- Chatri Sityodtong, the founder and CEO of Asia's $1 billion fight firm ONE Championship, has entered the American market and is in competition against the UFC.
- Sityodtong's vision for how mixed martial arts should be promoted differs wildly from what we are accustomed to with the UFC boss Dana White.
- Sityodtong is inspired by the Olympics and the way it presents athletes as people who overcome adversity.
- He says his ONE Championship fighters are scandal-free, family-friendly superheroes. Unlike athletes like Conor McGregor who have attracted controversy throughout the year.
- This taints MMA, Sityodtong said.
- ONE Championship has a huge event, it's 100th show, on October 13 — and it will be shown live in the US.
- Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.
ONE Championship, Asia's $1 billion MMA firm, is exporting its "wholesome" image to the US where it will compete with the UFC, a company it says controversially promotes fights using "anger, hatred, and violence."
The 48-year-old entrepreneur Chatri Sityodtong, the founder and CEO of ONE Championship, told Business Insider his firm prides itself on having scandal-free, family-friendly athletes on its roster.
ONE Championship promotes events by presenting these fighters as superheroes, which is a contrast to the way UFC hypes fights and fighters.
Sityodtong says the UFC and its president Dana White chooses to build events using bad blood and violence. This, he told us, is at odds with the martial art traditions that developed in Asia for 5,000 years.
He told MMA Fighting earlier in the year that the west has tainted what martial arts should be about.
For example, the UFC used footage of a crime scene in the build-up to Khabib Nurmagomedov and Conor McGregor's lightweight title fight at UFC 229 last year, showing multiple angles of the Irishman finding a metal dolly in a parking lot, picking it up, and throwing it at a bus carrying UFC athletes. The dolly smashed a window, injuring people on board. McGregor was charged with criminal mischief and assault.
McGregor went on to conclusively lose to Nurmagomedov but remains a controversial figure today.
The New York Times said he was investigated by Irish police regarding a sexual assault, he posted an "Islamophobic" tweet earlier this year, and appeared to throw a punch at an older man in a Dublin pub.
More recently, McGregor's entourage have been accused of forcing a nightclub bottle service girl into their car after a booze-fueled evening in Los Angeles.
Sityodtong famously said last year that McGregor would be a failure in Asia, and not as popular an athlete as he is in Europe and in the States. "Some of the things that he did … a lot of companies here would take serious, serious issue," he told Ariel Helwani on ESPN. "I have a lot of respect for Conor … he's just not a guy for ONE Championship or Asia."
Sityodtong is only interested in promoting scandal-free superheroes
Sityodtong told Business Insider: "When I have company meetings with my staff, I always say our success is measured when a child puts a poster of one of our heroes on his or her bedroom wall. I want parents to know that their children are safe in the hands of our heroes.
"We celebrate values of integrity, humility, honor, respect, courage, discipline, and compassion. We unleash heroes who inspire and unite countries and tell their stories of impossible triumphs over improbable odds.
"We haven't a single scandal in the newspaper for any of our top stars, they are only in the headlines for winning world titles or for helping underprivileged children. You don't see any of the trashtalking or any kind of criminal offences or behavior you see in other promotions. ONE Championship is filled with good human beings who are also good martial artists."
But how can Sityodtong ensure his athletes remain scandal-free? Well, his answer is simple — it's the law of attraction at work.
ONE Championship attracted headlines globally when it signed a hat-trick of former UFC athletes considered world class athletes, or with world class potential.
In 2018, the two-time Bellator lightweight champion and one-time UFC champion Eddie Alvarez, the wildly dominant former UFC flyweight champion Demetrious Johnson, and the 23-year-old karate prospect Sage Northcutt all joined ONE Championship.
Sityodtong says his company purposely recruits and employs competitors like this. "It's all about the selection process, right? If you just look at athletes who came over from the west, Demetrious Johnson, Sage Northcutt, Miesha Tate as an executive … the commonalities of the western athletes who come over are not only the best in the world at what they do, they are outstanding role models and good human beings with wholesome values. That's just the law of attraction at work.
"ONE Championship promotes good values. People know we represent a celebration of Asia's greatest treasure which is martial arts, we attract those martial artists who exemplify our values and who share our DNA."
Sityodtong told us he that, though Demetrious Johnson was never appreciated in the UFC because of his professionalism, he considers the American wrestler to be the best fighter of all time.
"You're in an environment where all your peers are trash-talking, promoting violence, and outrage. He knows he does not belong in that environment. Whereas here, with ONE Championship, he gets to promote his family values, his love of martial arts, sportsmanship, honor, respect. We are different to our global competitors."
America's political climate has created an opportunity for ONE, Sityodtong says
ONE Championship promotes the biggest and most ambitious event of its eight-year history at the renowned sumo wrestling arena, the Ryogoku Kokugikan in Tokyo, Japan, on October 13.
It is ONE Championship's 100th show, one stacked with title fights featuring prominent athletes like Johnson, Angela Lee, and Xiong Jingnan.
The ONE Century show will be broadcast to American audiences via BR Live and TNT.
I don't recognize the America I see today when I see the divisiveness and hatred … the US market is waiting for something fresh, refreshing, and uplifting.
But considering Sityodtong once said McGregor, who is MMA's biggest box office attraction in that territory, would flop in Asia, how can he be sure his product, ONE Championship — with its comic book approach to life and sport — will excel in the States?
