In the space of three years, Evolve MMA has risen up to become the most renowned mixed martial arts academy in Asia and one of the most talked about training centres in the world. Famous mixed martial artists such as Rich Franklin, Renzo Gracie, Matt Hume, Greg Jackson, Roger Gracie, Shinya Aoki, Saenchai Sor Kingstar, Kyra Gracie, and Ryo Chonan have all made the journey to Singapore to train with its world champions.
With three locations, Evolve MMA is home to dozens of world champions in every major discipline of mixed martial arts including Muay Thai, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and boxing. Modern day legends of Muay Thai from Thailand such as Namsaknoi Yudthagarngamtorn, Orono Wor Petchpun, Attachai Fairtex, Yoddecha Sityodtong, Kongtoranee Payakaroon, and Lamnammoon Sor Sumalee all teach at Evolve MMA.
Its wrestling program is headed by US Olympian Heath Sims, a long time training partner and coach of Dan Henderson and a dozen BJJ Black Belts champions run the BJJ program. WBA boxing world champion Yodsanan Sityodtong runs the boxing program and the professional fight team consists of the likes of DREAM Lightweight Champion Shinya Aoki, UFC fighter Rafael dos Anjos, ONE FC star Zorobabel Moreira, Muay Thai world champion Orono Wor Petchpun, ONE FC star Leandro Issa, ONE FC star Eddie Ng, NCAA Division 1 wrestler Jake Butler, and many others.
Some of Japan's biggest MMA stars such as Tatsuya Kawajiri and Satoru Kitaoka are also rumored to be close to signing with Evolve MMA. There is even talk of Muay Thai sensation Buakaw Por Pramuk joining his former training partner and close stable mate, Namsaknoi Yudthagarngamtorn, in Singapore.
The man behind Evolve MMA is Chatri Sityodtong, a multi-millionaire Thai businessman and former Muay Thai fighter with a passion for MMA. In a rare interview, he spoke to MMA Mania about the past, present, and future of Evolve MMA.
What inspired you to form Evolve MMA?
Martial arts has been my greatest passion in life since I was a child. Whether it was part-time or full-time, I've been training, fighting, teaching, and coaching for almost 25 years now. At this point in my life, the biggest driver for me is my desire to change lives through martial arts, to make this world a better place in my small way.
I have been blessed with good fortune in my business career. So even before I started Evolve MMA, I was already independently wealthy. In fact, in my mid 30s, I had even contemplated living on a deserted island somewhere and sipping Pina Coladas on the beach for the rest of my life.
However, after a year of traveling around the world, the desire to do something positive to help the world really set me on fire. It might sound corny, but I named this company, EVOLVE, because I wanted it to be a place that could inspire anyone to evolve into everything he/she was meant to be in life. Martial arts gives people confidence, mental strength, discipline, focus, a desire for continuous self-improvement, and so much more. And all these valuable lessons can help a person in every area of his/her life...career, relationships, education, health, anything.
My life is a perfect example of the power of martial arts. At one point, I was dirt poor, lived on one meal per day, and my parents were homeless. Without the power of martial arts, I don't know what would have happened to me. So Evolve is my platform to give back to the world.
Can you tell us a little about your business background and your martial arts background?
I started Muay Thai at the Sityodtong Camp in Pattaya under Kru Yodtong Senanan when I was a kid growing up in Thailand. I've been training, fighting, teaching, or coaching Muay Thai for almost 25 years. I'm a certified senior instructor under Kru Yodtong Senanan with over 30 fights. My last professional Muay Thai fight was in 2008 in Thailand. I also have a Blue Belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu under Renzo Gracie. I still train in both Muay Thai and BJJ 5-6 times a week with our world champions at the Fighters Program at Evolve MMA.
In terms of my business background, I have spent the bulk of my career as an entrepreneur and/or investor in technology, finance, media, real estate, and sports. I also spent a good part of my career on Wall Street (I was a Managing Director at a US$15 billion hedge fund before starting my own US$500 million hedge fund). And I'm still involved in a few businesses today, including a US$2 billion real estate company, a US$35 million surveillance company, a US$50 million media company, and some other companies. I received my MBA from Harvard in 1999.
Evolve MMA seems to have developed very rapidly, has that surprised you?
Yes, it has surprised me. I thought that I was the only person in the world who loved martial arts enough to spend millions of dollars on recruiting world champions, building world-class facilities, etc. I really didn't expect Evolve to have a global reputation after only 3 years. I'm amazed at how fast our brand has grown. At the same time, I feel that Evolve is only at the beginning of its growth. I want to change the world through martial arts.
Are you happy with the fighters you have in your team or are you looking to add to it?
