Interview: ONE Championship’s Chatri Sityodtong on the Explosive Growth of Asia’s Fighting Brand

ONE Championship founder, Chatri Sityodtong

If you’ve never heard of the ONE Championship, then it’s not long before you will. In the six years since the series of Asia-wide MMA events launched, it has become one of the fastest growing sports properties in the world —with televised events beamed into over a billion homes and over 130 million video views across social media in 2016.

More: An Interview with Pann Lim – One of Asia’s Most Celebrated Designers

At the helm of ONE Championship is the founder and chairman Chatri Sityodtong —a native of Thailand who personifies the rags-to-riches tale. After his family lost everything in the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis, Sityodtong went on to put himself through business school at Tufts, and then Harvard.


Within a decade of graduating, Sityodtong, who is himself a lifelong student of the martial arts, was a multi-millionaire running his own investment fund on Wall Street. Now he and ONE Championship CEO, Victor Cui, are steering MMA towards not only a widening fan base but increasing interest from investors.  

“It’s great that the world of financial investment is stepping up and recognizing the massive potential of the sport,” Sityodtong told Forbes last year following large cash infusions into both his organization and the Vegas-based UFC.

Chatri Sityodtong recently spoke with Branding in Asia’s Bobby McGill on a wide range of topics from the ONE Championship headquarters in Singapore.


What’s been keeping you busy lately?

I’ve literally been on a plane non-stop for the last two months, meeting with government officials, meeting with CEO’s of broadcasters, CEO’s of our sponsorship pipeline and our current clients, meeting with the leaders of the martial arts community all across Asia.

So, I’ve literally been on a plane non-stop, flying, and really just rallying the entire Asia to drive this vision that I have of us being the first multibillion-dollar sports media property in Asian history.

You’ve spent your fair share of time battling opponents in the ring. What are some lessons you take from that into entrepreneurship and how does the ring compare to the day-to-day blows you take in the business world?

That’s a great question. I think, for me, as a martial artist, resilience is one of the most important characteristics you can have. Meaning that you’re going to have good days, you’re going to have bad days, and there’s going to be days where you’re tired and you don’t want to train.

There are days when you’re not going to perform well, but having the resilience, having that warrior spirit that martial arts forges in you to continue to fight no matter what adversity you face, that fighting spirit is very applicable to the real life because that warrior spirit is the same spirit I use to chase my dreams, whether in my personal life or my professional life.

When we first started the company, the first year, literally I’m telling you no one returned our phone calls. No one would give us meetings, and if they did, we were shooed out within five or ten minutes.

As an entrepreneur, resilience is one of the most important qualities to have. You’re going to face many blows, many setbacks, many failures, many rejections, as I was alluded to in the first couple of years of ONE Championship. If you don’t have resilience, you’re not going to be able to overcome that to achieve your dreams.

That’s one thing that martial arts taught me.

Another thing that martial arts taught me is the humility of learning every day, in being humble, in truly being humble and being committed to self-excellence, self-improvement. Your goal should be to learn, grow and evolve every single day of your life by 1% a day.

That ethos of martial arts is translated into my companies and into myself, as an entrepreneur. I want to be better as an entrepreneur, as a friend, as a son, as a brother, 1% a day, in every area of my life, and this continued self-improvement, this lifestyle, is directly from martial arts.

There’s so many wonderful things that martial arts gave me that I apply to the business world, and it has been a big driving force for the success of ONE Championship.

What have been some of the biggest challenges growing ONE Championship when compared to other businesses you’ve built?

I didn’t expect so much resistance initially. What I mean by that is when we first started the company, the first year, literally I’m telling you no one returned our phone calls. No one would give us meetings, and if they did, we were shooed out within five or ten minutes. It was crazy.

People just had such a negative image that the UFC has projected. It tainted the sport of MMA in many regards here. But, of course, our DNA is completely different, 180 degrees different from the UFC’s.

On Jackie Chan: “What Asians really care about is the fact that he’s kind, he’s humble, he’s genuine, he’s authentic. He just so happens to be a badass.”

We’re very focused on martial arts and the beauty of martial arts.

Eventually, over time, we broke down more and more barriers with government officials, with sponsors and with clients and broadcasters, and now we’re in 118 countries in a billion homes around the world. Our client roster is a Fortune 500 global who’s who – Disney, Facebook, Yahoo, LG Electronics, Kawasaki, L’Oreal, you name it, we have it now.

It’s amazing because, again, five years ago, Bobby, we couldn’t even hire anyone. No one even applied to ONE Championship. Now it’s literally come to the point where we can’t hold back the resumes and hold the doors, because people are applying in droves. It’s been interesting to see this whole change.

