Few people understand the what it takes to run a martial arts company — as both a promoter and a fighter — as thorough as Chatri Sityodtong, CEO of Asia’s largest sports media company, ONE Championship.
Chatri is a 47-year-old Thai-Japanese entrepreneur who has worked the full spectrum of jobs within the martial arts industry. He started off as a Muay Thai practitioner when he was a child, became a cornerman for his fellow fighters, head coach, and eventually the CEO of a martial arts promotion valued at $1 billion. From the values he learned in martial arts, Chatri was able to escape poverty in Thailand and pursue a dream to connect all of Asia under the umbrella of martial arts.
As a true martial artist, Chatri’s vision for ONE Championship is to be more than just the largest sports media property in the world, he wants to take back the throne of martial arts and put Asian martial artists back on the map.
We spoke to Chatri this past weekend about his vision for Asian martial arts, his thoughts on American MMA and the UFC, and advice on how to deal with strict Asian immigrant parents.
How Does ONE Championship Compare to the UFC?
Nextshark: Something people often misunderstand is that ONE Championship is not in the business of fighting, you’re in the business of martial arts. You’re an organization that values respect and humility over trash talk and drama. If you were speaking to casual American and UFC fight fans interested in all the drama, what would you say? Is ONE Championship accessible to all fight fans or only the hardcore ones?
Chatri: I actually think ONE Championship’s formula has global appeal because we prioritize values, heroes, and stories. Values like honor, discipline, respect, and compassion are ones that parents and grandparents can celebrate. If you put a poster of one of our heroes in a child’s bedroom they’d applaud the child, as opposed to putting a poster of Conor McGregor or Jon Jones – a parent would take it down immediately.
Our second pillar is heroes. Rather than promote fights – which is what every other promotion does – we promote heroes. We build real-life superheroes who ignite the world with hope, strength, and inspiration.
What do I mean by that? A lot of our athletes come from impoverished backgrounds, some came from orphanages. For them to climb up through and conquer all these terrible circumstances, and then become a world champion on a global stage representing their countries, it becomes very much like the Olympics.
The last pillar is stories. We want to tell these stories to inspire entire nations and that’s what’s happened in Asia. Asia has been the home of martial arts for five-thousand years. We’ve become the number one or two global sports property in our core countries. Our tv ratings are five or ten times above the UFC’s here in Asia. We’re literally 500-1000% higher than the UFC’s out here in Asia and the reason why is because if you promote hatred, violence, anger, controversy and your stars commit crimes – whether it’s breaking a dolly onto a bus and injuring people or doing cocaine and doing a hit-and-run on a pregnant woman – I believe the audience is narrow. It might be a passionate audience like the WWE has, but it’s narrow in its scalability.
If you look at the Olympics, it has boxing, wrestling, karate, and taekwondo, but yet, no one complains about those arts because the Olympics promotes the best of humanity: values, heroes, and stories.
When somebody is going for a taekwondo gold medal or a wrestling gold medal or boxing, entire countries watch because these heroes have gone through tremendous adversity to achieve that gold medal status. The whole country pins its hopes on that athlete bringing home the glory, and that’s the formula ONE Championship uses. So in that regard, it’s much more mainstream than the UFC. I think the UFC is a niche product.
The Difference Between Fighters and Heroes
Nextshark: I love the fact that ONE Championship fighters give back to the community. They’re all humanitarians. Is that just part of who they are or is this baked into the ONE Championship formula?
Chatri: You’re absolutely right. Every fight week our heroes visit orphanages or make donations to impoverished neighborhoods. We partnered with Global Citizen, one of the largest non-profit organizations dedicated to ending extreme poverty. This is very much a part of the ethos of ONE Championship.
Since I started, my goal has been to unleash real-life superheroes who can give the world hope, strength, and inspiration. And it’s not just through their life story, it’s through their actions. Of course, they can perform at the highest level of martial arts, but for them to go back and give to the community they came from – we’re on TV every week. And it’s very important that we’re not just seen as tv or movie heroes but that we’re literally affecting lives where there is massive poverty, gender inequality, education or healthcare gaps.
We’re very active in pro-bono work. We do it every event week (literally) and in every country we go to.
Does Western MMA Look Down Upon Smaller Fighters?
Nextshark: You spoke about Conor McGregor earlier and he recently called you out on Twitter for signing Demetrius Johnson, so he blamed you and said you were being greedy and that you had to sign the entire flyweight division. This tweet inspired a larger conversation of, “Why do western martial arts promotions undermine their smaller fighters? Why are flyweights so looked down upon over here in the west?”
Chatri: I don’t think they’re looked down upon, but the western marketing machine seems to promote anger, hatred, controversy, violence, and bloodsport. And that appeals, for whatever reason, to North America.
It just so happens, for example, that Demetrius Johnson, who’s the greatest mixed martial artist of all time, pound-for-pound #1 king, doesn’t believe in all that. He’s a real martial artist. He wants to represent humility, integrity, honor, respect, courage, and compassion. He doesn’t use any trash talk so it makes it very hard for the UFC to promote him because he won’t engage in what the UFC wants to promote.
