Chatri Trisiripisal, better known by his ring name, Chatri Sityodtong — the multimillionaire owner of One Championship, which hosts mixed martial arts (MMA) tournaments across Asia — is admittedly living the dream.
When he was a teenager, he wrote down all his dreams in life, and high up on the list at No 3 or 4 was setting up a Muay Thai gym — one that pays its trainers generously and treats them with fairness and respect.
“You could be the world champion [in Muay Thai], but after you are done fighting, you could be a tuk-tuk driver or [security] guard, or selling fruits... discarded by society,” Chatri says in an exclusive interview with Options. “I always thought to myself, ‘Muay Thai is a beautiful art. It is the greatest cultural heritage of Thailand, so why should we treat our heroes this way?’”
So, Chatri started Evolve MMA in 2009 and two years later, One Championship. Both have grown substantially. Today, One Championship is an almost US$1 billion ($1.3 billion) company, whose shareholders include Temasek Holdings and California-based venture capital firm Sequoia Capital.
His gym, Evolve, which is dedicated to MMA, pays trainers between $8,000 and $15,000 a month and operates at four locations in Singapore — Orchard Road, Far East Square, PoMo Mall and One KM.
Evolve has a whole host of stars in both Muay Thai and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu teaching and training at its premises, some of whom are world -champions at One Championship.
Training under a master
He set up his gym in Chonburi and is widely regarded as the greatest Muay Thai instructor of all time. Some of the more famous champions to emerge from Sityodtong or under Yodtong’s guidance include Samart Payakaroon, Daothong -Sityodtong, Chartchai Sityodtong, Yoddecha -Sityodtong, the late Ramon Dekkers, Ernesto Hoost and Daotong Sityodtong.
Yodtong gave Chatri the honour of using the name “Sityodtong” when he turned 19.
Chatri says of Yodtong: “I used to run 12km and do 15 rounds [of sparring], and that was in the morning. In the afternoon, again I ran 12km, then did [another] 15 rounds. And my body was tired and broken and it was so painful. Some days, you just wanted to quit, but if you quit, you would never train with Yodtong again.
“So, you could barely move, but you wouldn’t quit. That warrior spirit is forged and developed over many, many thousands of hours of training. When you kick a pad, it hurts, but you have to keep going, and that is the discipline every martial art teaches.”
Chatri has about 30 professional fights under his belt. He talks about his early days as a fighter. “I was a kid back then, in my first year. I remember it being very, very scary and also very exciting. It made me feel alive. I just felt like something was set free in my soul and I was completely naked spiritually in the ring,” he says.
“It’s not about fighting somebody, but about conquering yourself. It’s about exploring yourself, understanding your limits, and that was what I found so beautiful. Now, after 30 years, I still train every day. You must understand that practising martial arts is actually about the journey of continuous self-improvement, unleashing your potential as a human being.”
The training instilled in Chatri a “never say die” attitude.
Hitting rock bottom
“It was terrible. Two thirds of the banks in Thailand went bankrupt, the stock market fell 95%, suicide rates were at an all-time high... it was a massive depression,” Chatri says.
His father, who was in the real estate business, suffered, and eventually went bankrupt. The family lost their house and his father abandoned the family. Chatri, his mother and a brother had to fend for themselves.
“That was a low point,” he reminisces.
At the time, he managed to secure a scholarship to study at Harvard in the US, but had to survive on a measly US$4 a day. Things got so bad that his mother had to live with him in the dormitory.
“Yes, there were days when I cried and wanted to quit... just give up my dreams, but because of my mother’s love and my martial arts training, I stayed a fighter. Those days, I felt very alone, but at the same time, peaceful, because everything in my life was real. The people in your life, they are there because they love you for who you are,” Chatri says.
“I sat on a bench at Harvard and thought, ‘I could sit and count all the things that are wrong with my life’, but I sat there, looked up and thought, ‘Man, it’s a beautiful, beautiful day; look at the birds, look at the trees, look how lucky you are; you have your health, your mum, your brother’, and I remember that gave me a feeling of peace.
“This is also the beauty of martial arts. If every child learns martial arts, they will get the discipline, they will get the work ethic, they will get the courage, they will get the fighting spirit… I’m not talking about being a fighter; I’m talking about the fighting spirit, for whatever your dreams are in life.”
Making it in the world
“I owned Izara Capital. When I retired as a hedge fund manager, I was already set. I didn’t have to work another day in my life if I didn’t want to. By the time I was 32, I was a multimillionaire and could retire anytime, but when I walked away from Wall Street finally, I was 37,” Chatri says.
While he does not disclose any figures, One Championship raised US$100 million at the outset, and a chunk of that was linked to Chatri.
Over the past five years or so, One Championship has grown substantially. It is now Asia’s largest global sports media property, with more than a billion viewers across 128 countries. It is set to become a US$1 billion company in the next few months.
