The name may illicit images of bloody, brutal high-octane cage fighting, but no one can doubt the global success of the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), now a commercial machine like no other in the world of mixed martial arts (MMA). The announcement that the brand extension of UFC – UFC Gym, a franchise combining MMA and fitness – is opening in Dubai’s Business Bay early next year may not have drawn crowds of parents to sign up for family packages. However, George Yiasemides, the company’s new Middle East chief operating officer, believes the appeal for families will be its biggest draw and says the brand will be a contender in the UAE’s fiercely competitive fitness market.
How exactly is UFC Gym an extension of the UFC brand?
UFC launched UFC Gym to give people of all ages the opportunity to train like their heroes of the octagon [UFC’s fighting cage] by fusing MMA and traditional fitness training philosophies. Training like a fighter means you increase your fitness and learn how to defend yourself at the same time.
How does being part of the UFC brand help you market the business?
Access to the UFC brand sets us apart from our competitors. Not only does this partnership give us mass exposure in the targeted industry, but also maximum support, ensuring the success of the gym franchise. The plan is to fly in UFC celebrity fighters from the United States to promote the opening with a series of public appearance and coaching sessions for preregistered members. Leveraging the profile of those fighting under the UFC brand is a key marketing tool behind the expansion of UFC Gym, with a huge global fan base of the sport, which is beamed to millions for each major bout on a pay-per-view basis.
What’s really going to be different from other gyms?
There is a real hunger for this concept – since debuting in 2009, UFC Gym has already opened more than 120 locations throughout the United States, Australia and Canada and has a further 100 planned to open next year. At 22,000 square feet, our first Dubai gym is big and packed with exciting new fitness-related opportunities. You wouldn’t believe the thrill when some youngsters realise they are going to be trained by real-life fighters and work on their skills in an authentic arena they can identify from the television. We can have 100 kids as young as four kicking a bag, getting fit and learning discipline, while their parents work out with full peace of mind.
What can a child of four seriously get out of UFC Gym?
They will get a lot more out of it than they would get out of an iPad. As each generation evolves, technology is educating our children faster. UFC Gym offers our youth a sense of community, discipline and education while growing their self-esteem. Introducing children, from an early age, to exercise and the disciplines of MMA is a winning formula for their mental and physical development, while preparing them for adulthood.
How does the fitness market in the UAE compare to a country such as the US?
The UAE’s gym market is dominated by two major chains and an array of boutique facilities. It has been reported less than three per cent of the UAE population visits a health club compared to 15 per cent of the US population. This low penetration provides an opportunity to enter the market, which lacks true competition, with a unique product and educate the population about the benefits of being active.
What are the plans for the region?
We have the might of UFC behind us and will offer opportunity for people to be coached by professional fighters. This is definitely going to shake up the market when we start opening more gyms across the UAE and then throughout the wider GCC and Middle East. There are also differences in our business model from other gyms, such as no requirement to commit to annual contracts. There will be two sides to our offering, as we will have clubs in the UAE, Kuwait and potentially a few more GCC countries. However, in more complicated markets, such as Lebanon and Turkey, we will enter through a joint venture or sub franchise.
Why are you in charge?
After 32 years in the fitness industry, operating clubs in four different countries, I actually did not land the role because of my CV. Apparently our chief executive, Hamad Al Sayer, still has not read up on my experience – he is a believer that great businesses are built by surrounding yourself with people who have passion for what they do. The dynamic between us is infectious and our business skills complement each other. Hamad has the know-how of how to grow a franchise to 200-plus sites, whereas my strengths are in multi-site club operations and building high-performance teams.
Who is your favourite UFC fighter?
Even though he is retired, the UFC hall of famer BJ Penn is by far my all-time favourite fighter. Among today’s fighters, I’m a fan of Ronda Rousey and Conor McGregor. Both have done an exceptional job of lifting the profile and popularity of UFC.
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