I'm always looking for fighters for the Evolve Fight Team. While I am very happy with our current roster of fighters, I am always looking for fighters with world champion potential. We are very lucky to have fighters like DREAM Champion Shinya Aoki, UFC fighter Rafael dos Anjos, ONE FC fighter Zorobabel Moreira, ONE FC fighter Leandro Issa, Muay Thai World Champion Orono Wor Petchpun, ONE FC fighter Eddie Ng, MCFC Champion Mitch Chilson, BJJ World Champion Alex Silva, Muay Thai World Champion Yoddecha Sityodtong, WBA Boxing World Champion Yodsanan Sityodtong, NCAA Division 1 Wrestler Jake Butler, US Olympic Wrestler Heath Sims, and so many other talented fighters and coaches on our team.
The Evolve Fight Team has world champions and champions in Muay Thai, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, Boxing, Mixed Martial Arts, Wrestling, and No-Gi Grappling. We also have two Olympians on our team.
At present, apart from Shinya Aoki and Rafael Dos Anjos, the fight team mainly consists of fighters who are at the start of their careers, is that a deliberate policy?
I don't really look at where a fighter is in his/her career. I look at the person, the fighter, and the future potential. I look to see how much Evolve can help that fighter and how much that fighter can help Evolve. Shinya is a great example of who we are at Evolve MMA.
First and foremost, Shinya is an incredible human being. He's remarkably humble and giving. He's a true martial artist in every sense of the word. Shinya has no airs about being the current DREAM World Champion. When he trains at the Fighters Program at Evolve, he's just another fighter. He absorbs everything we teach him and he has an open mind. He listens and listens. It's amazing really.
Of course, Shinya is superbly gifted as a martial artist with excellent balance, speed, etc. He has an unbreakable warrior spirit and a huge heart too. I look for many things in a fighter before I invite him/her onto the Evolve Fight Team. I'm very, very careful and selective about who is allowed onto our team. And I am very quick to kick people off the team if they exhibit values that are counter to what Evolve is about.
Evolve MMA is the only camp that I know of which gives a salary and accommodation to all the trainers and fighters, how do you make that work?
The most important thing for me is the quality of instruction at Evolve MMA. I will never compromise on the quality. Whether you are a beginner or a world-class professional fighter, Evolve MMA stands behind its reputation as the top martial arts school in Asia. You will never see Evolve MMA expanding and growing just for the sake of expansion and growth. For me, quality is everything. Everything we do at Evolve MMA is about providing the highest quality martial arts education available anywhere.
As such, I am willing to do anything and pay whatever it costs to recruit the very best teachers and fighters on the planet. Money is not an issue for me and my focus is not on profits. Of course, Evolve MMA is profitable, but it is not my primary motivation. My focus is on the highest quality martial arts instruction...period. Evolve MMA represents the best in life. It is my way of giving back to the world.
What does a coach who is a world champion in Muay Thai or BJJ have to offer that a coach whose background was mainly in MMA might not?
The lucky thing is that we have it all here at Evolve MMA. We have world champions and champions in every discipline...Muay Thai, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, Boxing, Mixed Martial Arts, Wrestling, No-Gi Grappling. Right now, the Evolve Instructor Team stands at 51 instructors and all of them have been personally vetted and interviewed by me. For me, I care about credentials only if the person is a great human being and a great teacher too. We have a zero tolerance policy here at Evolve MMA for egos and attitudes.
To be frank, I don't really believe in MMA per say. I believe in martial arts...in each discipline...as long as it works in real life. For me, the ultimate mixed martial artist is the martial artist who can fluidly perform each art at a world-class expert level and also have the ability to transition effortlessly between the arts. I believe in martial arts as the foundation of a true mixed martial artist. MMA in and of itself is not really a good foundation.
I'm a huge fan of Jon Jones and GSP because they are martial artists and they are constantly striving to evolve and grow in every area. Martial artists have a very different approach to fighting...versus...let's say...a pure fighter. Martial artists try to perfect their craft every day. Fighters only train when there is a fight coming up. It's a very different approach. We train 2x a day, 6 days a week all year round, irrespective of whether we have a fight coming up or not...
What effect has ONE Fighting Championship, which is also headquartered in Singapore, had on Evolve MMA?
Of course, ONE Fighting Championship has had a great impact on Evolve MMA. It helps to have Asia's biggest MMA organization here in Singapore. Victor Cui, the CEO of ONE FC, is a good friend of mine. He really pours on the marketing effort here and it has ignited a huge spark of interest for MMA in Singapore. It seems like every day a new MMA gym is opening in Singapore. More importantly, MMA is really starting to enter the consciousness of the mainstream here. It's still early days, but it's definitely happening.
Do many of your members want to be fighters or do they tend to be more self-defense and fitness-oriented?
Like most martial arts schools, I would say that 95% of our members are here for self-defense, fitness, mental strength, confidence, weight loss, and all the other benefits of martial arts. The other 5% are here because they are professional fighters and/or want to become one. At Evolve MMA, we are fortunate in that we have a big diversity of members...men, women, children...beginners, intermediates, experts, professional fighters, world champions...doctors, CEOs, engineers, waiters, nurses, teachers, civil servants...you name it. Our youngest student is 6 years old and our oldest is 65 years old. I believe that the diversity of our membership base, coupled with the depth and breadth of the Evolve Instructor Team, makes for an incredible environment for learning.
