Mark Fischer, speaking ahead of the UFC's first foray in China with Saturday's event at The Venetian resort hotel in Macau, told Reuters that China's long history of martial arts made it an ideal destination for the UFC to grow.
The emergence of Zhang, an expert in the Chinese marital art of sanshou, would help local fans identify with the sport and ultimately build momentum in what could be a massive market for the UFC, he added.
"The UFC has tremendous potential in China. For many people, China was the birthplace of martial arts so when one of their own won in such exciting fashion it was watched over and over by millions of people," Fischer said.
Zhang's air-tight guillotine choke forced Jason Reinhardt to submit just 48 seconds into their featherweight fight in Sydney early last year.
"That's the power of our sport. It generates that kind of excitement and gets that reaction from people very quickly."
One of the fastest growing sports in the world, MMA is a full contact sport that allows fighters to utilize techniques from both striking and grappling martial arts such as boxing, Brazilian jiu-jitsu, muay Thai, wrestling and judo.
Already hugely popular in mature MMA markets such as the United States, Brazil, Japan and Canada, the UFC is looking to extend its reach throughout Asia.
Fischer, the UFC's managing director in Asia, said success depended on getting the strategy right in four specific markets in the region - Japan, South Korea, Southeast Asia and China.
"The way we approach marketing here is quite different from how we do it in the United States, which is a big market but pretty contiguous, a single language, you can reach the audience through national media and the Internet pretty easily," he said.
"Plus we have a much longer history there. Here, at the same time as we are marketing the Macau event, we are marketing an entire sport too. We can't push too far in one direction without the other to get people interested to come to the event."
Fischer was one of the driving forces behind the National Basketball Association's growth in China and he said he would apply some of that experience to help the UFC develop in Asia.
"I've seen a lot of sides to building a sports brand in Asia over the 12 years I was at the NBA, and one of the things I take from that is that it has to be an integrated marketing approach," he said.
"Not just television, not just staging events, eventually you need to add sponsorship and merchandising, and throw grassroots development and community relations into the mix.
"All of these different parts of the sports marketing model feed off each other and that is something I have taken to the UFC as we expand."
Like the National Football League and other major sports hoping to build in China, the UFC is targeting 19 major cities across the country and Fischer said the tailored strategy was paying off.
"We have more than doubled the awareness of the UFC brand in China's top 19 cities, going from about a 25 percent awareness level of 50 percent," he said, adding that fan following had gone up from five percent to 11 percent.
"But we really want to grow that fan base until there's a major demand before we stage a bigger event on the mainland."
The former Portuguese colony of Macau, which reverted to Chinese sovereignty in 1999 and is the only place in China where gambling is legal, is a "bridgehead" to the mainland, he said.
While Zhang, who is facing Jon Tuck from Guam, is the only Chinese fighter on Saturday's card, Fischer said the sport needed time to take root in China and that one of the UFC's key growth drivers in the region was to "build local heroes".
"We have to develop Chinese fighters, Korean fighters, eventually fighters from Southeast Asia, and we can do this better or easier than most other sports.
"We take all sizes, all shades and types. Every country has its distinctive martial art and we are weaving those into the MMA landscape," he added.
"We are committed to developing these guys over the long haul. We are in it to win it."
- Martial Arts
- Sports & Recreation
- Mark Fischer