TORONTO — Mixed martial arts is coming to Myanmar with a Canadian-based fighter in the main event and another running the show.
Bibiano (The Flash) Fernandes, a Brazilian who is married to a Canadian and fights out of Vancouver, defends his One Championship bantamweight title against Finnish challenger Toni Tauru on the "Kingdom of Warriors" card Saturday at Thuwanna Stadium in Yangon.
Fernandes (17-3) has won nine straight. Tauru (10-1-1) has won 10 in a row.
The Singapore-based fight promotion is run by Edmonton-born CEO Victor Cui (pronounced Kwee).
Myanmar, formerly Burma, is the ninth country to host a One Championship event, joining Cambodia, China, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, Taiwan and the United Arab Emirates.
It means near constant travel for Cui, who estimates he goes through a Canadian passport every four to five months.
"It's pretty crazy," he said by phone as he waited to board a flight to Kazakhstan.
Cui says Myanmar has proved to be fertile ground for MMA, with a sellout expected at the 10,000-seat arena.
"Myanmar just opened up their borders," he said. "For a lot of people outside of Asia, they would think 'Wow, that's crazy if they're going there.' But when you look at Myanmar as a country, every single business in the world is trying to get in those doors ... because there's just exponential growth there."
The country also has a rich tradition of martial arts with its own discipline called Lethwei, a form of Muay Thai.
Cui says he has the support of the government and has got terrific response from local media and sponsors.
Saturday's card also includes Myanmar lightweight and featherweight tournaments, which Cui says it's a good way of evaluating local talent for future events.
One Championship held a similar tournament in its debut in Cambodia last year, unearthing bantamweight Chan Rothana who went on to win abroad for the promotion.
"When he came back, he was a superstar," said Cui.
"When a country gets a chance to build an Asian star like we're doing, it's really something that galvanizes a nation," he added. "And what One Championship is doing is we are discovering for the world who the next Bruce Lees are in every country."
Born in Edmonton, Cui's family left for west Africa when he was five. He came back to the Alberta capital when he was 13. His father, of Chinese-Filipino descent, was an engineer by trade and also worked in the diplomatic corps. His mother's roots are in the Philippines.
Cui graduated from the University of Alberta and, after post-graduate studies in Vancouver, worked in marketing at the 1998 Commonwealth Games in Malaysia and 2000 Olympics in Sydney.
He spent five years with the Royal Canadian Golf Association and also worked on the world track and field championships in Edmonton. In Singapore, he worked for ESPN Star Sports before striking out into MMA.
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Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press