Chatri Sityodtong was nine years old when his father took him to Bangkok’s Lumpinee Stadium for a Thai-boxing fight. The fascination for rapid, hard-hitting martial arts never left him.
The Muay Thai-mad boy grew into Asia’s foremost promoter of mixed martial arts. His One Championship is becoming Asia’s biggest competitor to Ultimate Fighting Championship, the combat mashup that has built a global fan base. When UFC champion Conor McGregor was defeated on Aug. 26 by Floyd Mayweather in a high-profile Las Vegas boxing match, the bout reached 1 billion homes with an estimated pay-per-view take of $700 million.
The success of UFC has made investors pay attention to a global sport that was once dismissed by U.S. Senator John McCain in the 1990s as “human cockfighting.” Last year, brothers Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta sold the company that controls UFC to WME-IMG for an eye-popping $4 billion. They bought UFC in 2001 for $2 million.
Three weekends before McGregor’s “Money Fight” showdown with Mayweather, Sityodtong was hosting his own show at the glitzy Venetian Macao in China. After shaking hands with fighters backstage he walked through a packed hall of 13,000 spectators to stand by the cage and watch his “Kings and Conquerors” show. The audience roared as Bibiano “The Flash” Fernandes made quick work of challenger Andrew Leone with a first-round rear-naked choke, giving the Brazilian bantamweight champion a record seven successful title defenses.
This Saturday, he will be in Shanghai to promote his first event in the Chinese city, starring welterweight champion Ben Askren and Sweden’s Zebaztian Kadestam.
Sityodtong, 46, took a long detour to get here. Son of a Thai father and Japanese mother, he grew up a middle-class kid in Bangkok. But his father’s property business collapsed during the 1997-98 Asian financial crisis.
Determined to rescue his family from poverty, he enrolled in Harvard Business School on loans and taught Muay Thai and delivered Chinese food to support himself and his mother. With no money or place to go, his mother secretly lived with him in his tiny dorm room. He later joined Maverick Capital, the hedge fund founded by Lee Ainslie, one of the so called “Tiger Cubs” who once worked for Julian Robertson’s Tiger Management. Sityodtong eventually founded his own shop with Izara Capital Management LLC.
But his heart was still with the speed and spectacle of martial arts. When he turned 40 in 2011, the Muay Thai fighter and jiu-jitsu blue belt founded One Championship. Today, his Singapore-based firm is Asia’s largest league of MMA –- the combination of boxing, wrestling, Brazilian jiu-jitsu and Muay Thai.
MMA has been the target of criticism both for allegedly inciting violence and hatred among fans and for the danger to contestants, including brain damage and in some cases death.
Sityodtong says he’s not out to copy UFC. His aim is to build the sport in Asia by adhering to the values that made the continent of 4.4 billion people the home of some of the best-known martial-arts stars like Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan and Jet Li.
“UFC has a great marketing strategy that works for America — blood, violence, disrespect, anger, controversy, hatred among fighters, showcasing pure fighting,” Sityodtong said. “We are massively different. Martial arts is about courage, integrity, honor and respect.”
UFC declined to comment.
While cricket is huge in South Asia, soccer is the top sport in Southeast Asia, and baseball is popular in Japan, Sityodtong says martial arts is the pastime that unites the continent. This after all is the region that gave the world taekwondo from Korea, kung fu from China, karate from Japan and Muay Thai.
“There’s got to be a way to unify the entire continent and celebrate what is Asia’s greatest cultural treasure,”’ he said in an interview. “I want to make the first multibillion-dollar sports media property on a pan-Asia basis.’
He’s getting a little help from serendipity.
One day in early May, Sequoia India Managing Director Shailendra Singh was waiting for an elevator in Singapore when he bumped into Atin Kukreja, chief executive officer of Rippledot Capital and a business acquaintance. Kukreja had just met Sityodtong and he talked enthusiastically about what an exciting business the Thai entrepreneur was building.
Singh has a passion for martial arts and asked Kukreja for an introduction. A couple of weeks later, Singh and Sityodtong met for breakfast. Within two months, Sequoia was leading One Championship’s series C funding round, bringing the MMA company’s total fundraising to $100 million. Other backers include Heliconia Capital Management, a unit of Singapore’s state investment company Temasek Holdings Pte., and Mission Holdings.
“We were immediately drawn to One Championship, which is having a shot at becoming one of the most prominent sports properties in Asia,’’ Singh said. “Sports media is going to monetize going forward. Ten years from now it will look dramatically different.”
Singh, who made early bets in successful startups like Go-Jek and Tokopedia, has been trying to figure out a way to invest in online videos as he expects media, entertainment and digital technologies to converge and dramatically change how talent connects with audiences. During the breakfast meeting, his ideas and questions set Sityodtong thinking.
“He spoke with such a clarity that it hit home to me,” Sityodtong said of Singh. “My mind was racing for the next few weeks.”
Singh, 41, will join One Championship’s board. And the company plans to launch OTT– over-the-top, or non-traditional — web-based broadcasting as well as its own mobile app within six months. Other plans include entering Japan and Korea and deepening its presence in China and Southeast Asia in the next 12 months, according to Sityodtong, who is chairman and CEO. He said he plans ultimately to introduce virtual reality, so viewers can experience being in the cage with the fighters.
To win over Asian fans, One Championship is building up local fighters in each market. Its marketing campaigns involve depicting the personal stories of its fighters. They show lightweight world champion Eduard Folayang’s rise as a Filipino national hero after overcoming poverty so dire that five siblings died of illnesses. And Aung La N Sang, who made history in July by becoming Myanmar’s first world champion in any sport.
“Human beings are tribal,” he said. “You want to follow and cheer for people who share the same background, culture and values.”
Sports media companies like UFC and One Championship typically make money by selling content to TV or digital platforms, often via pay-per-view, and through sponsorship and merchandising. One Championship’s event this Saturday in Shanghai can be viewed live for $9.99. Sityodtong declined to disclose the company’s revenue but said it is still mainly from sponsors, including Disney, Marvel and Universal International Pictures.
He isn’t the only MMA promoter in Asia. In Japan, there are versions like Rizin Fighting Federation, Pancrase, Deep and Shooto. In China, local tournament Kunlun Fight holds regular bouts and South Korea has Top Fighting Championship.
But Sityodtong’s regional model appears to be working. One Championship events are now televised in 128 countries, up from 60 in 2014. Social media video views have soared to 600 million from 312,000 in 2014.
One Championship plans to hold 20 events this year, up from 14 in 2016. Sityodtong aims to eventually hold an event every week in Asia. UFC held only two events in the Asia Pacific region last year and plans to have five in 2017.
“My mission is to unleash superheroes who reignite the world with hope, strength, dreams and courage,” he said. “We’re just getting started.”
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