Seven and half years of blood, sweat, tears and sweeping changes will culminate in the most significant event in One Championship’s short history. “A New Era” on Sunday in Tokyo will highlight 23 former world champions from a variety of disciplines, and while the show figures to be hard to top, One Championship CEO Chatri Sityodtong foresees much more in the days, months and years ahead.
“I think this probably is the most stacked card, in terms of world champions, for any martial arts show in history,” Sityodtong told Sherdog.com.
One Championship “A New Era” will unleash a smorgasbord of combat sports fare for fans across the globe. It features the promotional debuts of former Ultimate Fighting Championship titleholders Demetrious Johnson and Eddie Alvarez, as well as the start of the company’s flyweight grand prix. However, another showdown has drawn Sityodtong’s attention.
“It’s so hard for me to choose [the most interesting fight],” he said. “I love Eddie Alvarez. I love D.J. I love those fights. Obviously, I love the [Shinya Aoki-Eduard Folayang] main event, but the fight that intrigues me the most is probably Angela Lee versus Jingnan Xiong, because it’s a smaller world champion going up a weight class to face a bigger world champion. There’s a lot of history at stake there.”
The argument could be made that One Championship packed too much talent onto one card and could have saved some key bouts as headliners for other events. However, Sityodtong and his staff had no hesitation about moving forward with their grand plan.
“This is a new era for One Championship,” Sityodtong said, “and it’s a treat for the global fans.”
There is a method to the madness. The idea of being the first martial arts event to showcase so many former world champions on the same night appealed to him. One Championship is also taking aim at breaking company records for viewership, as the event can be viewed in 140 countries and has the potential to reach 2.6 billion people.
“Last year, our average viewership was 20 million viewers per event,” Sityodtong said. “I believe we will blow through those numbers. We’re expecting some big numbers in viewership. All signs are indicating that way, [and] we’re going to have a record.”
Sityodtong claims One Championship is enjoying a serious boom period based on various metrics the promotion tracks. However, the situation was not always so optimistic. He admits the first three years for the organization were difficult, as it was well behind its planned goals.
“I faced a lot of failure, a lot of rejection and nobody wanted to hear about One Championship, and it was very difficult at that time,” Sityodtong said. “Since then, it has skyrocketed in just the last three years.”
While those early years were challenging, the organization’s recent history now has it ahead of schedule. Three and a half years ago, the promotion averaged 700,000 views for each event. It now averages 20 million viewers per event, according to Sityodtong. It would seem that the strategy to cater to the most populated hemisphere on the planet has worked, and he points to One Championship’s large fan base as the reason for its notable jump in viewership.
“When I look at our U.S. counterparts’ numbers, our numbers are far bigger because Asia is huge,” Sityodtong said. “The opportunity is massive. There are two billion viewers in the same time zone in Asia.”
One Championship has focused its events in countries like China, Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines -- a region with over four billion potential customers. He has confidence about the numbers “A New Era” can draw because of the broader audience to which One Championship now has access. The organization recently struck a deal with Star Sports and Hotstar in India. The television network and mobile app offer the possibility of over a billion more people to which to market One Championship content. “A New Era” will be the first event to broadcast on the platforms, and Sityodtong sees the nation as a new resource for revenue and prospective fighters.
“We have scouts in India, and there’s some really amazing talent [there],” he said. “We’ll be making some major announcements, and it’s going to be really exciting stuff for India.”
The promotion also made headlines late in 2018 with its new partnership with Turner Broadcasting. One Championship events will air in their entirety on the Bleacher Report Live app, and highlight shows will follow soon after on the TNT network. Some fans are not thrilled with the arrangement, but Sityodtong expects it to change.
“We’ve had a lot of discussions in terms of how do we help each other and how do we create a bigger [and] stronger platform for both Turner and One Championship,” said Sityodtong, who claims talks have included events airing live on TNT and events taking place in the United States. “I think you will see a One Championship event in the U.S. in the not-so-distant future.” Madison Square Garden in New York could serve as a venue. “There are no confirmed plans yet,” Sityodtong said, “but there are very serious discussions around that.”
As brand recognition for One Championship has improved, so has its financial situation. Operating in a sport that has seen profitable organizations like Pride Fighting Championships, Dream and Strikeforce fail, Sityodtong wants to put any fears to rest about the monetary might of the promotion going forward.
“One Championship has an evaluation in the billion-dollar range by some of the smartest institutional investors in the world, so it’s Sequoia Capital, Temasek, it’s [the Government of Singapore Investment Corporation],” he said. “These are very sophisticated blue-chip institutional investors who have invested in the likes of Google, Apple and Oracle from the very beginning. I would just say stay tuned. Massive news is coming out, and One Championship is in the strongest position it has been in the history of the company.”
As its finances have improved, the organization has managed to throw its weight around the free-agent market. Along with signing Johnson, Alvarez and Sage Northcutt away from the UFC, One Championship has added a number of high-profile veterans to its roster, including Yushin Okami, Yoshihiro Akiyama and Vitor Belfort.
“We are going after every free agent globally,” Sityodtong said. “We want all the biggest and best superstars to join One Championship, but of course with a caveat.”
The caveat? Sityodtong only wants fighters who embody the core ideologies of the organization: integrity, humility, honor, respect, courage, discipline and compassion. One Championship has already passed on several competitors because the ideals failed to match up.
“They’re just not what we want in terms of our brand and our athletes,” Sityodtong said, “so we’ve been very selective. One of the things I’m very proud of is that in the last seven and half years we haven’t had a single scandal by any of our athletes, in any country. Our counterparts in the west … there seems to be a scandal every week.”
One fighter who exemplifies One Championship’s beliefs: retired former two-division UFC champion Georges St. Pierre. Sityodtong recently met with St. Pierre at the promotion’s headquarters in Singapore.
“Georges and I got along fabulously,” he said. “He’s a true martial artist, incredible human being and one of the most genuine people I’ve ever met. I am a big fan of Georges St. Pierre, so I’ll just say, you never know what can happen in the future.”
Sityodtong does not view other organizations as direct rivals, as he feels One Championship presents a combat sports alternative to the UFC and Bellator MMA.
“We don’t necessarily compete against other organizations, in the sense that we offer a very different product,” he said. “On our platform, you see not only MMA but you see the best of muay Thai, the best of kickboxing, boxing, submission grappling, etcetera, so we’re really the home of martial arts [overall].”
However, Sityodtong admits he has to share the stage with the UFC, with both companies making inroads in the other’s stomping grounds.
“I think there’s two global superpowers in martial arts, which is One Championship and UFC,” he said. “[MMA] is effectively UFC in the west and One Championship in the east. I think both are huge brands and both have huge fan bases in their respective regions, but I also think both organizations are growing in each other’s regions.”