There are 48 countries here in Asia, from a branding perspective, what are some best practices for appealing to a pan-Asian audience?

Let me rewind. When I decided to start ONE Championship a little over five years ago, I had a very simple thesis. I looked at North America and saw there were several multibillion-dollar sports media properties that are truly part of the fabric of daily society and part of the culture of the country.

North America being Canada and the US, but let’s take the US – NFL, NBA, Major League Baseball, USTA, NASCAR. They’re really entrenched in the daily fabric of society, they’re all worth anywhere from 4-billion to 20-30 billion dollars apiece.

Sityodtong (right) seen here sparring, is still at home in the ring.

You go to Europe, it’s the same thing – Formula 1, English Premier League, Spanish La Liga, Bundesliga, all worth 2-billion to 20 billion dollars apiece.

You come to Asia – there’s absolutely nothing on a Pan-Asian basis.

There’s a billion-dollar cricket business in India. There’s a billion dollar baseball business in Japan, but those don’t really transcend geographically across all of Asia. Yet Asia has been the home of martial arts for 5,000 years.

In the Western world it’s a little bit more the brash, cocky, arrogant, maybe the in-your-face guy, like Conor McGregor or Jon Jones, who are not as respectful or as honorable, relative to Asian heroes.

There’s a martial art in every single country, that is homegrown for thousands of years. There’s karate in Japan, taekwondo in Korea, sambo in Russia, kung-fu in China, Muay Thai in Thailand, silat in Indonesia and Malaysia, boxing in the Philippines; and the list goes on and on.

For me, I really wanted to bring the true beauty of Asian martial arts, of martial arts, to the world. That was my vision of unifying four billion people in Asia behind one sports league and celebrate the true beauty of martial arts. Our values, celebrating humility, courage, discipline, honor, work ethic, the things that Asians really value – these are the most important things.

If you look at the biggest movie heroes in Asia, who are they? Jackie Chan, Bruce Lee, Jet Li. They’re all martial artists.

Asian heroes are very different than Western heroes. What do I mean by that? In Asia we really respect, of course, an amazing martial artist, like Jackie Chan. He’s a fearsome martial artist and incredibly skilled. Some of the things he does, no other human being in the world can do. But what Asians really care about is the fact that he’s kind, he’s humble, he’s genuine, he’s authentic. He just so happens to be a badass.

That’s who we, as Asians, truly adore, and admire. Those are our heroes.

In the Western world it’s a little bit more the brash, cocky, arrogant, maybe the in-your-face guy, like Conor McGregor or Jon Jones, who are not as respectful or as honorable, relative to Asian heroes.

Rightly or wrongly, they’re just different cultures – Western culture and Eastern culture. I’m not saying there’s right or wrong. It’s just what resonates well with each audience.

UFC in America, for example, has done a great job, marketing to their fans, emphasizing the negative trash-talking or the arrogance or the bravado, the machismo, whatever you want to call it, bottle-throwing and swearing in press conferences. You’ll never see that in Asia.

It just doesn’t happen and it’s not part of our culture or part of our ethos. Again, it works well in the western hemisphere, that’s what resonates with the American audience, but you can’t just use the cookie cutter form and think that it’s going to work in Asia.

Just because of my background, I’ve been doing 30 years of martial arts for my entire life, I am a true martial artist thick and thin, and I believe in martial arts’ values and the cultures and everything it taught me, the humility, the courage, the honor, the respect; these are part of the fabric of Asian society.

That’s what we want to celebrate. We want to celebrate that never in history have we had a platform that unifies four billion people to celebrate Asian heroes who exemplify Asian values until today.

How big of a role does national rivalry play?

Of course, there is the competition factor in that Asia has had a history of rivalries, whether it’s India versus Pakistan, China versus Japan, Japan versus Korea, China versus Taiwan, Thailand versus Myanmar, Indonesia versus Malaysia, or Singapore versus Malaysia; there are definitely national, historical, or even political backdrop for us to interweave in our stories.

We definitely play into it, but not too much. We really want to focus on the common ground, we want to focus on the humility of our fighters, of our world champions, the adversity they had to go through, the poverty, the incredible life stories they have.

We want to celebrate our heroes in a positive and inspirational light, and we’ve deliberately chosen to take that path.

Again, we would never allow our press conferences to feature any trash-talking or negative behavior or arrogance. We don’t want to highlight that because that’s not what martial arts is about. Martial arts is about unleashing human greatness through the expression of values, such as humility, courage, honor, and respect, and integrity.