However, for Chatri, this is just the beginning. “Every region of the world has several multibillion-dollar sports properties. The US has NBA, NFL and Nascar, and Europe has F1, BPL, Bundesliga and Spanish La Liga,” he says. “All these properties are worth a few billion, up to US$40 billion to US$50 billion apiece. Asia has nothing on a Pan-Asian scale. So, there is no reason why this cannot rival EPL, NBA or NFL.”
Chatri carries himself with the poise and confidence of an accomplished fighter and has the soul of a warrior. Despite appearances, he is a humble man, on a mission to promote martial arts as a way of life. He shares his views with Options on his journey in life.
How has it been thus far?
But at the same time, I also feel a big, deep sense of responsibility as CEO of Asia’s largest sports media property, broadcast in 128 countries — how our heroes are perceived, the values we spread to millions, if not billions, of kids around the world.
I want all of our heroes to show integrity, humility, kindness, respect, honour... these are the things I want to spread to the world, a sense of positive energy, hope, strength and dreams. We spend a lot of time at One Championship thinking about these things.
Even at Evolve, I teach all of my world champions how to live a full life.
You managed to rope in Temasek. How did you accomplish that?
And you have other investors?
We are celebrating martial arts, Asia’s greatest cultural treasure, but doing it in a way that we -celebrate values — Asian values of integrity, humility, kindness, respect, courage... these are the things we are spreading.
The Asian way is different. Look at Manny Pacquiao. He is a very respectful, honourable man. Look at Jackie Chan, at Jet Li. They are very good at what they do, but it’s about humility, honour, respect... these are Asian values. I’m trying to bring back authentic martial arts to the world.
I feel that our Western counterparts have -destroyed everything through senseless violence and blood sport and marketing of negative behaviour, negative energy... the wrong values quite frankly.
Are you profitable as yet?
Do you think this whole MMA thing is just hype? Will it die down anytime soon?
I think it’s possible that some organisations may end up being hype because they are just focusing on violence. For us, I’m celebrating what has been in Asia for 5,000 years… Asia is the home of martial arts.
There’s no way it’s going to die. I’m trying to bridge the traditional with the modern, to bridge the beautiful history of martial arts with modern culture and show the youngsters of the world how beautiful it is — and Asia should be proud. We should unite and celebrate our greatest cultural treasure.
There is a lot of spirituality in martial arts, at the very high level at least. How does that fit in with what you do?
Rather than have a press conference where people hate each other and call each other and their mothers names, throw water bottles at each other, our heroes talk very respectfully about each other and their martial arts. Our promotions, videos and the articles that we write are all about their life stories — incredible adversity, they come from poverty, from an orphanage, and go through tragedies to become world champions. Why do we do that? Because our goal is to inspire the world with our heroes. Our goal is to celebrate values so that everyone can look and say, ‘That is my hero’.
These heroes teach us how to live an honourable life, respectful life, live with dignity, humility, courage, strength, dreams, be inspired... this is what One Championship is about. You will never see any negative energy from us. We have a different approach and that is why I believe we have long-term sustainability. This is not a fad.
In your journey thus far, what have been the high and low points?
Our heroes serve that purpose, just as my life story serves that purpose for people going through a tough time. Maybe their fathers abandoned them, maybe they are living in poverty — like my background. You don’t have to come from the best background, you don’t have to come from the best anything in life, you just have to make the best of your life. So, those moments for me were very precious.
Another was when Aung La N Sang (a Myanmar fighter) won the world title in Yangon. -Myanmar had been a closed society and it was just opening up, so it had no international hero then.
Myanmar hadn’t competed in the Olympics or anything like that, so he (Aung La N Sang) was the first world champion of any sport and 90% of Myanmar was watching the event live. Listen to the speech he gave: ‘I’m not strong, I’m not fast, I’m not courageous, but with you, Myanmar, I have courage, I have strength.’ And I thought to myself: How many million kids — Myanmar has a population of 54 million — saw that, and how many dreams were born that night? It’s not about fighting, but about kids thinking ‘I can be anything I want to be’.
It’s a different fight, but a fight, nevertheless.
It’s a fight for our dreams.
How about the lows?
But there is a stigma attached to fighting. There are many masters who shun competition, they deem it a show-off.
I’m not against people who don’t want to compete. There are a lot of people at Evolve who don’t want to compete; it’s not their goal. But for me, why did I compete when I was young and why do I still have the desire to compete? I want to test myself — it’s not about fighting somebody. The Western concept of fighting is, I want to beat you up, I want to hurt you, but the Eastern concept is, I want to see how I have developed myself mentally, spirituality, emotionally. Can I control myself when I am being defeated, can I have humility in victory or honour in defeat? So, these are the things… not everybody has to compete.
Where do you hope to see One Championship in five years?
And you see this happening in five years?
Jose Barrock is a senior editor at The Edge Malaysia
This article appeared in Issue 816 (Feb 5) of The Edge Singapore.