Mixed martial arts is only getting bigger in Australia. Here’s why

Australia World

This Sunday, Sydney will host UFC 293 – the first pay-per-view event the fight promotion has held in NSW since 2011.

The long-awaited return of the UFC to Sydney is the first of a $16 million agreement between the state government and the UFC that will bring three events to NSW over four years.

UFC stands for Ultimate Fight Championship and is the world’s largest mixed martial arts (MMA) promotion. 

It is set to be one of the biggest fight cards this year with New Zealand superstar Israel Adesanya defending his belt against American Sean Strickland — a trash-talking provocateur who revels when asked to be the pantomime villain.

For those involved in the sport the move by the state government to bring premium UFC events back to Sydney is easy to understand.

Ben Johnston is a fighter, trainer, gym owner and training partner of Sunday’s main event fighter Adesanya.

MMA fighter Ben Johnston amping himself up in the cage before a fight.

Ben Johnston is a training partner of UFC champion Israel Adesanya and fights under Australian fight promotion Eternal MMA. (Supplied: Ben Johnston)

“There’s just something about the event the UFC put on, the scale, the emotions. It’s so much more exciting and the stakes are so high,” he told The Drum.

A former Muay Thai world champion, Johnston was recruited as a striking specialist by the UFC champion and is hoping that the increasing number of UFC events in Australia will open up a pathway to the UFC’s iconic octagon cage for more Australian fighters like himself.

“The UFC is the goal, but my job as a fighter is just to keep winning, making myself marketable and appealing and hopefully they make that offer one day,” he said.

The pull of the UFC is undeniable for aspiring fighters — the promotion has a monopoly of the world’s best fighters, creating a sporting product that is unrivalled by any other organisation.

And that product is loved by Australian fight fans who consistently break records when the UFC is on our shores.

The two highest ever attended UFC events both took place in Melbourne’s Marvel Stadium and the organisation eclipsed the Rolling Stones to be named Australia’s highest ever grossing arena event in Perth’s RAC Arena earlier this year.

On Sunday, 10 athletes will be fighting out of Australia and New Zealand, a testament to the region’s impressive representation at the top end of the sport. 

Contrast this to the last time Sydney hosted an pay-per-view event, the sport was widely considered fringe and there was not a single ranked fighter from Australia or New Zealand on the UFC roster. Today there are eight considered in the top 15 of their respective divisions. 

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From spectators to practitioners

Unlike traditional codes, MMA does not have a governing body in Australia tracking participation numbers.

This makes getting a real sense of the sport’s participation rate difficult, with many aspiring athletes partaking in various disciplines; such as Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, kickboxing and boxing.

NSW and WA’s combat sports association bodies provided data to The Drum that shows a trend of growing registration for amateur and professional combat sports athletes in their states.

In NSW, there has been a 22 per cent increase in registered amateur MMA fighters since 2017, rising from 918 to 1,175 athletes.

Registration across all combat sports athletes (including both amateur and professional boxing and kickboxing) increased by 21 per cent in the same time frame, rising from 6,930 to 8,682.

The increase in MMA participation in WA is even more stark, considering cage-fighting was illegal in the state as recently as 2016.

According to data from the state’s combat association, the number of all registrations (including trainers, officials and industry partners) increased by 79 per cent from 2021-22 to 2022-23, a rise from 559 to 1,003 in just a single year.

The state’s combat sports commission chair Bob Kucera told The Drum that there was “no doubt” that the UFC visiting Australia was increasing participation in combat sports. 

Navigating the growth of a violent sport

Besides a tourism windfall, the sport carries a obvious reputation for violence.

The Australian Medical Association called for a complete ban on combat sports in 2015, and when initially Mr Minns initially supported the UFC coming to NSW, the Liberal then-government rebuked the proposal as a promotion of violence.

No To Violence chief executive Jacqui Watt told The Drum that governments needed to be very cautious about promoting events like the UFC.

“The way governments work with and promote combat sports must incorporate careful and consistent messaging that violence against anyone outside the ring is not OK,” she said.

“And broader conversations around combat sports and the appeal they have for many in the community must be respectful and sophisticated.”

Ms Watt warned that the sport could cause young men to idolise violence.

“Research suggests that watching combat sports may influence some fans to believe that violent masculinity equals strength and power and leads to success,” she said.

“However we must also acknowledge that the majority of combat sports fans are not violent and do not mean harm towards others.

“And with people from a range of backgrounds, postcodes and cultures following combat sports, players, coaches and administrators have incredible potential to influence positive behaviours in the broader community.”

Ben Johnston sparring with a student in a mixed-martial-arts gym.

Ben Johnston’s gym, The Fight Centre, has been forced to change location three times to keep up with new clients.(Supplied: Ben Johnston)

Learning lessons in the gym

At Johnston’s gym, The Fight Centre, young men “looking to get some confidence” are the most common people walking through the gym door.

“Being tough is great, it’s a great quality to have, but the sport has changed, if you just want to be tough, you will get left behind,” Johnston said.

“Tough guys do two things in this sport, they quit, or they change the way they behave so they can get better.

As a coach, Johnston said he had witnessed the egos of impressionable young men evaporate.

“You have to learn the skills, you have to learn how to behave in a gym, you have to learn to improve your skill set so you can compete properly and succeed in the sport and win fights,” he said.

“Once these young guys feel confident, you see them change and they’re not chasing to be tough anymore.”

Based in the heart of Logan in south-east Queensland, the gym has exploded in popularity, changing locations three times to keep up with increased numbers.

“We’ve got 1,000 members, that is a significant amount of the community in Logan,” he said.

“If we can affect that small per cent of the community and make people strive and want to do better things, that has a ripple effect for the broader community.

“You might actually move the needle for the whole community — in a place like Logan, we’re probably known for all the wrong things.”

Johnston said he hoped gyms like his would inspire a next generation of Australian MMA fighters.

“I’ve been in that room on your first day, I have looked around a gym and seen world champions, when you’re on the gym floor you just realise, that guy is just like me,” he said.

“We call it the rub; you can see that it’s doable, it’s achievable, and then you start to do it because it is in front of your eyes.

“We are trying to create champions down here, so everyone in the room can see that this guys a champion, they can see how he is training and what he’s doing — and they can see that the secret to success is just hard work — and they can do that in combat sports or wherever they want, it is extremely powerful.”