It’s June 2017 in Yangon, Myanmar, where the largest global sports media property in Asian history, ONE Championship (ONE), is holding its Light of a Nation martial arts tournament. The night’s main event is the middleweight world championship where Russia’s undefeated world title holder Vitaly Bigdash is facing off against Myanmar’s ‘Burmese Python’ Aung La N’Sang once again; N’Sang having been defeated in their first clash back in January.
The entire country is holding its breath as one of its own gets the chance to compete for the world title, but this time on home turf. The battle begins, filled with clean shots and fierce combinations. Five scintillating rounds later, the decision is unanimous: The Burmese Python has defeated Bigdash. At that moment, history is made. N’Sang has secured
Myanmar’s first world championship in any sport ever. “The stadium went crazy,” ONE founder, Chairman and CEO Chatri Sityodtong, recalls. “It was unbelievable. The social media metrics and TV ratings went ballistic.” Upon winning the title, N’Sang said in his victory speech: “Myanmar … I’m not talented, I’m not good. I’m not fast. But with you, I have courage, I have strength, I have what I need to win the world title!” It was then that Chatri says the entire country, a population of 54 million, lit up. “We put up a video of the fight and within hours it had 80,000 likes and five million views,” he notes. “As for the TV ratings, nine out of 10 people in Myanmar watched the fight live.”
Following the event, Chatri remembers attending his company’s monthly meeting and telling his team, “If you’ve ever doubted our mission of unleashing real-life superheroes – who can change the world with their hopes, strength, dreams and courage – you saw it right there.”
The home of martial arts
ONE calls itself the home of martial arts. The sports media property hosts events in major cities throughout Asia, showcasing a full spectrum of martial arts styles including Muay Thai, karate, silat, kickboxing, mixed martial arts (MMA) and taekwondo. It celebrates Asia’s greatest cultural treasure and, through television and social media, broadcasts to 1.7 billion viewers in 136 countries around the world.
For Chatri, that night in Myanmar crystallised what ONE was all about – something much more than just fighting. “What you didn’t see that night, was the millions of kids all over Myanmar who are struggling – who might be impoverished and might not have a home – suddenly believing that they too can dream, that they too can achieve something,” he says earnestly. “They have a hero for the first time in history – a global hero. Ten years from now, we will hear of some renowned medical doctor who will say, ‘When I was 17 years old. I watched that fight and I said, I want to be the world’s best neurosurgeon’.”
The biggest misconception of martial arts, according to Chatri, is that it is just about fighting. For him, martial arts is about unleashing your truest potential. “Through thousands of hours of practising martial arts, you inherit the values of integrity, humility, honour, respect, courage, discipline and compassion,” he explains. “You learn how to forge a warrior spirit within you to conquer adversity in life. If you think about all the values you inherit from martial arts, they are also all the key ingredients necessary for a successful life. In any profession, you need those values to succeed.”
“If you think about all the values you inherit from martial arts, those are all the key ingredients necessary for a successful life.”
Chatri has trained in martial arts for more than 30 years and still practises nearly every day. He has been a professional fighter, has received a blue belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu and is a certified Muay Thai instructor. But underneath it all, the values Chatri learned from martial arts helped him endure what was the most difficult time of his life.
A world knocked upside down
Chatri – whose name means ‘warrior’ in Thai – got into martial arts at a young age. Growing up in Thailand, he learned Muay Thai at the Sityodtong Camp in Pattaya under renowned martial arts teacher Yodtong Senanan. Chatri acknowledges that, at the time, he joined martial arts for “shallow” reasons. “I admittedly was attracted to the physical aspects,” he says. “I wanted to be able to beat up the bully in school or save the girl and look like a hero.”
Chatri’s family lived quite comfortably but during the late 1990s the Asian financial crisis hit, and his parents were left bankrupt and homeless. Chatri’s father then abandoned the family. Despite the lack of funds, Chatri’s mother encouraged him to apply to schools in the US and he managed to get into Tufts University, where he completed a degree in economics before moving on to Harvard. “I had the courage to do it because martial arts taught me to be a fighter in life, not just in the ring,” says Chatri.
“Martial arts taught me to be a fighter in life, not just in the ring.”
But life wasn’t smooth sailing from there. During Chatri’s second year at Harvard, his mother moved into his small dorm room. After graduation, they moved to Silicon Valley and had to sleep on the floor in sleeping bags while Chatri was in the process of launching his first start-up. One of the lowest points in his life was surviving on US$4 a day.
With a lot of determination, Chatri got his MBA from Harvard and eventually became a successful entrepreneur. At age 30, he became a millionaire after selling his Silicon Valley-based software company Next Door Solutions. He then went on to establish the US$500-million global hedge fund Izara Capital Management, right on Wall Street.
Through this astronomical success, Chatri pulled his family out of poverty, buying his mother a house and paying his brother’s tuition to get through school.
Finding true happiness
By 35, Chatri had reached the pinnacle of his profession on Wall Street. He was making more money than he could ever have imagined but he says he felt empty inside. “I thought, naively, the answer to happiness was to make a lot of money. I remember distinctly after an amazing year of record performance and profits at Izara, I went to a sushi restaurant nearby and thought to myself, ‘If this is what happiness and success is, then I don’t know what the point of life is. Is it just to make a lot of money, to get more houses, more cars, and more material possessions?’ I felt almost purposeless. I was making money and I was wealthy, but something was missing in my soul.”
“I thought, naively, the answer to happiness was to make a lot of money.”
After a lot of introspection, Chatri returned to the one thing that had always made him happy – martial arts. “I really wanted to do something with my life and decided to dedicate it to martial arts because it had changed my life and it can change millions of other people’s lives,” he adds.
