No hedging: Former fund manager bets all on MMA taking Asia and world by storm
Muay thai master Chatri Sityodtong’s amazing rise from poverty to king of booming mixed martial arts empire
Chatri Sityodtong knows the fight game thrives on a good back story.
So let’s take his own as a starting point.
Not so much raised into poverty as plunged into it when the Asian financial crisis of 1997 hit, Chatri’s father – who had cast his lot into Thailand’s real estate market and lost everything – left his family behind and his teenaged son had to work the city’s street markets to help them make ends meet.
Chatri wasn’t, by his own admission, a great student but still managed to make his way to Harvard.
Broke – again – by the time he got there but determined to succeed, he picked up his MBA, living on US$4 a day while working any job he could find, and the end result was a Wall Street hedge fund worth around US$500 million.
The constant for Chatri throughout this journey was a dedication to the martial art of muay thai – the driving force in his life, he says, and one that gave him the discipline to deal with the troubles that life threw at him.
And it leads us back to where Chatri is today, as the chairman and driving force behind the One Championship MMA organisation.
“The business world just wasn’t enough for me, despite my success,” says Chatri. “Being Thai, I’d grown up immersed in muay thai. It taught me about unleashing human potential, about developing a work ethic, mental strength, that warrior spirit, integrity. I just realised I had to do something with martial arts – the greatest passion in my life.
“I saw the economic opportunity, for sure. We’ve just looked at our organisation as a way to unite martial arts across Asia, and to give martial artists here a platform to show the world who they are.
“We want heroes whose stories can inspire. Their stories need to be told and we want people to dream big.”
The “Heroes of the World” fight card at the Venetian Macao on Saturday is the latest step forward for a group that has in just on five years staged 43 events – and claims its broadcasts reach 188 countries and one billion homes.
China, of course, plays a huge role in the development of the organisation, and of the sport, and Chatri has recently opened offices in Beijing and Shanghai, while taking on an investment from Singapore’s Heliconia Capital Management group, which has extensive interests in the mainland.
Five events have been held on the mainland, there’s a card set for Chengdu in September, and an eye on Hong Kong for the future.
“China has to be part of our global strategy,” says Chatri. “But it comes along with the rest of Asia. To be truly pan-Asian, we want to be hosting events every weekend as well as broadcasting them across the world.”
One Championship’s main rival as the sport continues to spread across the region is, of course, the North America behemoth that is the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), but Chatri draws a line in the sand between to two by offering the argument that the MMA audience in Asia is a different beast.
“The UFC has done very well in the western hemisphere with stars like Connor McGregor, Jon Jones or Ronda Rousey,” he says. “But in America, for whatever reason, it’s about aggression or disrespect and that sort of aura. It’s what they love.
“But Asians hate that braggadocio. For us, it’s about true martial arts – not just the physical attributes but the values.”
Chatri points to his organisation’s rising star – 20-year-old atomweight world champion Angela Lee – as an example of the type of athlete, and person, he wants to promote.
“She’s a humble person, who wants to empower women, who’s full of integrity and someone who parents would love their daughters to become in any field,” says Chatri.
“She represents the best of martial arts and the best of martial arts values and that’s what we want to do too.”
Of Saturday’s card, Chatri highlights the return of Hong Kong’s Eddie Ng Gar-wei against Honorio Banario in a lightweight clash, as well as the Christian Lee-Martin Nguyen featherweight bout and the Eduard Folayang-Adrian Pang lightweight title eliminator.
“Folayang and Pang are closely matched and it could go either way,” says Chatri.
“In fact, it’s that way through the whole card. I think that’s one of our strengths as an organisation and reflects just how much talent there is in Asia.”
Events in Rio this past week have not escaped Chatri’s attention, obviously. And while he’s not getting carried away just yet about the sport’s potential, you can’t blame the man for looking to the future.
“Mixed martial arts deserves to be in [the Olympics],” he says. “Obviously with so many other sports trying to get in, it will take some time. But it’s gone viral.
“I wouldn’t say we are mainstream, globally, yet but we are getting there. The Olympics are a long way off but once we go mainstream, we’ll get there.”