We really want to stay true to martial arts, so I would say UFC is a sport, ONE Championship is a showcase of martial arts.

Which country currently has bragging rights?

It’s a mixed bag. Literally, we have Russian world champions, we have Japanese world champions, we have Singapore world champions, we’ve had Thai world champions, in terms of capturing the belts at ONE Championship.

Again, it’s because there’s such fertile ground of martial artists. Asians truly are the best martial artists on the planet, and all they had to do is pick up a few other disciplines or the basis of other disciplines and intertwine them with their core discipline, and they do very, very well.

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Here we have the largest global stage of martial arts in Asia and we get the best talent. Right now we see it, actually, quite spread out. There isn’t any bragging rights in any country. We also have a Filipino world champion. He just won his title two months ago. Again, because Asia’s very deep everywhere.

What’s your assessment of how big name western sports brands are doing here?

Other than say Manny Pacquiao, the Asian fight world largely lacks the star power branding of a big name internationally. For people new to MMA in Asia, who are some key figures people should be aware of?

We have Shinya Aoki out of Japan. He’s one of the greatest MMA legends in history of all MMA, global MMA, he’s a household name in the industry, he’s a judo black belt, Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt, a phenomenal martial artist.

We have Angela Lee who is the youngest MMA world champion in history, male or female, for a global organization. She comes from a taekwondo, Brazilian jiu-jitsu, and Muay Thai background.

If you just look at our social media metrics of the proxy for the business, two years ago we had 300,000 video views for the whole year of 2014. Two years later that 300,000 grew into 130 million in 2016.

Then you have some guys from Thailand, like Dejdamrong Sor Amnuaysirichoke. He’s a former Muay Thai world champion who has transitioned to MMA. He captured the strawweight title and became world champion there before recently losing it. I think he has a good chance of coming back again. It’s interspersed.

Eduard Folayang was voted athlete of the year in the Philippines for capturing the world title at ONE Championship in November.

We also have American athletes, top guys like Ben Askren who is undefeated and a former Olympic wrestler. He has done very well here in Asia.

We have Marat Gafurov, an undefeated Russian world champion, so it’s really interspersed all over Asia.

In June of last year, you told Forbes that ONE Championship is on the path to a $1 billion valuation in the next 12-18 months. How’s that going?

I believe we will do it. We’re definitely getting closer and closer.

Let me give you an example. If you just look at our social media metrics of the proxy for the business, two years ago we had 300,000 video views for the whole year of 2014. Two years later that 300,000 grew into 130 million in 2016.

That is the kind of growth we’re seeing across the board. Our TV ratings are exploding, social media metrics exploding, our PR coverage around the world is exploding, and our revenues are exploding.

Knock on wood, the economy stays healthy and the political environment remains stable. The global climate, the global political climate is healthy, I think there shouldn’t be any issue for us achieving that billion dollar mark.

In terms of events scheduled for this year, are there any that you are particularly excited about?

I’m really excited always, going back to my home country, Thailand. Bangkok has a massive event on March 11th.

We have the biggest music, entertainment and sports event in history coming up in Bangkok at Impact Arena.

We have Thaitanium, which is the number one hip hop band in Thailand. They’re mega superstars in Thailand. They’ll be playing a concert, embedding within our world championship title fights in the stadium and on broadcast.

We also have Slot Machine, which is another huge pop band in Thailand, they will be playing, and we really integrated music with sports to create this incredible entertainment spectacle that captivates the audience for literally five hours straight.

It has sold out the stadium and that’s something that I’m very grateful for, the reception from all of the fans has been massive. Thailand has always been very special to me because that’s my home country and I’m looking forward to that.

We have 18 events planned, or announced rather. We hope to do 24 this year, and, hopefully, announcing more later on in the year. I think this is going to be the biggest year yet for ONE Championship.

I’ll give you the famous old question from Fight Club: If you could get fight anyone living or dead, who would it be?

Fight anyone living or dead? My dream match would be against Bruce Lee just because I’ve heard so much about his speed, his power, and yet he’s only 135 lbs.

I’m a much bigger guy. I’m not saying that I would do well against him, but it would be a dream because not only has he been an unbelievable martial artist and a legend, but he’s a philosopher.

He was well ahead of his time. He changed the world, the martial arts world, with his deep thinking about not taking martial arts styles, to embrace all martial arts styles in one. Yeah, I would love to spar with him.

Bobby McGill

Bobby McGill

Bobby is the founder and publisher of Branding in Asia.

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