Why This Harvard MBA Chose Mixed Martial Arts Over Finance

ONE Championship founder Chatri Sityodtong talks to Inc. Southeast Asia about how martial arts gave him the resilience he needed to build Asia’s leading sports media property

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BY team-inc - 14 Feb 2017

mixed martial arts

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

Chatri Sityodtong, founder of mixed martial arts promotion company ONE Championship, a 6-year-old start-up that is now Asia’s biggest sports media property, knows how to deliver a punch. More important, Chatri knows how to take a punch too.

When the 1997-98 Asian financial crisis wiped out his father’s once prosperous real estate business, the family lost everything and ended up on the streets. His father began selling fruit on the noisy roads of Bangkok, and eventually ended up abandoning the family, leaving his wife and two sons to live in a concrete-floor shack, subsisting on one meal a day.

Most would succumb to despair. Chatri persevered. Though he had no money, the half-Japanese Thai citizen had by then obtained an undergraduate degree from Tufts and secured admission to Harvard Business School on a scholarship. “When I saw my mom crying and suffering, it sparked a huge fire in my belly to do something with my life, even though I didn’t have any money to pay for school fees and basic needs,” he says.

By then a dedicated Muay Thai practitioner, Chatri credits martial arts for helping him through business school and out of poverty. Martial arts not only gave him a way to earn money (he taught Muay Thai to help himself through Harvard), but also gave him the “warrior’s spirit” he needed to conquer adversity.

“You can use martial arts to beat someone up or fight in a ring, but the real purpose of martial arts is to unleash human potential,” he says. “Martial arts gives you confidence, mental strength, humility, courage, a desire for self-improvement, and resilience.”

With Singapore-based ONE Championship, Chatri is now set on building the continent’s first multi-billion-dollar sports media property. He’s on his way. Today ONE Championship broadcasts to a potential 1 billion homes in over 118 countries worldwide with a 90% market share in the region.

Bringing mixed martial arts home

After graduating from Harvard, Chatri made millions in Silicon Valley and later, Wall Street, but although he was able to pull his family out of poverty, he was left unfulfilled. “I had success in society’s eyes but I felt very empty inside,” he says. And so, at 37, Chatri decided to retire as a hedge fund manager to start a martial arts business in Asia.

“Martial arts has given me so much,” he says. “I wanted to create a platform that could exemplify the beauty of true martial arts and the Asian values of courage, respect, and discipline—everything the martial arts have taught me.”

He saw that though almost every region in the world had several multi-billion-dollar sports media properties (North America has NFL, NBA, NASCAR, UFC, etc.; Europe has Formula 1, La Liga, the English Premier League, etc.), Asia has nothing similar.

“Though there is a billion-dollar cricket business in India and a billion-dollar baseball business in Japan, those don’t translate across Asia,” he explains. “But Asia’s been the home of martial arts for 5000 years; there’s martial arts in practically every single country in Asia.”

Though Chatri could clearly see the gap in the market that needed to be filled, getting people on board wasn’t easy. In the beginning, no one returned his emails or wanted to meet with him. Just getting people to interview for the company was a challenge. “The first 2-3 years were really hard. They tested my warrior’s spirit,” he laughs. “People thought my idea was too crazy, or bought into that misconception that MMA was all about violence.”

In spite of these setbacks, ONE’s reach steadily grew, and people began to notice what they were doing. In 2015, Disney became an official partner of the company, paving the way for partnerships with Fortune 500 companies like LG Electronics and Sony. Just last year, Singapore sovereign wealth fund Temasek became a shareholder and made its first investment in a sports media property.

Conquering Asia

While the UFC has struggled to break into the East (the promotion had to cancel their one and only event in Asia last year due in part to low ticket sales), ONE has been able to tap into their audience’s sensibilities by localizing—building up their fighters in their respective markets. By raising grassroots support for personalities like Angela Lee (Singapore) and Yoshitaka Naito (Japan), ONE plays into nationalistic impulses and creates heroes.

Chatri also points out that while UFC’s brand seems to celebrate brashness and machismo, ONE emphasizes martial arts and celebrating humble heroes. For example, while the UFC has personalities like the trash-talking Conor McGregor bringing in ticket sales, ONE celebrates champions like Eduard Folayang, who was a public high school teacher from an impoverished background before he became a professional fighter. Says Chatri, “In Asia, we care about humble heroes like Manny Pacquiao and Jackie Chan—badasses in fighting, but both gentle, humble, and sweet.”

His branding strategy seems to be working. In its first year, ONE struggled to put up one event, while this year, the promotion is holding 24. Chatri’s goal is to hold 52 events every year (one every weekend) to reach the 4 billion people all over Asia.

“I want a super huge world championship fight,” he says. “I want people to root for their hero like the Filipinos root for Manny Pacquiao, when the entire country just stops to watch his fight. This is going to be the biggest sports league in the world.”