Exclusive Interview: Chatri Sityodtong On All Things ONE Championship

In some exciting news to kickstart the new year, we will be collaborating with the brilliant Chok! Magazine in 2020. The next edition of Chok! comes out next month. And to give our readers a taste of what to expect, we’re sharing their fantastic in depth interview with the ONE Championship CEO, Chatri Sityodtong from a year ago.

Hi Chatri, great to see you, great to also see things going so well. Please tell us a little about life over the past few months…

It’s been a crazy adventure, but I love everything about it! I am full of gratitude and appreciation to the millions of fans who support ONE Championship. It is because of our fans that I can live the life of my dreams. ONE Championship is now broadcast in 138 countries, and we are scaling to 194 countries over the next few years. We are also going from 24 events this year to 52 events per year over the next few years.

In 2019, ONE Championship will host 30 events across all of the major iconic cities of Asia such as Tokyo, Bangkok, Shanghai, Manila, Singapore, Jakarta and the rest. As such, my travel schedule is quite hectic. I work 7 days a week with meetings all day.

Congrats too on the massive media exposure for ONE this past year, ONE seems to be exploding all over the world now – an overnight success or years of hard work, blood, sweat and few tears?

I would say that I got lucky in life. I count my blessings every day, and I wake up in the morning with a deep sense of gratitude in my heart. It’s been 7 incredible years, but people probably don’t know that the first 3 years were a disaster.

From 2011-2014, I faced thousands of failures and rejections every day, every week, every month. It was very difficult. In those difficult years, no one understood us. Broadcasters refused to air us. Advertisers and sponsors rejected us. Governments didn’t want us. Employees didn’t want to join us. Those days were very, very hard. However, I always say that you have to fight through the worst days of your life to earn the best days of your life.

Today, ONE Championship is Asia’s largest global sports media property in history. As global sports properties, ONE Championship and F1 are approximately the same size now across every major statistic – number of events, countries, potential viewers, of fans on social media, etc.

I believe that ONE Championship’s success is due to our formula. ONE Championship is a celebration of Asia’s greatest cultural treasure, martial arts, and its deep-rooted Asian values of integrity, humility, respect, honor, courage, discipline, and compassion. We are 180 degrees opposite from any other major global martial arts organization in the world. The reality is Asia has been the home of martial arts for 5,000 years.

“ONE Championship is the home of martial arts with real authenticity. Our heroes are the best in the world, but they are also humble, kind, and inspirational role models for society.”

Can you share some of your greatest moments?

I have so many memories.  For me, the greatest moments are not about TV ratings or money or numbers.  It is the people and the stories that touch my heart. For example, the most poignant memory of 2016 was ONE Championship in Bangkok, Thailand. It was one of the most emotional days of my life. I remember standing by myself at one point during the night, looking up in awe at the stadium full of 15,000 screaming fans, and thinking how blessed I was to receive so much love and support. The entire week was a media frenzy due to our live global broadcast to 1.7 billion homes around the world alongside the live performance of Thailand’s two biggest pop bands (Bodyslam and BIG ASS) as a part of our event.

Many years ago, I left Thailand in poverty and shame when my family went bankrupt, penniless, and homeless. And my father eventually abandoned us. When I was surviving on $4 a day in America, I never thought that I would return home to Thailand. I certainly never imagined that I would return home to throw the largest sports entertainment event in Thailand’s history.

The evening was punctuated though by a single mom and her two young daughters who rushed over to have their photo taken with me. The mom told me, with tears in her eyes, how my life story inspired all of them to work hard to escape poverty too. They had never had any interest in martial arts, but they came to the event because they wanted to meet me.

I almost never cry, but I had tears in my eyes. I hugged them tightly, and told them to fight for their dreams with everything they had, and to never, never, ever give up. Life might be full of suffering, but it is also full of beauty and love.

I am truly blessed with this precious opportunity to live my dreams and to serve as an inspiration to others.

