|ONE Championship Chairman Chatri Sityodtong, right, puts his arms around Korean-Japanese mixed martial artist Yoshihiro Akiyama, who is better known as Choo Sung-hoon in Korea, at ONE Championship headquarters in Singapore in this November 2018 file photo. / Courtesy of ONE Championship|
MMA promotion to bring 'real martial arts' into Korea
By Park Jae-hyuk
ONE Championship is seeking closer ties with Korean athletes and conglomerates including LG Electronics, after it decided to host an event in Seoul in December 2019, according to the chairman of the Singapore-based mixed martial arts (MMA) promotion.
The world's largest martial arts organization recently signed a contract with Yoshihiro Akiyama, a former UFC fighter who is better known as Choo Sung-hoon in Korea.
Chairman Chatri Sityodtong of ONE Championship said the recent contract with the Korean-Japanese mixed martial artist was obviously relevant to his company's entry into Korea, a country which still lacks world-class promotions despite its long history of martial arts.
"He's a Korean superstar and a very nice guy," Sityodtong said during a recent telephone interview with The Korea Times. "I'm very excited to have him on board. He's one of the greatest martial artists to ever come out of Korea, and at the same time, he's a gentleman and a celebrity."
The athlete is known more as an entertainer among Koreans unfamiliar with MMA because he has appeared in reality TV shows and commercials with his daughter, Choo Sa-rang.
Sityodtong praised Akiyama for his positive reputation in Korea.
According to the chairman, the judoka is the one who is suitable for the "Asian value," one of three pillars of ONE Championship.
"We want to celebrate Asian values of integrity, humility, honor, respect, courage, discipline and compassion," Sityodtong said. "We also want to celebrate Asian heroes on the global stage, for the whole world to see. And we want to tell their stories."
The chairman was confident about changing the "dirty image" of MMA in Korea.
"We have a very clean image, because we're backed by the Singaporean government and our leadership team is run by three Harvard MBAs," he said.
He emphasized his company is very serious about the Korean market, saying events in Korea will be a regular part of ONE Championship tours.
According to the chairman, his company has been in discussions with many other Korean athletes and conglomerates, to prevent the recurrence of a problem it faced early 2018, when it retracted its plan to host an event in Seoul, after failing to secure the athletes it wanted.
Sityodtong said ONE Championship will disclose names of new Korean athletes and business partners in the first quarter of 2019. The chairman also plans to visit Korea in January.
Rivalry with UFC
The rapid expansion of ONE Championship in Asia has been regarded as a part of efforts to defeat another global martial arts promotion in the western world, UFC. Their global duopoly has allowed each of them to dominate its respective hemisphere so far.
Sityodtong, however, expects ONE Championship will ultimately win against its rival.
"Western promotions sell violence, blood, hatred, anger and controversy, but I don't think that formula will work in the long-run," he said. "In the long-term, the best formula is like that of the Olympics. That's why 1 billion people watch the Olympics."
The chairman claimed he has run ONE Championship in a proper manner, like that of the Olympics.
"We want to celebrate Asian heroes and their amazing lifestyle of overcoming impossible odds to become the world champion. It inspires the whole world, so our formula is the same as that of the Olympics," he said. "All the Asian fans love us, because we don't do trash talking or sell anger, hatred and controversy. We focus on good people, good heroes and strong values. That's why we've become very popular."
According to the chairman, the number of viewers per event jumped to 20 million on average from 700,000 in 2015 as the organization now broadcasts in 138 countries with 1.7 billion potential viewers.
He said ONE Championship will maintain this popularity as it will never sign contracts with some of the UFC's biggest stars, such as Conor McGregor and Jon Jones, who are regarded as controversial characters.
"I want to celebrate real martial arts, authentic martial arts, Asian values and Asian heroes," he said. "That's what we really care about most."
Life with Asian values
The chairman, who put the emphasis on Asian values throughout the interview, has demonstrated their importance during the course of his 47 years of life.
Born to a Thai father and a Japanese mother, he was once homeless and lived on one meal per day as his father abandoned the family after going bankrupt.
However, Sityodtong became a self-made multimillionaire entrepreneur, after perfecting his martial arts skills and graduating with a bachelor's degree in economics at Tufts University in Massachusetts and obtaining an MBA from Harvard Business School.
He served as an investment analyst at Fidelity Investments and a management consultant at Bain & Company. After having worked on Wall Street for about a decade, he retired as a hedge fund manager, and founded ONE Championship.
He now owns stakes in real estate, sports, retail, technology and media.
However, Sityodtong proclaimed himself as a martial artist, despite amassing such a large fortune.
"I've been doing martial arts for 34 years, and I train in Muay Thai and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu every day even now. But I've been doing businesses only for about 25 years," he said. "I would say, my heart is martial arts and my mind is business."