MMA: IPO-seeking One Championship founder plays down safety fears

Mr Chatri Sityodtong, founder and chairman of One Championship.
Mr Chatri Sityodtong, founder and chairman of One Championship. ST PHOTO: ONG WEE JIN

Singapore (AFP) - Asia's top mixed martial arts promoter said he has introduced world-leading safety procedures to prevent another death in the competition, as it prepares for an intended billion-dollar stock market listing.

The death of a dehydrated Chinese fighter before a One Championship bout last year underlined safety fears about the fast-growing sport, which is rapidly moving into the mainstream.

But One chairman and founder Chatri Sityodtong told AFP that the competition had moved to prevent another tragedy by introducing the "world's safest" procedures to stop the dangerous practice of pre-fight weight-cutting.

"We now have the world's safest weight-cut procedure and policy for any MMA organisation," he told AFP in an interview in Singapore.

"I'm very confident that our safety regulations are among the best in the world," he added. "Can I predict that there'll be no more injuries or issues in the future? I can't say 100 per cent, no... risk-minimisation is key."

Last December, China's Yang Jian Bing collapsed with severe dehydration and died from a heart attack a day before a One Championship fight in Manila. The 21-year-old was preparing for his weigh-in later that day.

One Championship subsequently banned weight-loss by dehydration and stepped up monitoring fighters' weight.

One now weighs fighters regularly and has its weigh-ins three hours before a bout, reducing the likelihood that combatants will go to extreme measures.

In cage-fighting events worldwide, several combatants have also died during or after bouts, mostly from head injuries. But MMA's growing audience has turned it into a commercial success, with America's UFC selling to a consortium for US$4 billion (S$5.46 billion) in July and One seeking a US$1 billion dollar IPO within three years.

In another sign of the sport's growing acceptance, Singapore-based One was handed an "eight-figure" cash injection from an arm of the country's state investment firm. However, MMA's inherent brutality makes it controversial.

Some critics also say a lack of drug-testing makes fighters vulnerable when facing opponents who may be pumped up on banned substances.

Chatri said One does not carry out doping controls, but he insisted the culture of respect in martial arts - and the poor economic backgrounds of many fighters - meant drug-cheating was unlikely.

"As opposed to a sports culture in America where the marketing, the money, it's everything. Martial arts culture is that you're gonna be held accountable to your master, to your teacher, to your school," he said.

"It's very different, and so the cultural implications are very, very different," he said, adding that many fighters cannot afford sophisticated performance-enhancing drugs.

Chatri was born into a wealthy Thai family but while he was at Harvard University, his father went bankrupt and fled, leaving his son surviving on US$4 a day at one point.

Chatri survived by taking out bank loans and teaching Muay Thai kickboxing, before securing US$38 million for a software start-up which was later sold for an undisclosed fee.

Five years since launching One Championship, its events are broadcast in 118 countries and it has unearthed emerging stars like Singapore's Angela Lee.

"I think the future is very, very bright for One Championship. And that's our business model. Getting, finding local heroes who can ignite the entire country on a global stage," Chatri said. "Asia's been the home of martial arts of the last 5,000 years. There is a true Asian value system to martial arts: integrity, honour, discipline, humility, courage, these are things that Asians really care about."

Asked if MMA cannibalises traditional martial arts, he disagreed, saying that everything is "complimentary to the ecosystem".

"A lot of martial arts is amateur right? Meaning you go to Olympics to win the gold medal but after that you don't really have an avenue to make a good living.

"So if you're in your prime, 22, 23, 24, with a gold medal, an Asean medal or you know, Olympic medal, why not monetise your lifelong experience in martial arts on the global stage with One Championship?"