This deep passion for martial arts gave Chatri the courage to quit Wall Street and embark on a new venture. With his Harvard knowledge and decade-long experience on Wall Street, he was able to spot a massive opportunity in the sports media market.
“Every region in the world had several multibillion-dollar sports media properties,” Chatri explains. “In North America, it’s the National Football League, National Basketball Association and Major League Baseball. In Europe, it’s the English Premier League and Formula One. And I realised that Asia had nothing.”
Chatri identified that while there were standalone sporting ventures in Asia like the Indian Premiere League for cricket, Japanese Baseball League and Chinese Super League, there was no pan-Asian sports property. “I thought, ‘Asia has been the home of martial arts for 5,000 years. I love martial arts. Let me try to combine my big passion with something that’s massive in scale and create Asia’s first truly global sports media property – the first multibillion-dollar sports league that everyone across Asia can rally behind’.”
Chatri founded ONE Championship in 2011, with its headquarters in Singapore. He based the business around the values of integrity, humility, honour, respect, courage, discipline and compassion. Since then, ONE has exploded across the sporting scene, attracting fighters from around the world to compete at its events. Moreover, it has generated a large and enthusiastic fan base, with nearly seven million Facebook likes and more than 400,000 Twitter followers.
In April 2018, it launched the ONE Super Series, a global platform that showcases the world’s best martial artists and celebrates the beauty of Asia’s striking arts. “I wanted to create an open format where everyone could test their abilities in a martial arts scenario,” Chatri says. “Asian martial arts are predominately striking arts, meaning that you’re standing on your feet and you’re using punches and kicks. But no-one’s ever tried to unify all that.”
A team effort
In the seven years since ONE was created, Chatri feels blessed that he has been able to do what he loves with what he describes as the greatest sports media team on the planet. “I don’t use those words lightly,” he says. “I’ve been very fortunate that some of the smartest and hardest working people I know have joined ONE Championship at every level of the organisation. They all believe in our mission of unleashing superheroes; they pour their heart and soul into the company. I’m so full of gratitude for the amazing opportunity to be their leader. They deserve all the credit for our success. They’re the ones who really changed the game.”
Chatri extends this gratitude to the athletes who compete in ONE’s events. He explains that many who choose to be professional fighters in Asia do so because they never got a chance to go to school and get an education.
In fact, he says 95% of ONE’s athletes come from low socioeconomic backgrounds. “They’re inspirational to me because, through the power and values of martial arts, they’re able to rise above their circumstances to become world champions and inspirational heroes,” Chatri says. “Without our athletes, we would be nothing.”
“Without our athletes we would be nothing.”
Fighting for those who can’t
Aside from ONE, Chatri is dedicated to philanthropic works and says giving back is at the heart of who he is. “I feel the universe, or God, or whoever, blessed me with both poverty and wealth,” he says. “Having lived through poverty and being very blessed in the situation I’m in today, I feel a deep sense of responsibility to help all those who don’t get that opportunity.”
The cause closest to Chatri’s heart is helping improve the lives of children of the poor. He supports several charities and organisations including Boys’ Town, which helps youth in need, and Singapore Children’s Society, which provides shelter and education for disadvantaged children. “I feel like somebody has to be there for them. And if not me, then who?”
Chatri also feels a deep sense of responsibility for any injustice or inequality. “Gender inequality in Asia is a massive issue,” he says. “I know that the messages we preach, the values we celebrate and the role models we offer the world, will either help or harm society.” To that end, ONE has partnered with Global Citizen, which is dedicated to eliminating extreme poverty, promoting gender equality, providing health care and education, and protecting the environment.
The ultimate goal
ONE has grown to 24 events in 2018, and is targeting an increase to 52 events in the coming years. Over the next three years, Chatri plans to take ONE global by broadcasting to 194 countries. His vision is to go from millions of live, concurrent viewers of ONE’s events to eventually billions of viewers. Chatri believes it is a matter of simple mathematics that ONE will become bigger than even the NFL. He notes that while the NFL is the world’s most valuable sports media property, it’s a single-country sport – played in no other country except the US.
Fast facts about Chatri
- Chatri was born Chatri Trisiripisal but was given the ring name Yodchatri Sityodtong by his martial arts teacher Yodtong Senanan after years of training. This name translates to ‘extraordinary warrior’.
- His last professional fight was in Thailand in 2008.
- He established a martial arts training academy in Singapore called Evolve MMA.
“America has 325 million people. If a single-country sport of 325 million people can produce a sports property worth US$75 billion, why can’t a continent of 4.4 billion people united under Asia’s cultural treasure do the same? The sheer population mass here says we will be bigger than NFL.”
The company’s growth will be further strengthened by its mobile and digital-first approach. “The opportunity we have as a sports outfit is massive as mobile penetration across Asia increases and becomes ubiquitous,” he says. “All we’re doing is celebrating Asia’s greatest cultural treasure. So when you link those two things up, the sky is the limit.”
The final word
Looking back over the time he has spent creating ONE, Chatri finds the greatest joy in the stories that come out of the events – like the one he recalled of Myanmar hero Aung La N’Sang. He says the business is flooded with messages from fans who tell them how much their hero has inspired them. “What I’m most proud of is that ONE Championship has made a genuinely positive impact in the world and inspired millions of people,” he says. “When I’m 80 years old, I want to know that I helped change the world in my small way.”
Martial arts will continue to be a central part of Chatri’s life. He concludes our conversation by mentioning one more thing that martial arts produces: the desire for continuous self-improvement. “You’re always trying to improve yourself as a martial artist. Whether it’s kicking, punching, or holding, you’re constantly refining your craft,” he says. “If you apply this insatiable desire for knowledge, learning, growth and understanding to other areas of your life, you’re always trying to evolve into the best version of yourself. That’s the essence of martial arts.”