Cover story: Chatri Sityodtong, founder of One Championship

The public face of One Championship, which promotes mixed martial arts (MMA) tournaments, and the man behind the fast-growing Evolve MMA gym talks to us about his dreams, his career and his hopes for developing the sport of Muay Thai.

Chatri Trisiripisal, or better known by his ring name, Chatri Sityodtong — the multimillionaire owner of One Championship, which hosts mixed martial arts (MMA) tournaments across Asia — is admittedly living the dream. When he was a teenager, he wrote down all his dreams in life, and high up on the list at No 3 or 4 was setting up a Muay Thai gym — one that pays and treats its trainers generously and with fairness and respect.

“You could be the world champion [in Muay Thai], but after you are done fighting, you could be a tuk-tuk driver or [security] guard, or selling fruits ... discarded by society,” Chatri says in an exclusive interview with Options.

“I always thought to myself, ‘Muay Thai is a beautiful art. It is the greatest cultural heritage of Thailand, so why should we treat our heroes this way?’”

So, Chatri started Evolve Mixed Martial Arts in 2009, and two years later, set up One Championship. Both have grown substantially.

Today, One Championship is an almost US$1 billion company, with the likes of Temasek Holdings Pvt Ltd — the Singapore government’s investment arm — and California-based venture capital firm Sequoia Capital as shareholders.

His gym, Evolve, which is dedicated to mixed martial arts, pays trainers anywhere between S$8,000 and S$15,000 (RM24,000 and RM45,000) per month and operates at four locations in Singapore — Orchard Road, Far East Square, PoMo Mall and One KM.

Evolve has a whole host of stars in both Muay Thai and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, teaching and training at its premises, some of whom are world champions at One Championship (see sidebar).

 

Humble beginnings

But life has not always been this kind to Chatri.

For those in the know, Sityodtong is among the most celebrated Muay Thai gyms. The main trainer, the late Yodtong Siriwalak, or better known as Yodtong Senanan, was a legend, having trained 57 champions in Thailand.

He set up his gym — Sityodtong — in Chonburi and is widely regarded as the greatest Muay Thai instructor of all time. Some of the more famous champions to emerge from Sityodtong or under Yodtong’s guidance include Samart Payakaroon, Daothong Sityodtong, Chartchai Sityodtong, Yoddecha Sityodtong, the late Ramon Dekkers, Ernesto Hoost and Daotong Sityodtong.

Yodtong gave Chatri the honour of using the name “Sityodtong” when he turned 19.

Chatri says of Yodtong, “Every time you are exhausted and you want to quit, you are beaten down … I used to run 12km and do 15 rounds [of sparring] and that was in the morning, in the afternoon again, ran 12km, then did [another] 15 rounds. And my body was tired and broken, and it was so painful. Some days, you just wanted to quit, but if you quit, you would never train with him (Yodtong) again.

“So, you could barely move but you wouldn’t quit. That warrior spirit is forged and developed over many, many thousands of hours of training … when you kick a pad, it hurts but you have to keep going, and that is the discipline every martial art teaches.”

Chatri has about 30 professional fights under his belt. He talks about his early days as a fighter.

“I was a kid back then, in my first year. I remember it being very, very scary and also very exciting … it made me feel alive. I just felt like something was set free in my soul and I was completely naked spiritually in the ring,” he says.

“It’s not about fighting somebody, but about conquering yourself. It’s about exploring yourself, understanding your own limits, and that was what I found so beautiful. Now, after 30 years, I still train every day … you must understand that practising martial arts is actually about the journey of continuous self-improvement, unleashing your potential as a human being.”

The training also instilled in Chatri a “never say die” attitude.

 

Hitting rock bottom

In July 1997, the Asian financial crisis struck, and Thailand was badly affected.

“It was terrible. Two thirds of the banks in Thailand went bankrupt, the stock market fell 95%, suicide rates were at an all-time high ... it was a massive depression,” Chatri says.

Chatri’s father, who was in the real estate business, suffered, and eventually went bankrupt. The family lost their house and his father abandoned the family. Chatri, his mother and a brother had to fend for themselves.

“That was a low point,” he reminisces.

At this point, he managed to secure a scholarship to study at Harvard in the US, but had to survive on a measly US$4 a day. Things got so bad that his mother had to live with him in the dormitory.

“Yes, there were days when I cried and wanted to quit ... just give up my dreams, but because of my mother’s love and my martial arts training, I stayed a fighter. Those days, I felt very alone but at the same time, peaceful because everything in my life was real. The people in your life, they are there because they love you for who you are,” Chatri says.

“I sat on a bench at Harvard and thought, on the one hand, I could sit and count all the things that are wrong with my life, but I sat there, looked up and thought, ‘Man, it’s a beautiful, beautiful day, look at the birds, look at the trees, look how lucky you are, you have your health, your mum, your brother’, and I remember that gave me a feeling of peace.

