There are few sports that can draw a global fanbase purely off the back of an inherent ability to transcend geographic, cultural and socio-economic boundaries.
American football, for instance, is in its relative infancy in terms of showcasing itself outside of North America, despite boasting one of the world’s most popular sports leagues for nearly 100 years. For those who don’t regularly watch the National Football League (NFL), the foreign combination of touchdowns, first downs and timeouts isn’t conducive to an easy introduction to what is fundamentally a national sport.
Put two fighters face-to-face within the confines of a ring, however, and the subsequent action requires little explanation. What’s more, that same scenario can be replicated throughout the world, where the basic concept of ‘last man standing’ will never fail to register with fans.
Indeed, combat sports have existed – and attracted mass audiences – in an amateur capacity for thousands of years, but boxing aside, it was only with the emergence of mixed martial arts (MMA) promotions in the 1990s that lesser-known disciplines truly started to make their mark on a professional, global scale. For Laurent Pourrut, the chief executive of event promotion company Fighting Spirit, the aim is to tap into an appetite for combat sports that is already there, and take it to the next level through world class events and competitions.
“Fighting Spirit was created because of a shared passion between me and my brother about wrestling and boxing,” he explains. “We started Fighting Spirit in 2004 because we believed that combat sports were not getting enough exposure, especially with regards to MMA and wrestling. In that sense, our passion became our job.”
Combat sports, then, are something that fans have always been passionate about, but it was not until recently that promoters recognised the wealth of opportunity to monetise it. While most promoters typically specialise in one particular sport, Fighting Spirit’s stable includes boxing, kickboxing, MMA, wrestling and Muay Thai.
Laurent Pourrut, the chief executive of Fighting Spirit
“Our entire team is passionate about combat sports, and the programmes we offer are programmes we watch,” says Pourrut. “If we don’t like it, it’s not in our line-up. We are always looking for the best programmes on the market to satisfy audiences who want to watch high-quality action with premium production. This mentality is what has made us a leading company in the combat sports industry.”
Although Fighting Spirit’s properties predominantly feature European fighters, the addition of athletes from Asia and the Americas – two of the world’s biggest fight markets – coupled with a handful of events on those continents has given the company added leverage when it comes to negotiating with global broadcasters. Fighting Spirit is expanding internationally, with a new office opening soon in Budapest and plans in motion for representation in Asia and the Middle East. The demand is certainly there, and Fighting Spirit’s kickboxing promotion, Enfusion, is already being shown in 160 countries around the world, while its MMA brand, M-1 Global, is also reaching screens in more than 100 different territories.
“When it comes to broadcast partnerships,” Pourrut explains, “Fighting Spirit is putting emphasis on long-term relationships. We do our very best to find events which suit the broadcaster and its audience’s needs. Our strength is also our reliability and credibility on the market, given that we are the first company to offer a complete variety of combat sports, ranging from wrestling to MMA, without forgetting the traditional martial arts.
“Fighting Spirit aims to bring the best offering for each and every combat sport. The core idea is that whatever you pick in our portfolio, you will have the best promoters and productions you can find on the market, but also the most reliable.
“The fact that we have such a wide offering and different audience targets means that the broadcast partners we target depend on the genre. Wrestling tends to be more appealing for free-to-air and digital terrestrial broadcasters, while pure combat sports are more popular with pay-TV and digital channels.”
Fighting Spirit’s stable includes boxing, kickboxing, MMA, wrestling and Muay Thai
While there is an obvious need to supply broadcasters with a premium product, Fighting Spirit’s promotions also place an emphasis on showcasing the best talent combat sports have to offer. In recent times, there has been an increasing tendency among promoters to sell their fights based on an underlying narrative, which can often lead to over-hyped events which fail to deliver on fight night. Fighting Spirit, on the other hand, might not boast household names just yet, but has helped to establish talent pipelines into its promotions, cultivating a conveyor belt of skilled fighters to ensure that audiences are getting value from what happens inside of the ring, rather than out of it.
“When you look at our main properties,” says Pourrut, “Enfusion’s management has been working in this industry for 25 years, and provides opportunities for the next generation of fighters through its Enfusion Talents and Enfusion Rookies development programme. Enfusion showcases the best fighters of today, rather than the ones of yesterday as you often see in other promotions.
“M-1 Global, meanwhile, is already celebrating 20 years of existence, making it one of the oldest in MMA. It works closely with gyms to train fighters, but also uses the wide range of athletes starting from the amateurs in the World Mixed Martial Arts Association [WMMAA] to create Road to M-1 worldwide events, so those who reach the top-tier M-1 Challenge events are the ones who have been carefully selected and earned the right to be a part of it.”
The company also understands the part it has to play in preserving the integrity of the sport. The Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) was at the centre of a doping scandal in August, when it emerged that Jon Jones – already banned for doping in the past – had tested positive for an anabolic steroid just weeks after recapturing the world light heavyweight title against Daniel Cormier. That event had been the UFC’s highest-selling pay-per-view of 2017, and while Jones’ transgression was damaging for the promotion and the athlete’s reputation, the damage is more enduring for the sport as a whole. With that in mind, Pourrut is keen to assert that Fighting Spirit recognises its role as a custodian of maintaining the level playing field that is at the heart of the sport’s appeal.
Pourrut says the event promotion company was set up to build interest in various combat sports
“For us, safety and doping tests always come first,” he says. “We carry out medical tests before the events and if there is a risk of injury, we pull out the athletes. If an athlete tests positive for a banned substance, we punish them with significant sanctions like banning the fighters and their team.”
There is a sense, then, that Fighting Spirit operates firmly with longevity in mind. There is a clear aim to build the profile of fighters by introducing them to their audience from an early stage in their development, so fans can follow their journey from the amateurs right through to the pinnacle of the sport. Not only does this construct a more genuine narrative of its own, it also creates brand loyalists within a fanbase which is given the chance to develop real affiliations with the competitors.
“The main challenge for us is to engage our viewers once the live events are over,” Pourrut explains. “One of the solutions is to allow our fans the chance to watch their favourite fighters and follow their lives behind the curtain. That’s why there’s a growing demand for our reality TV shows and documentaries, because the storytelling is so strong that it encourages fans to follow a fighter regardless of their ability.
“These shows are unique because they prove that combat sports are not just about one person knocking out another. It is about two people who have their own reasons for being in the ring, two professionals who put all of their talent on the line, and we want to give them the power to tell their story through combat sport.
“2018 will be a huge year for us with the biggest fights in the history of Enfusion and the 20-year celebration of M-1 Global, so stay tuned!”