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Combat sports naturally lend themselves to over-the-top hype. There’s a pressure to always be selling the next fighter to come along because individual sports rely on the constant creation of new stars more than team sports. The trick is balancing credibility with the desire to make everything you’re doing seem as big as possible.
Since One Championship was founded, the organization has secured funding through bold proclamations about its reach and power as the purported top MMA promotion in Asia and No. 2 mixed martial arts promotion in the world. During that time, many have questioned how grounded its boasts are in reality. Financial statements provided by the organization to Singapore indicate One Championship has lost tens of millions of dollars while relying more heavily on barter transactions than cash revenue. Meanwhile, the Ultimate Fighting Championship commissioned a study to not so subtly argue against One’s claim that it is Asia’s top MMA promotion. Rightly or wrongly, there is skepticism about whether One is all it makes itself out to be.
There are, of course, many examples of companies in all fields that build up a brand and vision in a given area before finding ways to fully monetize their businesses. Now is an interesting time for One because it will have the opportunity to prove what it has been saying for so long. The promotion has a significant TV partner in the United States. It brought in some major acquisitions in Demetrious Johnson and Eddie Alvarez. It has also finally broken into the most powerful MMA market in Asia, running in Japan for the first time. Those factors came together for the biggest event in One history: “A New Era” on Sunday in Tokyo.
In some ways, the event came off quite well. Yuya Wakamatsu put up an impressive fight before Demetrious Johnson caught him in a nasty guillotine choke. Shinya Aoki pulled off a nice arm-triangle submission to win the lightweight title and send the Japanese fans home happy. Burgeoning star Angela Lee may not have pulled off the win against larger opponent Jingnan Xiong, but she put up a gutsy performance in the process. It felt like a major event and seemed to leave a positive impression on the fans in famed Ryogoku Sumo Hall.
In spite of these strengths, lingering over the event was the sense that the promotion was trying to pull one over the viewing audience in ways both large and small. Not content with the impressive reality that this was the biggest event in the nearly eight-year history of One, the announcers repeatedly claimed that this was the greatest martial arts card of all-time. It’s hard to figure who they thought they were fooling with such a nonsensical assertion.
Of course, that claim paled in comparison to their repeated assertion that the event was being viewed by “2.6 billion potential viewers.” At the point you’re going to claim that a third of the human species might be watching Aung La N Sang-Ken Hasegawa because they have access to the Internet or something, why not just go for the gusto and claim a potential 7.53 billion? After all, if uncontacted tribes are won over by word of mouth about One, they could swim to civilization to check it out.
Beyond the repeated dubious claims and announcer Mitch Chilson’s apparent belief that he could convince you of anything if he just screamed it loudly enough into a microphone, the whole event gave off the feel that One thought you were a sucker. It even hired a fake Lenne Hardt for ring introductions, presumably thinking no one would notice the difference if the company just hired a different woman to mimic every vocal inflection of one of the most distinctive voices in the sport. Somewhere in Compton, Guerilla Black was calling for a little subtlety in shamelessly thieving Hardt’s whole act.
One Championship is of course not alone when it comes to hyperbole. It was just weeks ago that Joe Rogan was trying to claim Tyron Woodley was approaching Georges St. Pierre’s status as the greatest welterweight of all-time. Meanwhile, Daniel Cormier on Saturday labeled the performance of pretty much every fighter on the lackluster UFC on ESPN 2 undercard spectacular, watering down the meaning of his words when genuinely spectacular performances came later in the show. Rogan and Cormier are two of the best at their job, demonstrating that these issues come up well outside the context of just One Championship. However, it was particularly pronounced at One’s showcase event.
MMA hype isn’t expected to be subtle, but if the disconnect between the sales job and reality is particularly pronounced, it raises questions about why. One has advanced far enough that it ought to be able to frame itself impressively without being dishonest. One’s approach on Sunday suggested that it’s not particularly concerned about being honest with viewers. Hopefully, for the company’s sake that’s not because reality for One Championship is something better off hidden.
Todd Martin has written about mixed martial arts since 2002 for a variety of outlets, including CBSSports.com, SI.com, ESPN.com, the Los Angeles Times, MMApayout.com, Fight Magazine and Fighting Spirit Magazine. He has appeared on a number of radio stations, including ESPN affiliates in New York and Washington, D.C., and HDNet’s “Inside MMA” television show. In addition to his work at Sherdog.com, he does a weekly podcast with Wade Keller at PWTorch.com and blogs regularly at LaTimes.com. Todd received his BA from Vassar College in 2003 and JD from UCLA School of Law in 2007 and is a licensed attorney. He has covered UFC, Pride, Bellator, Affliction, IFL, WFA, Strikeforce, WEC and K-1 live events. He believes deeply in the power of MMA to heal the world and bring happiness to all of its people.