“This is also the beauty of martial arts. If every child learns martial arts, they will get the discipline, they will get the work ethic, they will get the courage, they will get the fighting spirit … I’m not talking about being a fighter; I’m talking about the fighting spirit, for whatever your dreams are in life.”

 

Making it in the world

Chatri has worked his way up the corporate ladder. He had stints with Fidelity Investments and Bain and Co, co-founded e-commerce start-up NextDoor Networks, and was the managing director of JLF Asset Management, a US$1 billion hedge fund, before moving on to the top job at Dallas-based Maverick Capital, a US$15 billion hedge fund. Then he set his own hedge fund company — Izara Capital — which managed US$500 million.

“I owned Izara Capital. When I retired as a hedge fund manager, I was already set. I didn’t have to work another day in my life if I didn’t want to. By the time I was 32, I was already a multimillionaire and I could retire anytime, but when I walked away from Wall Street finally, I was 37,” Chatri says.

 

Yes, there were days when I cried and wanted to quit ... just give up my dreams, but because of my mother’s love and my martial arts training, I stayed a fighter. Those days, I felt very alone but at the same time, peaceful because everything in my life was real. The people in your life, they are there because they love you for who you are

 

While he does not disclose any figures, One Championship raised US$100 million at the outset, and a chunk of that was linked to Chatri.

Over the past five years or so, One Championship has grown substantially, and is now Asia’s largest global sports media property, with more than a billion viewers across 128 countries and is set to become a US$1 billion company in the next few months.

However, for Chatri, this is just the beginning.

“Every region of the world has several multibillion-dollar sports properties. The US has NBA, NFL and Nascar, and Europe has F1, BPL, Bundesliga and Spanish La Liga,” he says.

“All these properties are worth a few billion, up to US$40 billion to US$50 billion a piece. Asia has nothing on a Pan-Asian scale. So, there is no reason why this cannot rival EPL, NBA or NFL ... there’s no reason.”

 

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Chatri Sityodtong carries himself with the poise and confidence of a highly accomplished fighter and the soul of a warrior. Despite appearances, he is a humble man, on a mission to promote martial arts as a way of life. He shares his views with Options on the journey thus far.

 

How has it been thus far?

Chatri Sityodtong: It has been a magical ride, a magical adventure. I feel like I’m the luckiest guy in the world. I get to do what I love most, which is martial arts. I get to do it every day with people that I love, and that’s my life.

But at the same time, I also feel a big, deep sense of responsibility as the CEO of Asia’s largest sports media property, broadcast in 128 countries — how our heroes are perceived, the values that we spread to millions if not billions of kids around the world.

I want all of our heroes to show integrity, humility, kindness, respect, honour ... these are the things I want to spread to the world, a sense of positive energy, hope, strength and dreams. We spend a lot of time at One Championship thinking about these things.

Even at Evolve, I teach all of my world champions how to live a full life.

 

You managed to rope in Temasek. How did you accomplish that?

I was kind of lucky. It was generally good luck. They had emailed me a few times, and I was so busy and had got the investor emails, but I told them we were not raising capital at the moment. But one of their vice-presidents was quite persistent, and he said, ‘Let’s have coffee’, and so, several weeks later, they invested. They had been following One Championship, its journey and they got more and more interested, and saw the future, so that was how it happened.

 

And you have other investors?

We have Sequoia Capital, one of the most prominent venture capital firms in the world. They did Google, Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, WhatsApp, Linked In — you know any of the big ones they are part of. We are their first sports investment, so I feel very grateful for that. I think they see the future of sports in Asia and they see the future of what we are trying to do.

We are celebrating martial arts, Asia’s greatest cultural treasure, but doing it in a way that we celebrate values, Asian values of integrity, humility, kindness, respect, courage ... these are the things we are spreading.

The Asian way is different. Look at Manny Pacquiao. He is a very respectful, honourable man. Look at Jackie Chan, look at Jet Li, they are very good at what they do, but it’s about humility, it’s about honour, respect ... these are Asian values. I’m trying to bring back authentic martial arts to the world.

I feel that our Western counterparts have destroyed everything through senseless violence and blood sport and marketing of negative behaviour, negative energy ... the wrong values quite frankly.

 

Are you profitable as yet?

All start-ups go through phases and right now, we are still in the investment phase. We really believe we will have to grow the market, grow the fan base and, of course, our revenue is growing very, very quickly. But right now, I don’t really focus on those matrixes. What I care about is how big is our fan base, how many fans are watching us, how active our fans are on social media and how active they are on TV ratings. These are the things that matter most for a media property.

 

Do you think this whole MMA thing is all hype? Will it die down anytime soon?