I don’t think it’s a size issue. I think DJ will be a massive star here in Asia and he’ll be a massive star globally with the right marketing. We’re going to market him with our heroes, stories, and values formula as opposed to hatred, anger, and controversy.
People don’t even know DJ’s incredible life story in America. That’s how undermarketed he is. DJ was born to a deaf mother, his younger brother is schizophrenic, he was poor, never knew his father, was working minimum wage in a factory before he found Matt Hume’s gym and learned martial arts for the first time. Then, five years later, he becomes the UFC world champion. His story could literally inspire millions of Americans but no one ever tells that story because the UFC doesn’t care.
A lot of the athletes reaching out to us don’t want to be a part of the anger and controversy. They want to celebrate the best of humanity in the same way the Olympics does. I always say during our press conferences that ONE Championship was started by martial artists so it’s very different.
I’ve been a martial artist longer than I’ve been a businessman. I’ve been doing martial arts for over 30 years and I still train every day in Muay Thai and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. I’ve been a student, a coach, a manager, and now a CEO of a martial arts promotion.
I want to honor authentic martial arts. Asia has been the home of martial arts but the west has hijacked martial arts and called it MMA. They’ve destroyed the essence of martial arts. Martial arts here in Asia has been around for over 5,000 years. It’s a way of life. It’s a way to teach your kids values and help them become a better human being and apply yourself in all other areas in your life. I want to honor Asia’s greatest cultural treasure and share it with the world.
There’s so much negativity in the world. If you look at the media it’s always about rape, bombing, trade wars. If you look at social media there’s nothing but trolls, hatred, and anger. I want ONE Championship to be a beacon of light and positivity to the world and it begins with our heroes, values, and stories.
Can Asian Martial Artists Go Toe-to-Toe with UFC Stars Demetrius Johnson and Eddie Alvarez?
Nextshark: By bringing on talented martial artists from the UFC like Demetrius Johnson and Eddie Alvarez, how do you envision their journey through the ONE Championship rankings? Are you looking forward to any particular matchups with them? Do you see anyone at ONE giving them an especially tough fight?
Chatri: Here in Asia there are millions of martial arts practitioners. In the western world, because of western MMA media – which is basically just Sherdog, MMA Junkie, MMA Weekly, and MMA Fighting – they dominate coverage of the UFC so no one knows about ONE Championship in America yet. Although, we’ll be announcing a broadcast deal in America very soon. We’re working with broadcasters now and we’re close to signing – then American fans will get an entirely different alternative to watching MMA with incredible athletes but done in the same way the Olympics is promoted.
Demetrius Johnson and Eddie Alvarez will enter a lightweight grand-prix and a flying grand-prix with 8 of the best flyweights and lightweights. This isn’t a lock they can automatically win. There are some serious badasses and monsters in these ONE Championship divisions that Asia knows but America may not know yet. And that’s because we’re not covered widely in mainstream American media. But here in Asia we’re covered by all of the media.
Just for perspective: three years ago our average viewers per event was 700,000 but this year we’re averaging 20 million. Just for comparison sake, Bellator might do 500,000 viewers per event or the UFC might do 5-10 million. We do 20 million on average. So when the American media says, “Wow, we did 1 million pay-per-views” you look at the numbers and ONE Championship blows through them all the time. Our viewership is greater than Bellator and UFC combined.
Nextshark: You’re definitely right about western media’s lack of ONE Championship coverage. I’ve been trying to learn about the ONE Championship roster, the top fighters, rivals, and stories. Thankfully, I found all of these videos on the ONE Championship app which is also free. For those of us new to ONE Championship, where should we start? Which fighters should we follow and what are the iconic matchups? Any personal favorites?
Chatri: Our website is the first place we place post interviews, vlogs, and martial arts content, but we also post all over social media like Facebook. Most of our Asian fans interact on Facebook but we also post documentaries and interviews on Youtube. Today, we have an event in Indonesia and you can just download the app and watch the fight live.
In Asia, we have so many heroes. Angela Lee is one of our most famous athletes in terms of her impact on the world. She’s half-Korean and Singaporean, born in Canada, and raised in Hawaii. She’s an American and she represents everything beautiful about martial arts.
Another is Aung La Nsang who is a Myanmar hero. He was a refugee who had to flee Myanmar when it was 14 and returned. Now he’s the single most famous person in the country – so much that many predict he could be the next prime minister of Myanmar. It’s insane. He’s more famous in Myanmar than Michael Jordan was in America. He literally can’t walk anywhere without seeing thousands and thousands of people.
Eduard Folayang was born in Baguio City, Philippines. Born illiterate and in poverty, he had 9 brothers and sisters but five passed away from basic illness. Just imagine losing five siblings from basic illness because you couldn’t afford a doctor. Imagine what your outlook must be as a child and how much heartbreak you went through. Luckily, he found martial arts and it gave him all these amazing values. He became the first person to read and write, the first person to go to university, and the first to become a teacher. Through martial arts, he competed in Wushu, competed in championships, won gold medals for the Philippines, and became a champion at ONE. He was voted the athlete of the year in the Philippine media and the Philippines Senate invited him to celebrate a national parade in his honor.
