Chatri is a 47-year-old Thai-Japanese entrepreneur who has worked the full spectrum of jobs within the martial arts industry. He started off as a Muay Thai practitioner when he was a child, became a cornerman for his fellow fighters, head coach, and eventually a CEO. From the values he learned in martial arts, Chatri was able to escape poverty in Thailand and pursue a dream to connect all of Asia under the umbrella of martial arts.
As a true martial artist, Chatri’s vision for ONE Championship is to be more than just the largest sports media property in the world, he wants to take back the throne of martial arts and put Asian martial artists back on the map.
We spoke to Chatri this past weekend about his vision for Asian martial arts, his thoughts on American MMA and the UFC, and advice on how to deal with strict Asian immigrant parents.
How Does ONE Championship Compare to the UFC?
Nextshark: Something people often misunderstand is that ONE Championship is not in the business of fighting, you’re in the business of martial arts. You’re an organization that values respect and humility over trash talk and drama. If you were speaking to casual American and UFC fight fans interested in all the drama, what would you say? Is ONE Championship accessible to all fight fans or only the hardcore ones?
Chatri: I actually think ONE Championship’s formula has global appeal because we prioritize values, heroes, and stories. Values like honor, discipline, respect, and compassion are ones that parents and grandparents can celebrate. If you put a poster of one of our heroes in a child’s bedroom they’d applaud the child, as opposed to putting a poster of Conor McGregor or Jon Jones – a parent would take it down immediately.
Our second pillar is heroes. Rather than promote fights – which is what every other promotion does – we promote heroes. We build real-life superheroes who ignite the world with hope, strength, and inspiration.
What do I mean by that? A lot of our athletes come from impoverished backgrounds, some came from orphanages. For them to climb up through and conquer all these terrible circumstances, and then become a world champion on a global stage representing their countries, it becomes very much like the Olympics.
The last pillar is stories. We want to tell these stories to inspire entire nations and that’s what’s happened in Asia. Asia has been the home of martial arts for five-thousand years. We’ve become the number one or two global sports property in our core countries. Our tv ratings are five or ten times above the UFC’s here in Asia. We’re literally 500-1000% higher than the UFC’s out here in Asia and the reason why is because if you promote hatred, violence, anger, controversy and your stars commit crimes – whether it’s breaking a dolly onto a bus and injuring people or doing cocaine and doing a hit-and-run on a pregnant woman – I believe the audience is narrow. It might be a passionate audience like the WWE has, but it’s narrow in its scalability.
If you look at the Olympics, it has boxing, wrestling, karate, and taekwondo, but yet, no one complains about those arts because the Olympics promotes the best of humanity: values, heroes, and stories.
When somebody is going for a taekwondo gold medal or a wrestling gold medal or boxing, entire countries watch because these heroes have gone through tremendous adversity to achieve that gold medal status. The whole country pins its hopes on that athlete bringing home the glory, and that’s the formula ONE Championship uses. So in that regard, it’s much more mainstream than the UFC. I think the UFC is a niche product.
The Difference Between Fighters and Heroes
Nextshark: I love the fact that ONE Championship fighters give back to the community. They’re all humanitarians. Is that just part of who they are or is this baked into the ONE Championship formula?
Chatri: You’re absolutely right. Every fight week our heroes visit orphanages or make donations to impoverished neighborhoods. We partnered with Global Citizen, one of the largest non-profit organizations dedicated to ending extreme poverty. This is very much a part of the ethos of ONE Championship.
Since I started, my goal has been to unleash real-life superheroes who can give the world hope, strength, and inspiration. And it’s not just through their life story, it’s through their actions. Of course, they can perform at the highest level of martial arts, but for them to go back and give to the community they came from – we’re on TV every week. And it’s very important that we’re not just seen as tv or movie heroes but that we’re literally affecting lives where there is massive poverty, gender inequality, education or healthcare gaps.
We’re very active in pro-bono work. We do it every event week (literally) and in every country we go to.
Does Western MMA Look Down Upon Smaller Fighters?
Nextshark: You spoke about Conor McGregor earlier and he recently called you out on Twitter for signing Demetrius Johnson, so he blamed you and said you were being greedy and that you had to sign the entire flyweight division. This tweet inspired a larger conversation of, “Why do western martial arts promotions undermine their smaller fighters? Why are flyweights so looked down upon over here in the west?”
Chatri: I don’t think they’re looked down upon, but the western marketing machine seems to promote anger, hatred, controversy, violence, and bloodsport. And that appeals, for whatever reason, to North America.
It just so happens, for example, that Demetrius Johnson, who’s the greatest mixed martial artist of all time, pound-for-pound #1 king, doesn’t believe in all that. He’s a real martial artist. He wants to represent humility, integrity, honor, respect, courage, and compassion. He doesn’t use any trash talk so it makes it very hard for the UFC to promote him because he won’t engage in what the UFC wants to promote.
