In the world of mixed martial arts, the UFC has dominated the space but after many tried and failed challengers to the UFC’s hegemony there appears to be a company ready to take its place as a global leader in mixed marital arts.
One Championship, founded by Chatri Sityodtong in 2011, has been growing steadily over the past five years having held 42 events throughout Asia and 13 more on the docket. I had a chance to chat with Sityodtong about his company’s growth, his philosophy for business and life and how One Championship is unlike the UFC.
According to Sityodtong, One Championship is on track to become the first billion-dollar sports entity in Asia in the next 12-18 months.
“We threw our first event 4.5 years ago and for us to be in 75 countries, in a billion homes, for us to have a blue chip roster of sponsors partnering with us, it all requires a warrior spirit. I think in the next five years you’ll be amazed at what happens. In the next 12-18 months, I believe we’ll cross the $1b valuation mark. That’s based on several factors; we’re already approaching a billion. It’s not a far stretch,” Sityodtong said.
A few of the major sponsors backing One Championship in Asia include Disney, Haier, Cannon, Under Armour, and some from the gambling industry, including online gambling operator Fun88 and land based companies like Melco Crown and NagaWorld. It’s not uncommon to see gambling VIPs taking a break from their baccarat games to catch a fight when the card is held on a casino property. My sources tell me that One Championship are actively looking to partner with casino junkets to offer some sort of package deal. Come to gamble, watch a fight, and then gamble some more.
We’ve seen a lot of MMA promotions come and go with varying degrees of success, I asked Sityodtong what makes his organization different from EliteXC, Affliction or any of the rest of shuttered organizations.
“If you look at our leadership team… we have our core values. Two things: Number one is integrity; we look for good human beings who generally want to do good in the world. Second is we look for people who want to do something extraordinary with their lives,” Sityodtong said. “Instead of people who just want a job and a paycheck, we want someone who wants to do something special with their lives. That’s why we have people burning the midnight oil. They have passion.”
Currently, the public executive team of One Championship has Sityodtong as the chairman, alongside former ESPN senior executive Victor Cui as CEO, former UFC middleweight champion Rich Franklin and long-time MMA trainer Matt Hume in vice president roles. Their CFO is formerly of Blackstone Group LP, the private equity firm that was part of the PokerStars purchase from the Rational Group.
One Championship doesn’t have global domination in mind just yet, when asked about plans to expand beyond Asian, Sityodtong replied, “No, We are solely focused on Asia.”
The group has worked to develop their talent regionally. If they are holding an event in the Philippines, Filipino fighters will make up a good portion of the card, and the same goes for China, Vietnam, Singapore, Indonesia and the other countries where One Championship hold events. It could be this focus that allows them to help MMA become a major sport in the region.
It was Yao Ming’s emergence as a basketball superstar that led to an explosion of popularity of the sport in China, perhaps there is a Yao Ming of MMA waiting in the wings. “We have a large roster in China, 75 fighters in China, we have a few that are very, very exciting but it takes a lot to build a superstar (in MMA), he needs talent, personality,” Sityodtong said.
The UFC has taken some heat from their current and former fighters over their treatment–which usually means money–but after some conversations with North American fighters like Ben Askren and Brandon Vera about how they compare fighting under Ballator and the UFC with fighting in Asia for One Championship, one theme emerged: They all speak of the respect they receive.
When I mentioned it to Sityodtong, he pointed to what he sees as the major differences between the UFC and One Championship, “The difference between UFC and one championship, which are the two global organizations, is that the UFC is a sport. If you want to watch a sport, watch UFC. If you want to watch real martial arts watch One Championship. So our DNA is different as an organization. It comes from my background; I’m a life long marital artist.
So I really do care about the values of martial arts – integrity, honour, courage, work ethic, respect, humility, all of these values are things that we live by and that’s why you’re hearing a lot of positive feedback from fighters about how our athletes are treated (compared to the) UFC. The UFC is a business, more of a business than we are. It’s a sport. It’s not value based. And there’s nothing wrong with that, the UFC is a tremendous organization and obviously the world’s number one (MMA) brand.
That being said I think there is enough space in the entire world for the global duopoly that’s forming right now.”
The differences between the brash UFC boss Dana White and Chatri Sityodtong are like night and day, Sityodtong’s Warrior Spirit philosophy comes through in his words. I asked him to explain his philosophy.
“If you practice Martial Arts, any martial artist will tell you that it’s about finding your limits and constantly testing their ability to content with pain, pressure, exhaustion whatever you want to call it.
Over the years of doing martial arts, you develop this warriors sprit. Becoming unbreakable mentally, and no matter what happens in your life good or bad or face tremendous adversity or failure and setbacks you may always fall down but you’ll always get back up.
That’s the true martial arts code. What it means to be a warrior, you have to have a warriors spirit. That is something that helped me to get this far it’s required hard work, patience, good luck and people who believed in me but it required a warrior’s sprit to conquer adversity. That’s what One Championship is about.”
How will you know when you win?
“How do I define winning in life, winning in life is living a life where you feel genuinely fulfilled and happy inside, irrespective of what people say or what people do or irrespective of your material things. But also, in exact tandem, it’s about making a positive impact on the world, changing the world for the better so that in our short time here on earth we change the world for the better; make a positive impact on the lives of others in some small way.
For me that’s winning.”