We also want to celebrate DJ and Eddie’s story. People don’t realize, but Eddie Alvarez also has an incredible life story. In the states, everyone says, “Wow, Eddie’s an exciting fighter” which is true, he is an exciting fighter, but there’s so much more to Eddie than just his powerful punches and amazing takedowns. He grew up in the streets of Philly, he had a rough upbringing and went from becoming a street fighter to becoming a true martial artist. To this day, he calls himself a martial artist. He says that martial arts changed his life and gave him all these amazing things.
You’ll see a lot of big announcements coming up with athletes from around the world who believe in what ONE Championship is doing. We’re not here to promote anger, hatred, or bloodsport. We’re here to showcase the beauty of humanity.
When Will ONE Championship Events Come To North America?
Nextshark: You’ve mentioned before your upcoming broadcasting deals in America but you haven’t mentioned too much about hosting events in the United States. Considering your constant growth, what’s your plan for ONE Championship within the next five years?
Chatri: We’re talking to broadcasters and two of them have asked us to come to the U.S and throw events as part of the deal. Asia is huge; we have 4 billion people here and we’re already in 138 countries. We’re growing on footprint to 194 countries over the next three years. That’s our plan – so the entire world can enjoy ONE Championship on TV, paid TV, digital, social, etc. So you will see that footprint increase.
We’re getting offers from around the world. What we’re looking to do is host events in Europe or Latin America, as well as the U.S. I can’t say exactly when, but I know fans around the world will be able to experience an event in their city. Right now we’re very focused on Asia but our footprint grows every day. Our fanbase is growing every day. When we feel the timing is right then yes, we will consider an event in the U.S, Brazil, or anywhere else.
Chatri’s Advice for Asian Americans Who Feel “Stuck” in Their Careers
Nextshark: My last question for you pertains to a Ted Talk you did where you spoke about graduating from Harvard and becoming a hedge fund manager, but you later discovered that it wasn’t your purpose in life to be in that business because it wasn’t your “Ikigai.”
I think so many people are in a similar situation, especially young Asian Americans who are on a career path that was predetermined by their strict parents. If you could give a piece of wisdom for the Asian Americans who feel stuck in their careers or a college major that isn’t in-line with their Ikigai, what would you say to them?
Chatri: First off, I will tell you that that was me. My mother is a very conservative Japanese lady. When my father abandoned us and we became poor, my mom stressed, even more, the importance of safety, and working for a Fortune-500 company. She told me to “take the safe job” and do something prestigious like go to Harvard. I did that, to an extent, and she was very happy that her son was a managing director on Wall Street and successful in the traditional sense. But deep down inside, I felt very empty.
When I was dirt poor, I thought if I made a lot of money and external accolades that I’d be very happy. And I think a lot of Asian Americans fall into that trap because their parents are immigrants, they come from poor backgrounds, and the American dream is to get a great education and pursue a great career. But what is missing is – you can pursue a great education but rather than focus on a safe career, focus on how you can change the world, your community, your city, your state, and how you can better your country. And hopefully, you’ll have an opportunity to better the world.
This should be tied to something you genuinely believe within your heart. I don’t believe what our Asian parents taught us was wrong. It’s all about how we’re able to express ourselves authentically by using the foundation our parents gave us. Now, when my mother looks at me she’s proud. She’s happy because I’m happy. She’s proud because my journey is one that, in the end, I’m celebrating values. In the end, I’m doing something great for humanity. In the end, I’m living the life of my dreams. And that’s what my mom sees.
When I left Wall Street my mom was upset. She said, “Chatri, you forgot our days in poverty and you’re arrogant because you’re wealthy now.” I knew this was a Japanese mother and her speaking about prestige, society, and face – core Asian values. Asia is very much about face, society, and how you look externally. She didn’t agree with my choice to retire from Wall Street and pursue ONE Championship. She thought it was stupid and crazy. She thought it was childish. But now, she sees the beauty of what ONE Championship represents and we’re already impacting millions of lives in Asia.
What I would say to all the Asian Americans who feel trapped is, our parents taught us well. There’s a reason why they wanted us to be a certain way. But at the end of the day, it is our responsibility to find our way instead of blindly following what our parents say. I really believe it’s a marriage between what it is that’s in your heart with the values your parents taught you. I genuinely believe that the only way to live a meaningful life, one where you can look back when you’re 80-years-old, is if you live from your heart. Only you can answer that question. No one else can.
I lived 18 years in Thailand then America for 18 years, then I came back to Asia and I can agree – Asian Americans are lawyers, doctors, accountants, or engineers because their parents wanted a safe job for them. But a lot of Asian Americans find themselves unhappy because they became accountants, engineers, and doctors by following their parents advice without thinking for themselves and asking, “What do I really want out of life? What ignites my soul?”
This isn’t to discard what your parents taught you. I use the values my mom taught me but I express them in different ways in a way that’s authentic to my heart.