June 21, 2019
Forget the fights taking place in the octagon — the biggest upcoming showdown in mixed martial arts might not be between two individual fighters, but between the two biggest organizations of their kind in the world, UFC and ONE Championship. And not for blood, but for ratings.
Already in control of the Asian market as the largest and most popular martial arts organization in the East, ONE Championship recently partnered with Turner Broadcasting and Bleacher Report to bring its product into American homes and is setting up shop with new offices in New York and Los Angeles. And now, according to CEO Chatri Sityodtong, who founded the promotion in 2011, ONE has its sights set on hosting fights in the U.S., possibly as early as the fourth quarter of 2020.
But with such dominance already in Asia, why now?
"We're not doing [this] as a temporary measure, we're doing this as a permanent entry into America with the idea of throwing events in America." — Chatri Sityodtong
"One thing that has become abundantly clear, in terms of our TV ratings and our social media metrics and our digital video views, is that the concept of showcasing authentic martial arts from Asia and celebrating the values of integrity, humility, honor, respect, courage, discipline, and compassion has resonated," Sityodtong told PhillyVoice over the phone from ONE's headquarters in Singapore. "And, I think, because our formula is very much like the Olympics — values, heroes and stories — that these three pillars resonate throughout any country.
"Turner executives were actually in Singapore a few weeks ago and they expressed interest in deepening the relationship with ONE Championship and potentially throwing an event in the U.S. And so we're in the very early stages of discussions for that. But Turner and ONE Championship are both very excited about the progress we've made in just a few months on TNT as well as B/R Live, and we believe that there's something special here that if both companies really put a big effort behind it, it can be significant in the U.S.
"We're opening our New York and L.A. offices this summer, and we're not doing it as a temporary measure, we're doing this as a permanent entry into America with the idea of throwing events in America. So there's lots of potential."
But Sityodtong isn't gunning for UFC. Instead, he envisions a world in which both organizations, because of their inherent differences, could not only survive, but thrive.
"I think it's a global market, just like any other product or service," Sityodtong said. "You know, you have Toyota as the largest car manufacturer in the East, and GM out of the West. You have Apple vs. Samsung. You have Pepsi and Coke, McDonalds and Burger King. The list goes on and on.
"I think we have a very different product than UFC. UFC is obviously No. 1 in the West, and we're No. 1 in the East. But we go about our business very differently, with a different brand and a different strategy and a different product — even the in-stadium experience is very different. One thing we have in common is that we both have the world's best martial artists on our rosters. So I think UFC can succeed and we can succeed."
That, however, isn't entirely true. And it does not mean that UFC can rest on its laurels. In order for ONE to succeed in the United States, at least initially, they'll need to beef up their American roster, something Sityodtong has already begun doing and says he plans on continuing. Given the popularity of UFC in the States, it goes without saying that most of the best American fighters are already in that promotion, meaning that in order for ONE to grow the way Sityodtong wants, UFC will have to lose fighters.
ONE has already stolen several big-name fighters from UFC — like former lightweight champ and Philly native Eddie Alvarez and former flyweight champion Demetrious "Mighty Mouse" Johnson — as well as younger fighters like Sage Northcutt.
The Alvarez connection should be of significant interest to Philly fight fans, as the only man to ever win titles in both UFC and Bellator now has his sights set on a third title. And to hear him tell it, the decision to jump to ONE wasn't only the right one for him, but for his family as well.
Furthermore, Alvarez believes having another top-tier MMA organization for American fighters to chose from might help those fighters earn a better wage. Here's what Alvarez, who lost his ONE debut back in late March, told PhillyVoice recently when asked why he decided to leave UFC to fight with ONE Championship:
"One, I'd be a hypocrite if I stayed in the UFC, because I've been a huge advocate for fighters getting paid more. I believe fighters' pay is super low. It actually doesn't make any sense considering the money is being made and the money is being shared, it just doesn't make any sense. Fighters need to be paid more — I've been saying that for years — and for me to stay on a contract that I know is lower than what I'm worth, and everyone is getting less than they're worth, then I'd be complaining for another four or five years for fighter pay and I would've done nothing about it. That would've made me a hypocrite.
"So, the pay was number one, and number two was, I've won the UFC world title, I've won the Bellator world title, and I just remember how much fun it was in Asia. I fought in Asia back in 2003 and have a huge following there. The fanbase there — fighting is almost like football there. They're a little bit more involved and advanced there than it is in America. So I enjoyed fighting in front of those fans.
"So the money, the fans, and the possibility of getting the trifecta — winning a title in each of the three major organizations. No one's done it, and I have an opportunity to do it, while making a lot of money. So it all really made sense. It was the perfect storm, and I just wanted to be a free agent. I wanted to be free. And I wanted to see what I was worth. And until fighters begin to have the courage to test free agency, nobody's going to know what they're truly worth in the world of fighting. Pay is always going to be low."