I think it’s possible that some organisations may end up being hype because they are just focusing on violence. For us, I’m just celebrating what has been in Asia for 5,000 years … Asia is the home of martial arts.

There’s no way it’s going to die. I’m trying to bridge the traditional with the modern, try to bridge the beautiful history we have with martial arts and marry them with modern culture and show the youngsters of the world how beautiful they are — and Asia should be proud. We should unite and celebrate our greatest cultural treasure.

 

There is a lot of spirituality in martial arts, at a very high level at least. How does that fit in with what you do?

If you look at all our marketing, for example, if you go to our website, if you watch our videos, you will see that all the values we talk about are in the life stories, the documentaries [about the fighters].

Rather than have a press conference where people hate each other and call each other and their mothers names, throw water bottles at each other, our heroes talk very respectfully about each other and their martial arts, and our promotions, videos and the articles that we write are all about their life stories — incredible adversity, they come from poverty, from an orphanage, go through tragedies to become world champions. Why do we do that? Because our goal is to inspire the world with our heroes. Our goal is to celebrate values so that everyone can look and say, ‘That is my hero’.

These heroes teach how to live an honourable life, respectful life, live with dignity, humility, courage, strength, dreams, be inspired ... this is what One Championship is about. You will never see any negative energy from us … we have a different approach and that is why I believe we have long-term sustainability. This is not a fad.

We are Asia, from Asia, celebrating Asia’s greatest cultural treasure in Asia — the right way — with Asian values.

 

In your journey thus far, what have been the high and low points?

I think the high point was having institutional investors like Temasek and Sequoia Capital, which are really the bluest chips possible. That had been a very big high point. Another very big high point on a personal level — it’s got nothing to do with numbers or financials — was ... I’ll give you an example. When I was in Thailand and had not been back for a very long time, we held our very first event in Thailand about two years ago, maybe a year-and-a-half, and I was sitting in the stadium. There were 15,000 people, it was amazing and the energy was beautiful. I couldn’t believe it ... suddenly, from the corner of my eye, I saw a lady and her two daughters — seven years old and nine years old — and they came and they asked, ‘Sir, can I have a photograph taken with you, and your autograph’. I said, ‘Of course’. I asked them what made them come and how they came to know about One Championship. The mother replied, ‘We don’t know anything about martial arts or One Championship. We followed your life story, and I’m a single mother living in poverty with my two daughters. I want them to meet you so they have inspiration to fight for their dreams’.

Our heroes serve that purpose, just as my life story serves that purpose for people going through a tough time ... maybe their fathers abandoned them, maybe they are living in poverty — like my background. You don’t have to come from the best background, you don’t have to come from the best anything in life, you just have to make the best of your life, so those moments for me were very precious.

Another was when Aung La N Sang (a Myanmar fighter) won the world title in Yangon. Myanmar had been a closed society for its entire existence, and it was just opening up, so it had no international hero then.

Myanmar hadn’t competed in the Olympics or anything like that, so he (Aung La N Sang) was the first world champion of any sport, and 90% of Myanmar was watching the event live. Listen to the speech he gave: ‘I’m not strong, I’m not fast, I’m not courageous, but with you, Myanmar, I have courage, I have strength’. And I thought to myself, ‘How many million kids — Myanmar has a population of 54 million — saw that, and how many dreams were born that night? It’s not about fighting, but about kids thinking ‘I can be anything I want to be’.

 

It’s a different fight, but a fight, nevertheless.

It’s a fight for our dreams.

 

How about the lows?

The first three years, literally, everyone rejected me. Literally, everyone ... investors, governments, sponsors, advertisers, broadcasters and even potential employees ... nobody wanted to be part of One Championship. Everyone was like ‘oh my God, that’s too violent, that’s dirty, that’s from the mafia, that’s terrible, Asians don’t like sports, why are you trying to introduce violence’. They didn’t understand the beauty of martial arts.

 

But there is a stigma attached to fighting. There are many masters who shun competition, they deem it a show-off …

I’m not against people who don’t want to compete. There are a lot of people at Evolve who don’t want to compete; it’s not the goal. But for me, why did I compete when I was young and why do I still have the desire to compete? I want to test myself — it’s not about fighting somebody. The Western concept of fighting is, I want to beat you up, I want to hurt you, but the Eastern concept is, I want to see how I have developed myself mentally, spirituality, emotionally ... can I control myself when I am being defeated, can I have humility in victory or honour in defeat? So, these are the things … so not everybody has to compete.

 

Where do you hope to see One Championship in five years?

In the very near future, we are going to cross the US$1 billion mark. We will surpass the US$1 billion mark in the next few months, but we are just at the beginning of the story.

 

And you see this happening in five years?

Yes, I really believe so. This is going to be a multibillion-dollar property.

 

This cover story first appeared on Jan 22, 2018 of The Edge Malaysia. 

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