Another great memory for me was when Myanmar crowned its first ever World Champion in history for any sport. The nation of 54 million people celebrated one of its most magical moments with joyous unity. ONE Middleweight World Champion Aung La Nsang delivered a poignant speech to his country after his stunning upset victory, “I am not strong, I am not good, I am not fast. But with you, I have the courage, I have the strength, I have the respect, I have what it takes to win a world title. Thank you, Myanmar!”

Aung La N Sang with his two ONE belts
Image courtesy of ONE Championship

Since Day 1, our mission at ONE Championship has been to unleash real life superheroes who ignite the world with hope, dreams, inspiration and strength across all segments of society. Millions of children all over Myanmar now have a superhero to call their own, a role model who is humble, kind, gentle, courageous, and strong. That night, dreams were born in the hearts of millions of children across the entire country of Myanmar.  Aung La gave his country the belief that any dream is possible.  For Aung La, he battled impossible odds with hard work and humility to achieve one of his greatest dreams in life. Thank you for inspiring all of us to dream more, do more, and be more in life, Aung La!

Please tell our readers a little about yourself – where do you come from, how did you get involved in Muay Thai, fight sports in general and now in ONE Championship?

I have been doing martial arts for over 30+ years.  I still train almost every day even with my crazy schedule with ONE Championship.  For me, training is always the best time of my crazy hectic day.  I have also been doing Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu for several years.  My history with martial arts goes back a long way.  Let me share a personal story.  

I saw my teacher, Kru Yodtong Senanan, for the last time in early 2013 when we pushed his casket into the crematorium for cremation. When I was a kid over 30+ years ago, he took me under his wing to teach me the art of Muay Thai. It was very difficult to know that I would never see him again. Thousands of people from all over Thailand (and even around the world) flocked to his funeral to pay respect to one of the greatest legends in history. Without a doubt, he gave this world far more than he ever received from it.

“Success can never be measured by big houses, luxury cars, or fancy clothes. For me, greatness can only be measured by what you do for others.”

He developed the most beautiful, technical style of Muay Thai. He produced the most number of Muay Thai World Champions in history. He helped thousands of orphans and underprivileged children lead a better life. He changed the world.

He died as he had lived most of his life – penniless. He was not penniless because he lived a materialistic life. He was not penniless because he couldn’t make any money. He was not penniless because he had bad luck. He was penniless simply because he always chose to give everything he had to those less fortunate than himself. His generosity was the definition of the human spirit born free.

Kru Yodtong

I will share a true story about Kru Yodtong Senanan that is well-known all over Thailand.  This story best captures who my teacher, Kru Yodtong, was as a human being. Several years ago, Kru Yodtong won US$2 million in the lottery in Thailand. People from all over the region flocked to Sityodtong Camp and he proceeded to give away all of his winnings – one by one – based on each stranger’s individual story of need and poverty. He listened to each story and he gave out what he thought was an appropriate amount to each person. For a few days straight, Sityodtong Camp was a sea of people – literally. It was a crazy mad zoo. At the end of those few days, Kru Yodtong gave away everything he had even though he was poor himself.

His whole life was about giving to the world. He gave thousands of impoverished children and orphans an opportunity to change their lives through the art of Muay Thai. He not only taught all of his students how to fight, but he taught us how to live.

Success can never be measured by big houses, luxury cars, or fancy clothes. For me, greatness can only be measured by what you do for others. I don’t believe that we were put on this Earth just to live an easy, comfortable life. I believe that we were put on this Earth to unleash our potential so that we may give back to the world more than we receive. Thank you Kru for not only teaching me how to fight in the ring, but for teaching me how to live life. Until we meet again, I will do my best to honor your legacy.

“Martial arts is what I love. Martial arts is who I am.”

You also own and run EVOLVE, a very successful gym based in Singapore – and still train daily! What does your personal and regular “gym” day look like?

Yes, I still train almost every day. Martial arts is what I love. Martial arts is who I am. I have been a student, a fighter, an instructor, a coach, and now a CEO.  My typical daily routine is a 30 minute run, 7 rounds x 5 minutes of Muay Thai, 500 situps, and 500 push ups.  Or I might roll with one of our Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu black belts for 5 rounds x 5 minutes.  It really depends on my mood and my energy level. Some days, I go super hard, and other days I go light and technical. 

