Martial arts events are always held in front of audiences and to me, I think this makes obvious sense. The fans in attendance help create a live experience that is important to all parties involved.
For example, professional wrestling – which I was fascinated by as a kid – has the presence of a live audience, and that is fundamental to matches.
Also, when I watch martial arts as a fan, I enjoy the events including the excitement of the spectators. Whether it is soccer, baseball, or a music concert, I think the excitement of the audience has the power to enhance the performance of both the athletes and the artists.
However, due to the spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19), ONE Championship held the first audience-free event in its history at ONE: KING OF THE JUNGLE in Singapore back in February.
As far as I can remember, in the past 25 years since I have become a fan of martial arts, holding an event without an audience is unprecedented.
Though it might sound imprudent, I am proud of this decision.
The reason why ONE was able to hold the audience-free event is because of the sport’s advancement.
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ONE has become one of the largest sporting events and it is broadcast throughout the world, which means the company does not have to rely solely on making money at the gate.
In my career, I have never done a match without an audience. I can only speculate, but in my opinion, athletes will try to do their best regardless if there is an audience or not.
For athletes, it is essential to prepare themselves and deliver their best performances. After all, the attitude is, “Whenever, wherever, and against whomever.”
As an athlete, I think the absence of the audience would not affect my performance. In fact, when I watched the event in Singapore, the athletes competed hard like usual.
When I talked to the athletes who actually participated in the event, they told me that it wasn’t any different than usual because competing in a bout is inherently nerve-racking whether there is an audience or not.
Instead, since there is no screaming in the venue, it is easier and smoother to control their emotions. Personally, I think it is even advantageous to the athletes who have stage fright.
At ONE: KING OF THE JUNGLE, I did the commentary for ONE’s Japanese broadcast partner Abema TV and, as usual, I was very satisfied with the high-quality event.
When the broadcast ended, I took my hat off not only to the athletes who delivered great performances, as always, but also to the capability and enthusiasm of the ONE staff.
However, as a fan and audience member, I have always experienced the highest level of excitement at the venue.
As an athlete participating at a show, I create the event together with the audiences in the middle of the cheers. I think the enthusiasm and excitement we create at the venue together is an invaluable experience.
Whether it is sports, music, or theater, the best part about watching the live spectacle is being at its venue. With today’s technological advances, we are able to watch videos anywhere, and at any time, in the world.
Because of that, the value of the live experience at the venue has actually increased more than ever before. I think it will continue to increase, and the more the technology of the broadcast evolves, the more the live experience at the venue will be valued.
I have a strong belief that events should be created with fans, so even though martial arts is a sport, it also has the aspect of stage art. Therefore, I really would like to perform in front of audiences to create events together.
In fact, I think one of the big attractions of ONE is its high-quality shows at the venue. There are a lot of sporting events in the world and each has its charms, but I believe ONE’s events have an unbeatable quality.
That is all the more reason why I strongly wish that the coronavirus pandemic will come to an end as soon as possible. I hope we can continue creating events and sharing our culture with the world together.
The mixed martial arts superstar writes a monthly column titled “Shinya Aoki’s ONE 101,” where he breaks down the reasons why you must watch ONE Championship through the insightful perspective of an athlete. All opinions are his own.