In my opinion, Evolve MMA is the world's largest living encyclopedia for martial arts. It is incredible how much knowledge and experience is housed within these walls. One of my staff counted the years of championship experience on the team and it came out to something like 850 years of championship experience across various martial arts. That's some serious firepower right there. So whether you are a complete beginner or you are a professional fighter, you will get the best training here...period.
What are your plans for the future, are you planning on expanding Evolve MMA at all?
Yes, I plan to expand Evolve MMA. However, I won't expand for expansion's sake. As I said before, my goal is to provide the highest quality martial arts instruction available anywhere. I want to change lives through martial arts. I want to make a positive impact in this world. If my goal was purely financial, I would open up 50 academies tomorrow all over Asia.
However, I will not do that because I really think it would sacrifice our quality. It is better to grow slowly and carefully...to focus on the highest quality martial arts instruction...to deliver much more than what our members expect...at every step of the way. I plan to be in the martial arts business for the long run. I already have enough money in the bank. I don't need more. At this point in my life, I just want to have fun and I want to know that I am doing good in this world.
Something like 7,000 people went to the last ONE FC show and the UFC is rumoured to be taking a close look at Singapore, are you surprised by how quickly the sport has grown since you started Evolve MMA?
Yes, I never expected MMA to be so popular here in Asia after starting Evolve MMA only 3 years ago. And the crazy thing is that it is only the beginning of the MMA revolution in Asia. I think the next 10 years are going to be incredible for everyone in the industry...all over Asia. Asian MMA is a rocketship and it is just about to take off. I really do hope that the UFC does a show here in Singapore.
When I was invited by the UFC to their recent Japan event a few weeks ago, Lorenzo and Dana told me at a private cocktail party that UFC plans to come back in November. Mark Fischer, the head of UFC Asia, is a superbly capable businessman and I expect to see big things from the UFC in Asia. It will sell out for sure...UFC is the #1 player and has the best brand in the MMA world...and in the process, it will create a firestorm of MMA mania!
Buakaw has been in the news recently for being mistreated by his management and a lot of fighters retire with little or no savings, particularly in Thailand. How happy are you to be able to offer so many famous former fighters a lucrative job which allows them to pass on all the knowledge they have acquired in their fighting career?
It is one of my greatest joys in life. I know what poverty is because I made it out of poverty. I know how hard a fighter's life is because I have walked that path before. I've never been a world champion, but I know first-hand what the sacrifices are as a professional fighter. I don't have to pay my team as much as I do, but I do it because the main driver for me is to make a positive impact on the world. Without a doubt, Evolve MMA has the highest instructor pay in Asia...maybe in the world possibly...I'll ask one of my staff to look into it on a global basis.
I want to help everyone on my team to achieve their dreams of financial security, home ownership, supporting their parents...and everything else. Kru Yodtong Senanan (my teacher and Grandmaster of Sityodtong Camp) always tells everyone that no one in the world pays more than I do for a Muay Thai instructor. Through Evolve MMA, I can change the lives of our students, our fighters, our instructors, our staff. It brings me tremendous contentment and inner peace to know that Evolve has helped thousands of people.
And the facts speak for themselves. No instructor or fighter has ever left Evolve voluntarily since we opened our doors. I have had to fire a few instructors or kick out some fighters for various reasons. But no one has ever left voluntarily. My team at Evolve MMA is my second family. I really care deeply about them and I want to help make all of their dreams come true.
The actual facilities At Evolve MMA are reportedly state-of-the-art. Did you have any doubts about investing so much money in this business and when did you first realize that your gamble had paid off?
I've invested a few million dollars so far into Evolve. I don't mean to sound flippant, but I'm used to investing a lot more money than that in my other businesses. So it was never really a big gamble for me. Besides, I have never really been focused on the money with Evolve. I could have retired and sat on a deserted island a long time ago...well before I started Evolve. But I started Evolve because I love martial arts. It's my greatest passion in life. At this point in my life, I want to give back and to make a positive impact on the world. My pay-off is watching how much Evolve is helping the lives of my students, my fighters, my instructors, my staff...
A lot of fighters come to Thailand to train Muay Thai, are you open to visiting fighters coming and training at Evolve MMA?
Yes, of course. We have many world champions and fighters who come to train with us already. Last year alone, we had Rich Franklin, Roger Gracie, Renzo Gracie, Kyra Gracie, Matt Hume, Ryo Chonan, Saenchai Sor Kingstar, and many other famous fighters come to train here at Evolve MMA. My teacher, Kru Yodtong Senanan, always told me when I was a kid, "the best attract the best and the best produce the best." And you know what...it took me many years to appreciate the depth of those words...but today I really believe in that saying.