Of course, I cannot do what I used to do when I was young. I also recently started lifting weights, but I hate it. I do it around 1-2x a week. That being said, I would much rather do martial arts than lift weights. The bad news is that I get my ass kicked by all of our world champions at EVOLVE. The good news is that I get to learn from all of our world champions at EVOLVE. I am truly blessed to live the life of my dreams!

You have recently signed some of the worlds top Muay Thai fighters to ONE Championship, big things ahead?

Bar none, ONE Super Series is the world’s #1 martial arts league today with the greatest strikers on the planet. Here are just a few of the World Champions who are now competing exclusively in ONE Championship:

Giorgio Petrosyan, Yodsanklai Fairtex, Andy Souwer, Nong-O Gaiyanghadao, Petchmorrakot Wor. Sangprapai, Sam-A Gaiyanghadao, Rodtang Jitmuangnon, Cosmo Alexandre, Petchboonchu FA Group, Yodlekpet Or.Pitisak, Kulabdam Sor Jor Piekuthai, Charlie Peters, Jo Nattawut, Lerdsila Chumparetour, Sagetdao Petpayathai, Liam Harrison, Kwankhao Mor. Rattanabandit, Sergio Wielzen, Panicos Yusuf, Petchdam Kaiyanghadao, Yohann Fairtex Drai, Masahide Kudo, Armen Petrosyan, Alain Ngalani, Sergio Wielzen, Chris Ngimbi, Dejdamrong Sor Amnuaysirichoke, Andre Meunier, Daniel Dawson, Enriko Kehl, Kai Ting Chuang, Stamp Fairtex, Ognjen Topic, Saemapetch Fairtex, Sok Thy, Singtongnoi Por Telakun, and many other world champion mega superstars.

Also, almost all of the current best fighters in Thailand are now signed to ONE Super Series.  We are aggressively signing up more of the world’s best strikers across all martial arts disciplines such as Kickboxing, Sanda, Muay Thai, Karate, Taekwondo, and more.

You are constantly on the move, where do you like to train around the world when you are travelling?

I normally travel with one of my Muay Thai World Champions from EVOLVE everywhere I go. They accompany me so that I can train at the hotel or at a local martial arts gym. I count myself very lucky that I get to train 1-on-1 whenever I want. I bring my own trainer when I travel because I don’t have the luxury anymore of just walking into a local martial arts school. Nowadays, I get mobbed by fans who want selfies or autographs with me, so I try to avoid places where people recognize me. 

This part is the downside of ONE Championship’s success, but I am still blessed with so many other positive things. In the old days before ONE Championship, I could just walk into a martial arts gym and train and no one would recognize me. In a way, I miss those days. 

MMA and Muay Thai for sure, just read about your plans to move into boxing too. Have you also been trained to box?

No, I have never learned boxing formally. Of course, I know how to punch because of my Muay Thai training, but my punches are definitely not as good as someone who only boxes. Yes, ONE Championship has moved into boxing with one of the biggest fights in Asian history with WBC World Champion Srisaket Sor Rungvisai on October 6 (2018) in Bangkok. If you look at ESPN rankings, he is in the top 5 pound-for-pound in the world. He might have dynamite in his hands, but the real story is his life story. He used to be so poor that he collected garbage to eat for his meals. Today, he is one of the greatest boxers in the history of Thailand. Above all, he is a kind and humble man with a heart of gold. I was very lucky to meet his manager and promoter, Thainchai Pisitwuttinan.

ONE: Kingdom of Heroes

For fans that follow ONE Championship but also the UFC, what are the major differences? Can you highlight some of the factors that make ONE Championship so successful, especially in Asia?

To be frank, I really hate it when people compare us to UFC. UFC and ONE are complete opposites of each other. Of course, there is a global duopoly in martial arts today whereby UFC dominates the Western hemisphere and ONE dominates the Eastern hemisphere. We both have the best athletes in the world. However, beyond that, there are zero similarities. ONE Championship is a celebration of Asia’s greatest cultural treasure and its deep-rooted Asian values of integrity, humility, honor, respect, compassion, discipline, and courage. Our heroes are the world’s best martial artists, and they are incredible role models to society. In 7 years since I started ONE Championship, we have not had a single scandal with any of our athletes. I don’t think UFC can say the same thing.

