UFC threat won't faze One C'ship

While One Championship founder and chairman Chatri Sityodtong says it has made inroads in China, a target of 10 fights there this year is unlikely to materialise due to a host of challenges. But he stresses that breaking into the lucrative market is
While One Championship founder and chairman Chatri Sityodtong says it has made inroads in China, a target of 10 fights there this year is unlikely to materialise due to a host of challenges. But he stresses that breaking into the lucrative market is still a key objective.ST PHOTO: ONG WEE JIN

S'pore-based MMA franchise's Thai boss confident it will hold its own in Asia with dominant share

The reported imminent sale of Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) to Chinese investors may lead to the Las Vegas-based organisation finally making inroads into Asia, but Chatri Sityodtong is not one to shy away from a fight.

The founder and chairman of mixed martial arts (MMA) promotion One Championship was adamant that his company's stranglehold in the region remains as tight.

Part of the Harvard Business School graduate's confidence stems from the rapid growth of Singapore-based One Championship, which held its first live event at the Indoor Stadium in September 2011.

That increased to five the next year and 24 are scheduled for the 2016 line-up. One Championship has been staged in 10 Asian countries, including China, with more in the pipeline. UFC, which has yet to hold a fight in mainland China, will hold an event in Manila in October, its only one in Asia this year.

Chatri, who spent part of his childhood battling poverty in Thailand before making his fortune on Wall Street as a hedge fund manager, told The Sunday Times last Friday: "UFC is No. 1 in every market but Asia. We have a 90 per cent market share here... We've dominated and that won't change even if they change ownership."

In fact, multiple reports that UFC co-owners and siblings Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta and UFC president Dana White have agreed to relinquish control in a deal worth more than US$4 billion (S$5.4 billion) was welcomed by their counterpart at One Championship.

The 45-year-old Chatri said: "If they cash out, it'll change the competitive dynamics. The fire and soul of UFC will be gone. It'll become more corporate."

While UFC boasts global superstars like Conor McGregor, Jon Jones and Ronda Rousey, its focus on violence and bravado may appeal to the Western psyche but its DNA lacks authenticity over here, added Chatri, a former professional Muay Thai fighter.

"We emphasise the Eastern philosophies of martial arts... human stories of inspiration."

It is also vital that fans - One Championship has a global broadcast to more than one billion homes in 118 countries - can connect with the fighters, like world champion Angela Lee, who is of Singaporean and Korean descent.

Chatri noted: "UFC have around 500 fighters on their roster and I believe only about 20 or less are Asians. By the end of this year, we would have locked up about 400 fighters, and 90 per cent of them are Asian."

Meanwhile, investor confidence has swelled, he added. "Several have expressed interest in us and we're now discussing the valuation of the company. We've also been approached for acquisition but One Championship is not for sale."

Breaking into the lucrative Chinese market also remains a key objective. One Championship, which counts Disney, LG, Under Armour and Universal Music Group among sponsors and partners, has made inroads - there have been stops in top-tier cities like Beijing and Guangzhou - but it is slow-going.

A target of 10 fights in China this year is unlikely to materialise due to a myriad of challenges - Chatri admitted that "our execution in China has not yet been flawless" - but their footprint is expanding.

He said: "In the last six months, we've hit the critical mass and are now on the verge of mainstream status in many countries in Asia."

One Championship is valued in the "hundreds of millions", he added, and is enjoying "triple-digit growth rates". By his projections, it will cross the US$1 billion mark in valuation in the next 12-18 months.

"Hitting a billion is not a milestone for us or an end goal," he said. "It's just a pit stop to where we're going."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on June 26, 2016, with the headline 'UFC threat won't faze One C'ship'. Print Edition | Subscribe