Prior to ONE Championship making its presence known in America, the options were extremely limited for fighters wanting to test free agency. But with ONE now a legitimate option for these American fighters in a way it previously was not, the pressure is going to be on UFC to take better care of its athletes, or potentially risk losing them.
And if you're wondering about the level of competition in ONE Championships compared to UFC, you can stop. Not only did Alvarez get knocked out in his debut, but so did Northcutt. The only winner of the three was Johnson, who won via a second-round submission. But Sityodtong doesn't see that as a bad omen for his recently-acquired Americans. Instead, he views it as an example of just how deep and talented the ONE roster is.
"I think the American fans are in for a big treat and a big surprise when we throw our first event in America." — Chatri Sityodtong
"Out of 550 athletes, ONE Championship has 140 world champions across various martial arts. And that's the biggest roster of world champions of any organization in the world," he said. "I think everyone in Asia knew we had the best roster in the world, but it was the first time the North American audience realized that our roster is full of monsters and killers, you know, incredible martial artists.
"I think that was kind of eye opening, but I think at the same time, I think the world of DJ [Demetrious Johnson], Sage [Northcutt] and Eddie [Alvarez] and I believe they're going to do well. Eddie's the only man who's won a Bellator world title and a UFC world title, and he's gunning for the ONE world title. Just because you have a bad start doesn't mean you're going to have a bad career."
[Alvarez's next bout is scheduled for August 2 in Manila, where he will face Filipino lightweight and former champion Eduard Folayang. We'll have more on that fight soon.]
Beyond the deep talent pool, Sityodtong also believes ONE puts on the best show on earth.
"A guy like Eddie Bravo was on Joe Rogan's podcast last year saying that he's been to hundreds of UFC events and he's been to all the Bellator shows, and he said ONE Championship, by far, is the best show he's ever seen, full stop," Sityodtong said. "And I think it speaks volumes that whenever we have anybody — when Renzo Gracie comes here to watch the show at ONE Championships, it's head and shoulders above anything that's in the U.S. So we've had a lot of sports consultants, experts, and just fans who will tell you that ONE Championship has the best stadium product and best live sports broadcast product in the world.
"I think the American fans are in for a big treat and a big surprise when we throw our first event in America."
He's hardly alone in that assessment.
"The show and the production, it's like nothing you've ever seen here in America," Alvarez said of his new organization. "And I don't think it would take long before fans went, 'Holy sh*t, this may be the best fight show I've ever been to.' Just the way they introduce the fighters before the fights, like the old Pride [Fighting Championships] days, and they have the war drums. It's electric inside the building. I've only been to two ONE Championship shows live, personally, and it's been two of the best shows I've ever seen."
According to Sityodtong, it was Turner Broadcasting which first came to him with the idea to bring ONE Championship cards to American soil, a move he sees as anything but temporary. And while the talks are still early, and a potential United States card still more than a year away, Sityodtong has a general idea of the kinds of venues he'd be looking to fill.
And if Alvarez has his way, there could be a card in Philly before too long. After all, Alvarez was a huge advocate for bringing the UFC back to Philly after an eight-year absence. The problem? Not only did it make its return after Alvarez had left for ONE, but it did so on the exact same night as his debut fight.
"I'd be lying if I said that didn't bother me any," Alvarez said when asked about both fights taking place on the same night. "I texted [UFC president] Dana [White] and I said, 'Are you f***ing serious, man?' And he laughed, you know. Whether that was purposefully done or whatever, I have no clue. But it was very convenient. [laughs] Almost too convenient."
But the former North Catholic wrestler might still get to fight in front of his hometown crowd. Now that ONE Championship is planning to bring fights to America, he's already expressed his desire for Sityodtong to book one in Philly — when the time comes, of course.
"I'm going to push for Philly. That's my main goal," Alvarez said. "That's a 'bucket list' [item] of mine, bringing a major organization, whether it was Bellator or UFC, to Philly. [Bringing] ONE would be even better, because it would be a way of introducing one of the largest organizations in the world to the United States."
So is Philly on ONE's radar?
"Yeah, most definitely," Sityodtong said. "We are looking right now at the most iconic stadiums in the U.S. and obviously Philly is a fight town. So there's a definite possibility. And I know, of course, Eddie is trying to fight in Philly, so I'm definitely open for it.
"Look, I love Philly. I've spent a lot of time there when I was in the States because I had a friend there that I'd visit a lot. Great town, great food, great people, and obviously big fight fans. So I would love to throw a fight in Philly with Eddie headlining."
Alvarez — and his Philly faithful — would love that too.
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