UFC is a great organization with a formula that works in the West, but it really is a bloodsport with a focus on violence, hatred, anger, controversy, disrespect, and hostility. You can see it in their press conferences and how they market. For me, I will not tolerate or allow any of that negative nonsense in ONE.

ONE Championship is authentic martial arts. In Asia, martial arts is a way of life for us. It is about values, heroes, and stories. It is the warrior way of life. It means honor, humility, respect. ONE Championship is led by a CEO who is a lifelong martial arts. It is not led by businessmen. Authenticity is very important to me.

Chatri, what in your opinion makes a Champion?

Over the last 30+ years, I’ve been blessed with the good fortune of working with, and/or training with, and/or learning from many World Champions. I’ve witnessed first-hand the process of forging a beginner into a World Champion several times. And I’ve also been “behind-the-scenes” with many world-class athletes who went on to fulfil their dreams of becoming World Champions.

I could talk at length about this fascinating subject, but I will keep it short.

For me, one defining characteristic is an athlete who can perform under any circumstance. Most athletes can perform when conditions are perfect, but it is the rare athlete who can perform when conditions are terrible. If you talk to any World Champion, he/she will tell you of stories when he/she had to compete with a fever, a serious injury, a broken bone, no training, food poisoning, family problems, malnutrition, jet lag, poverty, a poor training camp, dehydration, or even pneumonia. And yet, they somehow emerged victorious.

“This X factor is not about talent or hard work or competence. It is 100% about what is in a person’s soul. It is the will to win, and the application of that will to find a way to win. It is a level of mental toughness and intelligence that very few people in the world truly understand.”

Another key characteristic is the rate of learning. As Charles Darwin so aptly put it, it is not the strongest or smartest that survives. It is the one that adapts, learns, and evolves most efficiently to the changing environment that survives. In the martial arts world, humility is the key to learning. Humble athletes listen, learn, absorb, adapt, and evolve. They don’t close their minds to new ways, but they also don’t shun old ways. They surround themselves with greatness to unleash their greatness. They learn from everyone around them. Of course, it is very difficult to maintain humility throughout the process of going from beginner to World Champion.

Fame and money do a lot to destroy humility. However, it is no coincidence that some of the most humble people I know are all World Champions. They are the rare ones who resisted the temptations of success and maintained a level of humility and hunger throughout the process.

In my job, people tell me all the time that they want to be a World Champion and that I should sign them up or support their career. The sad reality is that 99% of these athletes really have no clue what it takes. They want the fame, glory, and money of a World Champion, but they are unwilling to endure the suffering, pain, and heartbreak of that dream. The journey is a long arduous one that requires thousands of hours of boring, focused, mundane training, numerous failures, many heartbreaks, and super human resiliency.

It also requires an army of family, friends, training partners, coaches, businessmen, companies, and fans to make it happen. The truth is that talent and hard work are simply prerequisites for this journey. Lastly, it takes a lot of good luck to become a World Champion. The road to becoming a World Champion is littered with many, many talented and hard-working athletes who never got a lucky break. When you put all of these pieces together, it highlights why a World Champion is 1 in 7 billion.

Thanks for your time Chatri, all the best for you, your family and of course all your ventures – to close please answer our “5-Rounds” questions:

– Favourite fighter? Angela Lee

– Favourite food? Thai food!

– Favourite band/music? I don’t really have one, but I like Kanye West and Ed Sheeran. Of course, I am a fan of legends like Bob Marley or Michael Jackson.

– When I am old I want to: Look back at my life and smile from all of the incredible memories. I want to know that I lived with all of my heart, and gave the world more than I received.

– Happiness is: Living a life that ignites your soul. You see, a man is not what he owns. A man is what he loves. Martial arts is what I love. Martial arts is who I am.

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