While UFC recently announced its first Asian event of 2016 it is business as usual at ONE Championship with a card coming up in China this weekend. Hefei is the eighth city that the promotion has been to so far this year with the schedule set to be ramped up even further in the coming months.
ONE Championship founder and chairman Chatri Sityodtong, who has always taken a hands on role, is now spearheading the next stage of growth as the company starts to transition from putting on one or two events per month to holding weekly cards all across the continent.
He has significant experience in building and growing companies and has ambitious plans for ONE Championship,
"ONE Championship has seen a meaningful acceleration in business momentum in the last 6 months. We are on the verge of becoming mainstream and we can feel it in every area of our business. Over the next 3-5 years, our internal plan is to ramp up to 52 events per year or a live event every weekend. I truly believe that ONE Championship will be embraced by all of Asia. We will be woven into the fabric of Asian society and daily life."
While Pride FC used to put on the biggest MMA shows on the planet it was aimed exclusively at the Japanese market. There's never been a truly pan Asian promotion before and Chatri believes this has been key to ONE Championship's success,
"ONE Championship is in a unique and fortunate position. We do not really have competitors. No one else throws live events and live broadcasts on a pan-Asian basis. We are now in 118 countries."
The UFC recently confirmed a card in Manila on October 15 which will be the promotion's first and possibly only event in Asia. While it appears the company won't be sold to Chinese investors after all Chatri believes Dana White and co still have ambitions in the east,
"I don't think that UFC has given up on Asia. While it is true that they have been here for seven years without much traction, I think they simply underestimated how difficult it is culturally. You cannot just use an American formula and expect it to work here in Asia. It is one thing to throw events in North America where the culture, values, laws and tastes are almost homogenous. Asia is the complete opposite. Lorenzo and Dana are great business leaders and I am sure that they will figure it out over time."
With at least couple of consortiums reportedly frustrated in their attempts to purchase the UFC for upwards of four billion dollars rumours of a ONE Championship sale have intensified. However Chatri states clearly that this isn't on the agenda,
"ONE Championship is not for sale. We have been approached in the past, but we have never engaged in discussions. ONE Championship will cross the $1 billion valuation mark in the next 12-18 months. Our growth has been in the triple digit percent annually and we have not even begun to scratch the surface of the opportunity in Asia. There are 4.1 billion people here. We have a long, long runway of growth ahead of us. Since the beginning, my dream has always been to create Asia's first multibillion dollar sports media property. Nothing has changed."
This weekend Hefei will become the fourth city in mainland China to host a ONE Championship event. In other countries cards have always taken place in the capital but Chatri says that the sheer scale of China means a different approach is required,
"China is a huge market with big cities. A second tier city in China still has a population of 10 million. And there are dozens of them. It is crazy to think of those numbers, but China is amazing."
At ONE Championship's most recent event the strawweight title changed hands with Yoshiyuki Naito submitting previous champion Dejdamrong Sor Amnuaysirichoke. Japan has traditionally been the biggest powerhouse in Asian MMA but Chatri believes nations like his native Thailand are starting to catch up
"For sure, Japan has a head start over other Asian countries, given its rich history in MMA. However, I believe the gap will close very soon. Asia has been the home of martial arts for 5,000 years. We are a continent of warriors."
Angela Lee was recently crowned ONE Championship's first ever atomweight champion and Chatri believes that embracing the lighter weight classes is vital for any Asian promotion,
"It is very important. Genetically Asians have smaller builds than Caucasians. Also, it is no secret in the martial arts world that heavyweights are far less technical than their lower weight class counterparts. ONE Championship wants to showcase the beauty of real martial arts."
At ONE: 'Dynasty of Champions' this weekend Ann Osman is slated to face Haiat Farag Youssef. The organization has been featuring female fighters since 2012 and Chatri says he doesn't discriminate when looking at prospective additions to the roster,
"For me, I care about showcasing the beauty of martial arts, I don't look at gender per se. If you look at Angela Lee for example, she is a complete martial artist with beautiful technique everywhere. We want superheroes who are the real deal as martial artists and who are exemplary role models as human beings."
In the Philippines basketball is king and everyone watches the NBA. The English Premier League is watched all over Asia but while places like India and Pakistan can be proud of their country's cricket teams most people across the continent are watching sports that feature very few Asian faces.
Fighters from South Korea, Japan, the Philippines, Mongolia and Thailand have already held ONE Championship titles. Myanmar's Aung La Nsang could be in line for a shot at the middleweight belt if he wins this weekend and Chatri thinks this is part of the promotion's appeal,
"ONE Championship has local relevance and global appeal because Asians genuinely are the best martial artists on the planet. All human beings on the planet love to root for superheroes who remind them of themselves. Historically, Asians have never really had many Asian superheroes on the global stage, except for Manny Pacquiao and a few others. ONE Championship is in the process of changing that. We are going to create and build Asian superheroes that the entire continent can rally behind."
This weekend Mongolia's Narantungalag Jadambaa takes on Eric Kelly from the Philippines in the main event of ONE: 'Dynasty of Champions'. In total there are 14 Asian fighters on the card which will be the fifth that the promotion has put in China.
Taiwan, Malaysia Myanmar, Indonesia and Singapore are all booked to host ONE Championship cards before the end of the year with other countries likely to be added to the schedule. The search for local talent goes on and Chatri hopes that the next Manny Pacquiao, an Asian fighter recognized all over the world, will not be a boxer but a mixed martial artist.