When the Black Belt staff received an invitation to jet to Singapore to report on a new martial arts organization that’s challenging the MMA promotions of the West, we jumped at the chance. Although it’s not a household name in America, ONE Championship has been called the largest martial arts organization in the world by CNN and Forbes with its events reaching a total of 1.3 billion viewers. The man at the helm is Chatri Sityodtong, and he’s vowed to change the way people think about mixed martial arts. In a nutshell: His mission is to remain true to the traditions of the martial arts, including all the values we know and love. This, he says, is what differentiates ONE Championship from its competitors. It’s also the reason he’s so eager to shine the spotlight on his athletes, whom he calls “real-life superheroes,” men and women who inspire us to achieve.
There Can Only Be ONE!
by Michael A. Dillard
When the Black Belt staff received an invitation to jet to Singapore to report on a new martial arts organization that's challenging the MMA promotions of the West, we jumped at the chance. Although it's not a household name in America, ONE Championship has been called the largest martial arts organization in the world by CNN and Forbes with its events reaching a total of 1.3 billion viewers.
The man at the helm is Chatri Sityodtong, and he's vowed to change the way people think about mixed martial arts. In a nutshell: His mission is to remain true to the traditions of the martial arts, including all the values we know and love. This, he says, is what differentiates ONE Championship from its competitors. It's also the reason he's so eager to shine the spotlight on his athletes, whom he calls “real-life superheroes," men and women who inspire us to achieve.
“The biggest misconception about martial arts is that it's about fighting or violence," said Chatri, CEO of ONE Championship, as he leaned back in his chair at the Evolve Mixed Martial Arts headquarters in Singapore, the facility that many ONE athletes now call home. “In actuality, martial arts is the warrior way of life, of inheriting these incredible values that allow you to release your potential as a human being."
Truer words have never been spoken, and in this case, they were spoken by a man whose legacy has been shaped by those very values, which have been instilled in him, courtesy of the art of muay Thai, since the age of 13. “My father took me to Lumpini Stadium [in Bangkok] when I was 9 years old," he said. “I remember the first time — the energy, the crowd, the chanting, not to mention the beauty, grace and speed of the athletes. From that moment on, I wanted to do muay Thai."
“My father took me to Lumpini Stadium when I was 9 … I was just blown away. It was almost like a religious experience to me."
Chatri soon learned that training in muay Thai in a culture that revolves around this ancient martial art was no walk in the park. He was fortunate to be accepted into the Sityodtong Camp, run by Yodtong Senanan in Pattaya, Thailand.
“The first day, I walked in and there's 50 monsters — just the elite of the elite, the world's best Thai fighters — and then there's me," Chatri said. “I remember being intimidated but at the same time strangely attracted to everything."
In the ensuing years, Chatri spent thousands of hours training and competing at the camp. The result was not only a physical education in the martial arts but also some serious schooling with respect to discipline, humility, honor and compassion, all of which would pave the road to success later in life.
By the time Chatri turned 19, he'd started to dabble in teaching. He said that's when he began to notice the incredible benefits the martial arts can offer outside the dojo, as well. “It gives you so many skills, so many values to apply to the rest of your life," he said.
In many success stories, greatness tends to emerge from tragedies of the past. Chatri's life is no exception. He and his family suffered, along with hundreds of thousands of other people, in the early 1990s when the Asian financial crisis hit. His father went bankrupt and, shortly thereafter, abandoned his family, leaving Chatri, his mother and little brother to fend for themselves.
“We went from being well-off to suddenly having literally nothing," Chatri recalled. “No house, no car, nothing." The reason he was able to endure those tough times, he said, was twofold: His mom never stopped believing in him, and he knew he could find solace in his martial arts training any time he felt despair.
The hardship prompted Chatri to do what to many would have been unthinkable: use his education, life experience and martial arts values as a base from which to take a leap of faith and apply to Harvard University. To his great surprise, he was accepted.
“I remember my first day coming to Harvard — I had a suitcase full of my life's belongings in one hand and all the money I had, about $1,000, in the other," he recalled. “I had no idea if I'd made the right decision or even how I was going to pay for school."
A true martial artist, Chatri found a way to prevail. He worked odd jobs to earn spending money and even had his mother move into his campus housing at one point so he could help support her. After college — and against his mother's wishes — he joined his classmates in a startup and moved to Silicon Valley, California, to pursue his first business venture.
After several successes — and failures — Chatri found himself the CEO of a billion-dollar entity called ONE Championship. Despite his rise to the top, he said he'll never forget the lessons he learned while kicking and punching.
“Here I am today, CEO of Asia's largest global sports agency," he said. “Some may call me an entrepreneur or a businessman, but in reality, I have been a martial artist far longer. I have trained for over 34 years. I still train every day. It's part of who I am. It's what I love."
