PXC’s EJ Calvo on the Rapid Growth of MMA in the Philippines

The Philippines is known worldwide for their national hero, boxing pound-for-pound entrant Manny Pacquiao. The man they call “Pambansang Kamao” or “the nation’s fist” punched his way into the world’s spotlight more than ten years ago, becoming one of the most popular figures in the sport’s history.

But the country has always enjoyed a rich heritage in the fighting arts, including the legacy of boxing flyweight champion Francisco Guilledo, alias Pancho Villa, who graced the cover of Ring Magazine in 1923, and the martial arts traditions of kali and eskrima.

Recently, mixed martial arts has begun emerging as a growing attraction. Baguio City native Roldan Sangcha-An fought in the UFC earlier this year, losing a close split decision in New Zealand. ONE FC has made five visits to the country. Events are springing up around the Philippines to develop the archipelago’s rich fighting talent.

Most prominent of those is PXC (Pacific Xtreme Combat), the ten year old MMA promotion based on the US territory of Guam, which has held professional MMA events in metro Manila since 2011 — and recently launched an amateur event, PXC Laban MMA, in the provinces.

According to their CEO EJ Calvo, the Philippine MMA scene is just getting started — but his organization’s involvement there was something of a departure.

“At PXC, we keep to a slow burn,” he explains. “In terms of our spending and how many shows we produce. There’s no urgency to do a certain number of shows, because of shifts in the market – especially because we were only doing shows on the island of Guam. We’ve seen other companies come, try to make huge headlines, and they’re gone the next day.”

“So it wasn’t any kind of global expansion plan,” he says, recalling PXC’s first shows in Philippines. “Guam is about three hours from any major Asian market: Hong Kong, Tokyo, Manila, or Seoul, so I’ve got relations with top academies in all those major Asian markets. In my travels there we’ve looked at some opportunities to watch some of the smaller shows that are taking place – and they’re not around any more. We were surprised by how much love is there for MMA in the Philippines, but nobody was quite doing it right.”

“There’s 100 million people in the country — Manila alone is 8 or 9 million — and tons of fight fans,” he explains. “Obviously boxing is huge in the Philippines, but the transition to MMA has been extremely smooth. When we first got there, I was explaining what the acronym MMA stood for, what UFC stood for, what PXC stood for – talking to media, business, and interested sponsors.  This was only three and a half to four years ago. But, it happened really fast. We struck a TV deal, a co-production partner in terms of putting on events, and fighters started lining up.”

Calvo’s most recent venture was PXC: Laban (a Filipino/Tagalog word for “fight”), an amateur show in Batangas — his first out in the provinces and away from the Metro Manila area.

“In Guam and elsewhere you have an amateur, semi-pro type show where young fighters can get some cage time; a developmental league,” Calvo explains. “In the Philippines, there are too many fighters knocking on our door to compete in the PXC events that are already in place. So we reached out to gyms and people throughout producing provincial shows, outside of Manila.”

“Batangas is one of the first partners we were able to strike a deal with,” he continues. “It was a huge success – we had ten bouts, so we got to take a look at 20 new fighters. It’s an outreach program, a recruiting program, and an opportunity to expand our brand throughout the country.”

These smaller provincial shows don’t offer immediate revenue opportunities, but Calvo describes them an investment in the future — and the future for MMA looks bright.

“I think it could be as big as the professional basketball league in the Philippines,” Calvo responds, asked what the scene could look like in ten years’ time. “That’s the number one sport domestically. The Philippine Basketball Association packs in 15,000 capacity arenas regularly for collegiate and professional games. Boxing is very popular, but not as many domestic events are drawing the big crowds.”

“I have a true love for basketball as well,” Calvo smiles, a former player and coach. “But, if you look at the level of the professional league in the Philippines, they’re two or three tiers away from sending a player to the NBA. Obviously, that would be huge source of pride for the country, as in any country, when you play against the best in the world — which is the NBA.”

“In MMA, I said it would happen three years ago, and it’s a reality,” he continues. “We got there already. Our first fighter, Roldan Sangcha-An, was signed to the UFC, and fought in New Zealand earlier this year. He lost by a split decision but he did great. He’s a young fighter from Baguio City and I think he’s going to come back and have a good career there.”

“I think there’s more talent that’s going to make waves in the UFC,” he explains. “It’s where you’re going to meet the best in the world, representing your country against the best. And that’s the dream. The talent is huge, we’ve seen it in boxing.”

“I’d like to think PXC has had a big part of the process in the Philippines. Fighters were all focused on standup: Wushu, boxing, and maybe a little jiu-jitsu, but that’s it. The whole game has changed. All the best gyms train MMA now. They learned it the hard way with some early losses, but it’s awesome to see how it’s all come around – and there’s more to come.”