I don’t think it’s a size issue. I think DJ will be a massive star here in Asia and he’ll be a massive star globally with the right marketing. We’re going to market him with our heroes, stories, and values formula as opposed to hatred, anger, and controversy.
People don’t even know DJ’s incredible life story in America. That’s how undermarketed he is. DJ was born to a deaf mother, his younger brother is schizophrenic, he was poor, never knew his father, was working minimum wage in a factory before he found Matt Hume’s gym and learned martial arts for the first time. Then, five years later, he becomes the UFC world champion. His story could literally inspire millions of Americans but no one ever tells that story because the UFC doesn’t care.
A lot of the athletes reaching out to us don’t want to be a part of the anger and controversy. They want to celebrate the best of humanity in the same way the Olympics does. I always say during our press conferences that ONE Championship was started by martial artists so it’s very different.
I’ve been a martial artist longer than I’ve been a businessman. I’ve been doing martial arts for over 30 years and I still train every day in Muay Thai and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. I’ve been a student, a coach, a manager, and now a CEO of a martial arts promotion.
I want to honor authentic martial arts. Asia has been the home of martial arts but the west has hijacked martial arts and called it MMA. They’ve destroyed the essence of martial arts. Martial arts here in Asia has been around for over 5,000 years. It’s a way of life. It’s a way to teach your kids values and help them become a better human being and apply yourself in all other areas in your life. I want to honor Asia’s greatest cultural treasure and share it with the world.
There’s so much negativity in the world. If you look at the media it’s always about rape, bombing, trade wars. If you look at social media there’s nothing but trolls, hatred, and anger. I want ONE Championship to be a beacon of light and positivity to the world and it begins with our heroes, values, and stories.
Can Asian Martial Artists Go Toe-to-Toe with UFC Stars Demetrius Johnson and Eddie Alvarez?
Nextshark: By bringing on talented martial artists from the UFC like Demetrius Johnson and Eddie Alvarez, how do you envision their journey through the ONE Championship rankings? Are you looking forward to any particular matchups with them? Do you see anyone at ONE giving them an especially tough fight?
Chatri: Here in Asia there are millions of martial arts practitioners. In the western world, because of western MMA media – which is basically just Sherdog, MMA Junkie, MMA Weekly, and MMA Fighting – they dominate coverage of the UFC so no one knows about ONE Championship in America yet. Although, we’ll be announcing a broadcast deal in America very soon. We’re working with broadcasters now and we’re close to signing – then American fans will get an entirely different alternative to watching MMA with incredible athletes but done in the same way the Olympics is promoted.
Demetrius Johnson and Eddie Alvarez will enter a lightweight grand-prix and a flying grand-prix with 8 of the best flyweights and lightweights. This isn’t a lock they can automatically win. There are some serious badasses and monsters in these ONE Championship divisions that Asia knows but America may not know yet. And that’s because we’re not covered widely in mainstream American media. But here in Asia we’re covered by all of the media.
Just for perspective: three years ago our average viewers per event was 700,000 but this year we’re averaging 20 million. Just for comparison sake, Bellator might do 500,000 viewers per event or the UFC might do 5-10 million. We do 20 million on average. So when the American media says, “Wow, we did 1 million pay-per-views” you look at the numbers and ONE Championship blows through them all the time. Our viewership is greater than Bellator and UFC combined.
Nextshark: You’re definitely right about western media’s lack of ONE Championship coverage. I’ve been trying to learn about the ONE Championship roster, the top fighters, rivals, and stories. Thankfully, I found all of these videos on the ONE Championship app which is also free. For those of us new to ONE Championship, where should we start? Which fighters should we follow and what are the iconic matchups? Any personal favorites?
Chatri: Our website is the first place we place post interviews, vlogs, and martial arts content, but we also post all over social media like Facebook. Most of our Asian fans interact on Facebook but we also post documentaries and interviews on Youtube. Today, we have an event in Indonesia and you can just download the app and watch the fight live.
In Asia, we have so many heroes. Angela Lee is one of our most famous athletes in terms of her impact on the world. She’s half-Korean and Singaporean, born in Canada, and raised in Hawaii. She’s an American and she represents everything beautiful about martial arts.
Another is Aung La Nsang who is a Myanmar hero. He was a refugee who had to flee Myanmar when it was 14 and returned. Now he’s the single most famous person in the country – so much that many predict he could be the next prime minister of Myanmar. It’s insane. He’s more famous in Myanmar than Michael Jordan was in America. He literally can’t walk anywhere without seeing thousands and thousands of people.