While Western media are seemingly consumed by their efforts to deliver negative coverage of fight promotions like the UFC and Bellator, a new player has quietly snuck into the arena. Based in Singapore, ONE Championship has managed to engage huge audiences. The organization mainly markets its shows in Southeast Asia, but that's about to change.
Chatri recently announced that his team had struck a deal with the TNT network that will bring ONE events to American television in 2019. The organization also offers a free iOS and Android app that will let fans watch shows for free.
As ONE continues to grow, it's been making headlines nonstop, in part by snatching up prominent Western MMA athletes. In late 2018, Chatri traded Ben Askren for UFC veteran Demetrious “Mighty Mouse" Johnson. Johnson would be the first of several noteworthy people to jump ship.
Shortly afterward, Eddie Alvarez and Black Belt Hall of Famer Sage Northcutt signed with ONE, turning down the opportunity to stay with the UFC. In November, fans witnessed possibly the most surprising development so far: Miesha Tate, former UFC women's bantamweight champ, agreed to become ONE's vice president. She promptly relocated to Singapore to pursue her new career with the organization.
If you think that Chatri is out to poach talent from his rivals merely so he can compete with them, you'd be mistaken. “The word 'MMA' is now synonymous with martial arts, [and] the general public thinks of MMA as bloodsport, violence, hatred, controversy," he said. However, those aren't the values he wants to promote.
“Literally from day one, my mission for ONE Championship [has been] to unleash the real-life superheroes who ignite the world with hope, strength and inspiration," he said.
And that's precisely what ONE does with its events: It offers fans a refreshing perspective on what true inspiration looks like by getting behind martial arts athletes who have motives other than just creating dramatic narratives to boost the bottom line.
“While our competitors around the world are busy trying to sell fights and pay-per-views, we are genuinely trying to change the world for the better."
As I said, it would be a mistake to dismiss ONE as just another mixed-martial arts promotion. Chatri and his people have taken a unique approach to their shows, one that focuses on the martial arts, not just on MMA. Their live events showcase a variety of fighting styles and an eclectic sampling of athletes from around the world. Sharing the same ring at those events are bouts between practitioners of other styles, too. They're part of what Chatri calls the ONE Super Series.
The ONE Super Series showcases combat athletes from the traditional martial arts. In 2018 fans saw the introduction of muay Thai bouts, and Chatri plans to begin hosting karate, taekwondo, kung fu, wushu, silat, lethwei and submission-grappling matches in the near future. Once enough athletes have been signed, the ONE Super Series will expand into a separate show.
“It is a way to celebrate traditional martial arts in a new format that brings millennials into the fold," Chatri said. “I view ONE as the bridge between the new and the old. I want to preserve the old in the sense of the history, the culture and the values of what traditional martial arts brings. But I want to present it in a way that millennials can enjoy genuinely, hence allowing martial arts to become truly mainstream."
When you attend a ONE Championship event, it immediately becomes clear that it's unlike other fight promotions. The moment you walk in the door, the music and the energy permeate you. You see positive messages plastered on the walls, reiterating traditional martial arts buzzwords like integrity, humility, honor, respect, courage, discipline and compassion.
In both the arena and the production itself, you notice elements that harken back to past Asian fight promotions such as K-1 but with a unique flair. Current champions are presented as a group just as the night's action is about to begin. Each athlete showcases himself or herself on a stage backed by floor-to-ceiling video screens. Each martial artist then walks down a 100-foot ramp that leads through the crowd and into the cage. In this way, each takes on a larger-than-life persona in front of fans.
When you see a show, it becomes clear that Chatri is passionate about creating heroes. Earlier, he elaborated on this goal by recounting a recent bout in which Aung La N Sang, a newly crowned ONE world champion from Myanmar (formerly Burma), had upset an undefeated Russian for the title — in Aung's hometown of Yangon. “Here, you have a country with 54 million people that had never had a world champion in any sport," he said. “I remember that whole week. The news — TV, radio, internet, everything — was blowing up. Thousands just showed up to the open workouts. It was insanity."
As the match neared, it was clear that it had captivated the nation. All of Myanmar was rooting for one of their own. In the ring, it was an all-out brawl, and the bout went the distance. When the decision was rendered, Myanmar had its first champion. He'd upset his undefeated opponent.
As he received the belt, Aung dropped to his knees and wept. The image was seared into the brain of every citizen of Myanmar who'd been fortunate enough to watch. Afterward, Aung addressed the stadium and the nation on live TV: “Myanmar! Myanmar! I'm not strong. I'm not talented. I'm not fast. But with you, I have courage. I have discipline. I have strength. With you, I have what it takes to be a world champion!"
Those are the moments that ONE Championship hopes will shape its legacy. “The world witnessed greatness that night, but what it didn't see was the real mission," Chatri said with an inspirational look on his face. “Millions of kids that night all over the country suddenly had a hero, suddenly had a belief ignited in their souls that anything in life is possible!
“That's the real mission of ONE Championship."
For more information, visit onefc.com.