ONE Championship continues U.S. expansion with idea of 'not selling fights' but 'building heroes'

ONE Championship

ONE Championship CEO Chatri Sityodtong's vision for worldwide expansion in fight promotion is simple. At the same time, it's an ambitious enough approach to make it anything but. 

When it comes to grabbing the attention of MMA fans in the United States while offering free-agent fighters a reason to leave its competitors, Sityodtong is systematically against the traditional practices of western promoters. It's a belief system best explained in ONE's company motto of "we don't sell fights, we build heroes."  

"When you sell a fight, you create controversy, hatred, anger and don't really focus on the stories, lives and values of the athletes," Sityodtong told CBS Sports' "State of Combat" podcast on Tuesday. "You focus on that moment, whether it's taking a dolly and shattering a bus or swearing about their mother and it's a very surface-level connection that draws quick attention but the fans don't end up investing their heart, mind and souls into the athletes."

Can't get enough MMA? Subscribe to our podcast State of Combat with Brian Campbell where we break down everything you need to know, including our interview with Sityodtong at the 1:00:41 mark.

If the words of Sityodtong, who founded the Singapore-based promotion in 2011, sound as if he's taking a direct shot at industry leader UFC -- especially with reference to its 2018 Khabib Nurmagomedov-Conor McGregor feud that went on to shatter pay-per-view records at UFC 229, he's quick to remind that it's not the case. 

Sityodtong will tell you up front he very much respects UFC and, because of how big the market is and how entirely different the products are, the two promotions are anything but in direct competition with each other. Reality, of course, will tell you otherwise. So did the huge headlines ONE made last fall in a historic trade with UFC that saw the promotion acquire longtime flyweight king Demetrious Johnson, along with the signings of former UFC stars Eddie Alvarez and Sage Northcutt. 

Attempting to compare the differences between ONE and UFC as being the same as "Toyota versus GM, Apple versus Samsung or even Coke versus Pepsi," as Sityodtong likes to do, is fine. Yet each of those brands are in competition with each other, as is any MMA promotion that shares the same goals of global domination. 

Yet if there's one major difference that sets the two apart, it's certainly their respective approaches. 

"UFC has the approach of creating controversy, hatred and anger for its fights and for us, we have taken the exact opposite approach in terms of building positive heroes who affect the world with dreams and inspirations," Sityodtong said. "We definitely want to make a big splash in the U.S. and we believe that we have the right product, the right brand and the right values with the right heroes and stories to [do so]. 

"I think the American fans are looking for something different and our product and our approach is 180 degrees opposite that of UFC."

Along with the trio of ex-UFC stars, ONE's roster is a mix of fighters familiar to U.S. fans (from Brandon Vera and Yushin Okami to Vitor Belfort and Yoshihiro Akiyama) and many top Asian stars who as of now might not be. While ONE certainly has a firm grip on the Asian MMA scene that UFC is currently trying to invade by building a state-of-the-art Performance Institute in China, the moves ONE hav made on this side of the globe have been slow and incremental.

In December, ONE signed a three-year deal with Turner Sports that will bring 24 events to TNT (monthly but not live) and the Bleacher Report Live app. This summer, ONE is opening up offices in New York and Los Angeles while simultaneously entering early stage discussions, upon Turner's request, for a U.S. debut event that is tentatively scheduled for the fourth quarter of 2020.

Until ONE can make its next big splash with said debut on American soil -- where ONE's reputation for having the best in-arena product in the sport can truly be tested -- the immediate job is recruitment that's two fold. Educating new fans will be key, with the idea of holding its first fight card (and airing it live on TNT feeling like a necessity at this point) and recruiting new fighters being just as important. 

Johnson, Alvarez and Northcutt all found their way to signing ONE contracts due, in large part, to discontent they held for their treatment by UFC. This is the topic where Sityodtong, despite claiming not to be in competition with UFC, certainly is smart enough to play up the fringe benefits his promotion offers that its rivals, including UFC president Dana White, has developed a somewhat dubious reputation for perpetuating the opposite of. 

"I think Eddie, DJ and Sage all came over for the right reasons," Sityodtong said. "They came over because they wanted to join a global promotion that treats athletes with love and respect, a global promotion that treats athletes as athletes, a global promotion that pays top dollar and a global promotion that has the biggest viewership base per event. With all those things put together, why wouldn't you want to join the biggest stage in global martial arts and get paid top dollar for a promotion who only speaks well of you and doesn't trash talk you and is there to do good things in the world?"

Asked whether his vision of respect and bushido can actually sell in a U.S. market in which fans are programmed into a lust for pro wrestling-style trash talk, Sityodtong believes deep down that fans of any nation will ultimately respond best to an investment in fighters' backstory, character and families, including a focus on unearthing stories surrounding the adversity they have overcome.

"If you look at the formula, it's very much similar to the Olympics. They try to celebrate the very best of humanity," Sityodtong said. "My barometer for success when I hold our monthly company meetings is when a child puts up a poster of one of our heroes in his or her bedroom, I want parents to know that they are in safe hands with our heroes because their kids are looking up to people who are generally great role models in society, who have not only incredible values of character but have overcome so much and these kids can be inspired to be great versions of themselves."

In many ways, Sityodtong's own personal story very much fuels the type of culture he has created within ONE. The 48-year-old native of Thailand, who is proud to represent his Japanese and Thai ethnicities, overcame extreme poverty as a child to obtain an MBA at Harvard before a successful career on Wall Street as an entrepreneur and hedge fund manager. 

All along, martial arts training was a daily part of creating the person and CEO he is today. More importantly than financial success, Sityodtong covets the personal relationships he holds with his fighters. 

"I think there is an authenticity to [my story]," Sityodtong said. "I am the only CEO or global leader of a martial arts promotion who trains every day for the last 35 years. I have been a student, a fighter, a coach, a teacher and now a CEO. Our athletes, they are my brothers and sisters. They don't work for me, I work for them and it's just a very different approach of everything that we do. 

"There is a lot of commonality between myself and the athletes and I think that's why there is a strong connection and a mutual love and admiration. I would argue that we have the best relationship with our athletes of any global promotion in the world."

Sityodtong likes to say that ONE isn't so much in the genre of martial arts as it is in the platform of humanity. It's the foundation of the pride he has in bringing a product to American soil that is, in many ways, completely opposite of his counterparts. While everyone else, including UFC, continues to sell fights, ONE is focused on building heroes. 

Is this utopia of cage fighting something that can sustain itself on American soil? The jury remains out. Yet Sityodtong's noble quest continues with a product that's fresh, different and in search of appeasing the hearts and principles of both American fans and free-agent fighters alike, just as much as making room in consumer's wallets. 

CBS Sports Insider

Brian Campbell covers MMA, boxing and WWE. The Connecticut native joined CBS Sports in 2017 and has covered combat sports since 2010. He has written and hosted various podcasts and digital shows for ESPN... Full Bio

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