He told us it is because of two reasons.
First, controversial athletes like McGregor have ushered mixed martial arts into a post trash talk era. Sityodtong believes fight fans now want something else — something purer.
Second, the political climate of divisiveness and hatred seemingly instigated by current US president Donald Trump, opens the door for ONE Championship's "refreshing" values of "heroes, values, and stories."
Sityodtong said: "The US market is waiting for something fresh, refreshing, and uplifting. The American audience is tired of all the negativity, anger, controversy, not just in combat sports but the political landscape. I lived in America for 18 years and I don't recognize the America I see today when I see the divisiveness and hatred.
"America is going through a difficult period in its history and ONE Championship is going to be very refreshing and will be very welcome in terms of the way we celebrate heroes, values, and stories."
ONE Championship sees itself as UFC's equal, but really it has a long way to go
The mixed martial arts landscape is dominated by the UFC.
There is the UFC, with its transcendent stars like Georges St.Pierre, Ronda Rousey, and McGregor, then below that there is a three-firm layer consisting of Bellator MMA with its investment into Europe, the Professional Fighters League which is a season-based promotion in line with the NFL or NBA, and there's also ONE Championship with its base in Asia and growth plans in the States.
But Sityodtong says he sees ONE Championship as the UFC's equal. "In the world of combat sports, it's really become a global duopoly," he told Business Insider.
"UFC controls an 80% market share of the western hemisphere but ONE Championship controls 90% of the market share in the Eastern hemisphere. And we're the two big 800-pound gorillas in the industry.
"But we're a different formula because we're a celebration of Asia's greatest cultural treasure, martial arts. The UFC's approach involves controversy, anger, hatred, or some sort of violence to promote their event."
Sityodtong said there are only three sports brands in Asia with valuations in excess of $1 billion. The Indian Premier League in cricket is worth $5 billion, he said, while the Chinese Super League in soccer "is around $1 billion." Sityodtong added: "ONE Championship is in that range as well."
The UFC was sold in 2016 and cost the talent agency WME-IMG $4 billion. That's four times ONE Championship's current valuation.
But regardless of whether or not it has broken through any billion dollar valuation barrier, that does not mean it is actually profitable.
The MMA economics reporter John S.Nash at Bloody Elbow said ONE Championship balance sheets for the three years from 2015 to 2017 showed "an annual eight-figure loss." Losses by the end of 2017 were the equivalent of $67 million," Nash said.
The same reporter at Bloody Elbow was able to put the UFC's finances under the microscope recently, and though 2015 was the most recent year Nash had data for, it was a period that still showed net income of $119 million.
When Business Insider met the Bellator MMA president Scott Coker in London earlier this year, we discussed the business models of the various fight firms that make up the combative sports industry. Coker said he's always curious how brands like Bare Knuckle Fighting Championship, Professional Fighters League, and, perhaps, ONE Championship are able to make money and survive.
Sityodtong told us that his brand, ONE Championship, has been able to rely on blue-chip institutional investors like Sequoia Capital, Tamasek Holdings, and Greenoaks Capital.
ONE Championship, founded in 2011, is also where it is today because of the rise of technology, social media, and smart phones, Sityodtong said. It is "perfect for the millennial audience in terms of fast, short, edge-of-the-seat content that grabs your attention."
In the eight years it has been running, Sityodtong has overseen broadcast deals in 140 countries. He told us that a ONE Championship show in Tokyo earlier in the year hit viewership numbers of 41.9 million around the world. "We're on free-to-air TV across the whole continent of Asia, so our viewership numbers are so much larger [than the UFC]."
Even UFC boss White said ONE Championship is a "monster" in Asia but now Sityodtong wants to take his beast away from the east and into the States.
"Asia is our base," he told us. "All of Asia is very important to us … four billion people live here. That being said, we also see a big opportunity in the US because of our partnership with Turner Sports."
Sityodtong expects ONE Championship to experience exponential growth in the months and years ahead. "We're in the very beginning of the journey and I'm excited."
The next step in that journey is ONE Championship: Century, a two-part event taking place on October 13.
Atomweight women Angela Lee and Xiong Jingnan fight for the ONE championship in a main event supported by Demetrious Johnson and Danny Kingad's bout in the flyweight Grand Prix final.
In the second part of the event, Sityodtong highlighted the $1 million kickboxing featherweight Grand Prix final between Giorgio Petrosyan and Samy Sena as one to watch.
"Wow, I'm so excited for Jingnan against Angela Lee. Jingnan is dropping down a weight-class to challenge for Angela Lee's atomweight world title," Sityodtong said.
"I'm excited for the world Grand Prix finals and also the $1 million kickboxing final between two of the world's greatest strikers. We have 28 world champions across various martial arts whether that's Muay Thai or MMA or grappling, the list goes on. The fans are in for a real treat, the best in the world competing at this mega event."
After that, the journey continues. And, for Sityodtong that involves incorporating the formula of the Olympic Games, one which "celebrates the very best of humanity," and applying that to MMA.
"Why does the Olympics get a billion viewers as the most-watched sporting event in the world? It's because they celebrate the very best of humanity," he said. "Not only the best of sports but humanity in terms of sportsmanship, honor, and respect.
"In terms of kindness of the human spirit prevailing over incredible odds. They very much have the same values as ONE. Our genre might be martial arts but our platform is humanity."