How ONE Championship founder went from poverty to founding Asia’s top MMA promotion…
By Gareth A Davies
The rise of ONE Championship is a pretty remarkable story in itself, yet the rise of its founder and owner Chatri Sityodtong is even more incredible. Utter rags to untold riches. Yet the 42-year-old who is half-Thai and half-Japanese, named by Forbes last year as the ‘Most Influential Executive in Asian MMA’, within the sport as the ‘Most Powerful Person in Asian MMA’ and in the top three ‘Most Influential Global Leaders in MMA’, was once so poor as a student at Harvard Business School, he eked out an existence on a pittance. He even had his penniless mother sleeping in his dormitory with him. Now, 15 years later, his fortune stands at many millions of US dollars and his promotion is on target to be worth more than a billion.
From small acorns…
Chatri told me his incredible story, underlining that a love of martial arts had carried the Kru in Muay Thai and blue belt in BJJ through his bare-cupboard days. Born in 1971 in Pattaya, Thailand, he had been an ordinary kid. He lived a comfortable life for many years – until his life was turned upside down.
“Things went bad for my family in the Asian financial crisis. That was before I entered Harvard. Basically, the family business got wiped out. Penniless, homeless, jobless, everything. Later on, my father abandoned the family,” he explained as we sat in the opulence of the Four Seasons Hotel in London’s swanky Mayfair and one of the most fascinating people I’ve ever met in fight sports unveiled a salutary life story.
It’s a real fighter’s tale. From nothing, he lined his burgeoning bank balance as a hedge fund manager on Wall Street and Silicon Valley, once out of Harvard. He was good at it. Very good at it. Buying and selling in capital markets and training himself entrepreneurship in the start-up world. He bought and sold companies all over the globe. He made thousands of investments over a ten-year career. Then he decided to turn into something good. For himself and others.
“When I look back at my life I feel so full of gratitude for all the bad things that happened to me. The fact I had to survive on four dollars a day and my parents went bust and I left Thailand in shame and poverty, my family name destroyed, dealing with all that negative energy. It taught me so many amazing things about life.”
The tough times were the best times, perhaps. “It taught me about courage and work ethic. And conquering odds. But it also taught me about friendship and family and love,” he explained, adding that his first son, Tyrus was born just a few weeks ago, as the businessman now hops the globe between homes in Boston and Singapore.
“It taught me about sacrifice. A lot of things I feel so grateful for. I really don’t think I would have been able to succeed in life without having gone through that fire. That was my test in life. If I had failed that I don’t deserve any of my dreams. I think in some weird way the universe or God or whatever said, ‘Here’s your test. If you pass it, good things will come. If you succumb to it, you don’t deserve good things.’”
Luck, fortune – call it what you will – but they did. Back to those days in Harvard, and life seemed so different. “I had a lot of internal turmoil before I decided I was going to go to America and roll the dice. The last thing I wanted was to be in a situation where I went to Harvard, took out a big student loan and then failed to graduate for whatever reason. My family would be even worse off.
“But at the lowest point, we were surviving on four dollars a day in America and trying to figure out what was going to happen. I ate one meal a day and I would ration it throughout the day. Sometimes I only had one meal a day. At the time, I didn’t even have enough money to pay for school fees or books or anything like that. I was literally scratching my head to see how I’d pay for the next semester. At the same time, I didn’t have any confidence in myself. I always felt like a fish out of water at Harvard Business School because I was never academically gifted. I was the poorest kid there and I felt like I didn’t belong.”
He was wracked “full of fear and insecurity and doubts”, he explains.
“Even in my first semester, I remember wondering if I made the right choice.” Then his mother came to stay with him, sharing his dormitory. “My mum really pushed me to make something for myself and bring the family out of poverty. I have a younger brother. Through the power of my mum’s love, she pushed me off the proverbial cliff to see if I could fly.”
His mother’s love, though, and his dedication to martial arts carried him through that time. “I was very blessed that I had thousands of hours of martial arts training that had already forged in me an unbreakable warrior spirit and a desire to conquer adversity. A desire to continue self-improvement. I didn’t have massive confidence, but it was more of a warrior’s attitude in life.”
Muay Thai, he says, taught him so much. “Muay Thai in Thailand is very much our greatest national treasure. It’s not about fighting. Muay Thai is actually about unleashing human potential. It gives its practitioners integrity, humility, work ethic, discipline, kindness, so many attributes. The sheer toughness of training breaks you down in that regard. If you don’t have those attributes you’ll definitely fail as a Muay Thai fighter. We celebrate the beauty of it – the cultural values it imparts on its practitioners.”
Driven by the values Sityodtong lives by, ONE Championship has grown exponentially in just a few short years and is expected to be valued at more than $1 billion within the next 12-18 months. Not bad for a promotion that began in July 2011. It’s an incredible story of success – not unlike its founder’s.
*** For more of this fascinating feature check out the August 2017 issue of Fighters Only ***
*** ONE: Dynasty of Heroes takes place this Friday (May 26) at the Singapore Indoor Stadium, Kallang, Singapore ***