to do in life was a good idea.

After penning about 200 goals, he wrote “going into the MMA (mixed martial arts) industry”.

Then he stopped writing for a moment and started working on that goal.

Through various stints and tryouts around the MMA industry, Leong met numerous veterans through whom he learnt a great deal about the promotion of combat sports.

After successful applications for government grants, Leong realised that his opportunity to start and promote his own fight sport had arrived.

“My friends call me gungho (zealous),” he said.

Now the director of Rebel Fighting Championship is the newest player in an intense three-corner fight that is the MMA scene. The other two are three-year-strong One Fighting Championship (One FC) and Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC).

One FC has put on 11 successful shows around the region, each filling at least 10,000 seats in recent times, and UFC, a dominant global MMA promoter, has announced its first-ever Singapore show at Marina Bay Sands in January 2014, as well as its second-ever show in China.

But first, the inaugural ‘Rebel Fighting Championship: Into the Lion’s Den’.

To be held on 21 December 2013 at Singapore Indoor Stadium, the event will be headlined by celebrity MMA names such as “Lion” Takeshi Inoue, Rob Lisita, Alberto Mina, Glenn Sparv as well as Singapore’s Syafiq Samad, who will be fighting Gyo Pyung Hwang. The event will also feature a select group of 14 prime amateur fighters hailing from Singapore and the region.


Singapore fighter Syafiq Samad in action. Photo: Juggernaut Fight Club

Leong understands how certain elements such as “safe” in-ring tactics and slowly ground-out victories can leave a bad taste in the mouths of home viewers and live audiences, not to mention crushing blows to one’s brand and commercial sustainability.

A thrill-seeker himself, Leong looked to the bushido spirit of Japanese antiquity to set his company apart from his stiff competition.

Instead of opting for the conventional system of merit, Leong decided that Rebel Fighting Championship participants will be rewarded by how much heart they each put into their respective matches, as well as by the entertainment that they provide the audience.

He talks more about his strategy to inSing.

How is your brand of entertainment different from other fight sports?

Nowadays, fights are no longer themed on pride, honour, glory and other timeless warrior values. I want to ignite in both the fans and the fighters a passion for martial arts.

Most fight promotions have yielded to working in ways that are most commercially viable. We want fans to be excited by the very personal manner in which we showcase our fighters and events. Instead of going by the conventional ranking system, where winners ascend and losers are sacked, we want to commend the effort of each fighter rather than the result.

What do you want your fights to achieve?

I want to book fights like the “Thrilla In Manila”. This third and final match between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier is one of my favourite fights, because Ali was willing to put everything on the line and had proclaimed that he would rather die in the ring than lose.

Frazier, too, did not want to give up, despite the prospect of him going blind. This personified what I thought was a great fight and it almost moved me to tears. There was no pretence. I want to achieve these moments for fans and I want my fighters to feel proud of fighting.

What were you doing before this?

Rebel FC headliners Robert Lisita and Takeshi Lion at the match press conference. Photo: Rebel FC

I was working in the financial sector. I had adopted the typical Singaporean route and went through with the natural progression of school and serving in the army, without a sense of purpose. I got a degree in banking and finance without ever asking why. After spending four years feeling lost, I abruptly quit my job and meditated on my path in life.

Do you think Singapore has a harsh environment for aspiring entrepreneurs?

I wanted experience in the MMA industry, but there aren’t many opportunities, so I tried to get my foot in the door (through different ways). Singaporeans are not encouraged to take risks and are not encouraged towards individualism. I think it’s because we are spoonfed a lot of things.

Singapore is one of the best places for education, but in terms of entrepreneurship and standing for one’s own ideas, our society tends to be more conservative and risk-averse. However, Singapore is not short of government grants and intellectual resources. It is a good place employment-wise ,and government organisations readily help young businessmen seeking the opinions and advice of industry veterans. We are not constrained by a lack of resources, rather by our own mentality.

Do you think Singaporeans are too afraid of failure?

In Singapore, failure tends to be treated like a bad word. To me, the real nature of life is passing through a lot of failures. As Winston Churchill said, “success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm”. For example, Mexican fighter Leonard Garcia, he lost five times in a row recently. Yet he comes out of his corner, guns ablazing… he is fearless in his matches, unperturbed by physical consequence.

Does the pressure of succeeding in this extremely competitive, multimillion-dollar market ever get to you?

I don’t really think about it much. Instead, I see myself getting better every day.

How did you become interested in MMA?

How most people do – through boxing. My mum’s a big boxing fan. I like Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier, Mike Tyson, Sugar Ray Leonard and several other middleweights. At first, I thought MMA was brutal, but upon studying it, I came to see the skill involved, and that’s where I got converted.

Which is your favourite kind of fighter?

I like all kinds, but I especially like cocky fighters because they are entertaining. My favourite fighter is Wanderlei Silva, and I also enjoy loudmouth personalities like Nick Diaz and Chael Sonnen. To me, I think well-rounded fighters who trash-talk a lot like Muhammad Ali are the full package.

I can forgive a guy for being a bad fighter if he is highly entertaining. I also like guys with heart, that’s why I signed Rob Lisita, Syafiq "The Slasher" (Abdul Samad), and “Lion” Takeshi Inoue.

What other reasons made you pick the competitors that you booked?

I see so much promise and potential in Lisita, including Syafiq, who has the advantage of youth as well as the most to prove. In person, Takeshi is very affable and emanates a very calm energy, but in the ring or cage, he is very analytical and has so many wins under his belt because he is a master of studying his opponent’s body movements. He gives off a sense of assuredness, which is rarely seen in a lot of athletes. I’m sure competing at the Indoor Stadium in front of 7,000 spectators and cameras on 21December will not faze him.

‘Rebel Fighting Championship: Into the Lion’s Den’| Date: 21 December 2013 | Time: 7pm | Venue: Singapore Indoor Stadium | Tickets: $38-$298 from Sistic