DEAFENING. The heaving mass in the fight arena hitherto seated on the edge of their creaky wooden benches jumps to its feet and roars its appreciation as a single sweeping blow lands on an already-battered young fighter in the ring, sending him reeling awkwardly against a corner post. Just outside the ring, bookies and gamblers gesture animatedly in a scene reminiscent of a stock trading floor.
The raw energy emanating from every corner of Bangkok’s legendary Lumpinee stadium, home of the Thai capital’s finest Muay Thai fights and the place where every young boy dreams of fighting, is palpable. It’s full house tonight with stadium capacity pushed to bursting point.
Somewhere in the crowd of boisterous spectators, a little boy looks on in breathless awe at the unfolding spectacle. Standing on his tippy toes for a better view, his hand grips his father’s tightly in his excitement. Final round! The master of ceremonies announces. The crowd rises again from the rickety seats, their eyes dancing with anticipation as their man emerges from his corner, strutting to the centre with the confidence of a victor.
“It was so beautiful. The power... the grace... it was almost like watching ballet. I was hooked.” And just like that, Chatri Trisiripisal, or better known by his ring name, Chatri Sityodtong, the billionaire owner of ONE Championship, Asia’s largest sports media property, manages to transport me from the four walls of a modest meeting room at his Evolve MMA gym in Singapore to that sizzling fight night in the heartland of Muay Thai, Lumpinee stadium, when a 9-year-old Chatri first fell in love with martial arts. “My father took me that night. And from then on I was hooked. I’d watch Muay Thai fights on TV every day.”
Today, seated opposite me and looking every inch a man on top of the world, Chatri, 46, has much to celebrate. His ONE Championship, founded in 2011, is fast becoming Asia’s biggest competitor to the US-based Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), currently the largest MMA promotion in the world. Meanwhile, ONE Championship’s events are now televised in 136 countries, up from 60 in 2014. Social media views have soared to 2.6 billion, from 312,000 in 2014.
And Chatri? The half Thai, half Japanese maestro was recently named Asia’s third Most Powerful Person in Sports by Fox Sports. Ahead of him on the ladder were fellow sporting “formidables”, Fifa president Gianni Infantino and NBA commissioner Adam Silva.
A GOOD SCRIPT
Google his backstory and one thing becomes obvious — that Chatri’s life story and trajectory make for a great Hollywood script. Imagine the plot: Middle class kid grows up in Bangkok to doting Thai father and Japanese mother. Life is swell and the future appears rosy. Without warning, dark clouds descend and the family’s once-idyllic world is turned upside down as father’s property business collapses during the 1997-98 Asian financial crisis.
Suddenly their world becomes dark. Bankrupt and in despair, father is reduced to selling fruit on the street. Meanwhile, the family survives on one meal a day. It isn’t long after that the despondent father abandons the family, leaving the 20-something Chatri and his mother to fend for themselves.
But as fate would have it, Chatri was never destined for anything other than greatness. His mother, the person whom he credits as his pillar of strength during those tough early years, can attest to that. She never stopped believing in him and never tired of repeating into his young ears that it was his destiny to be a force of change.
Recalls Chatri: “She believed in me when I didn’t even believe in myself. She gave me courage when I didn’t have it in me. She used to say, ‘Son, you’re going to help us climb out of poverty. You’re going to do great things.’ She was the one that encouraged me to apply to Harvard.”
To make ends meet, he taught Muay Thai and delivered Chinese food.
He did get into Harvard University (on loans) but had little money to live on. His mother even lived with him in his university dormitory because the family had lost their home.
Despite the challenges, Chatri confides that he was lucky to have had the dual advantages of education and connections. His stint at the prestigious institution saw him graduate with an MBA from Harvard Business School.
The next 10 years were spent in the hedge fund industry but the Muay Thai fighter and jiu-jitsu blue belt couldn’t find contentment despite the success he was enjoying. He was already a multimillionaire by the time he was 32. The emptiness in his heart could only be filled by returning to his passion — martial arts. He eventually turned his back on Wall Street at the age of 37 and by the time he turned 40, he founded One Championship.
BUILDING AN EMPIRE, CREATING SUPERHEROES
It’s ONE Championship that consumes much of his focus today, confesses Chatri. His voice low, he says with pride: “I believe that ONE Championship has the potential to be the number one sports media property in the world. Just think about it... we have four billion people here in Asia and martial arts is Asia’s greatest cultural treasure. There’s a lot of potential. We now have seven offices — in Singapore, Shanghai, Beijing, Manila, Jakarta, Bangalore and Bangkok. Tokyo is coming soon.”
His expression earnest, the chairman and CEO of ONE Championship continues: “I see so much negativity in the media and social media every day. I want ONE Championship to be a platform that inspires humanity through martial arts and our fighters/heroes, most of whom have overcome terrible adversity and impossible odds to become world champions. I want to ignite the world with inspiration, hope and dreams through our superheroes.”
To win over Asian fans, ONE Championship has been building up local fighters in each market, with marketing campaigns revolving around promoting the personal stories of its stable of fighters.
Martial arts, admits the father of one, changed his life. “If I didn’t have the warrior spirit that martial arts taught me, or the courage, discipline, or desire to win in life that martial arts gave me, I don’t think I’d have made it out of poverty.”
The biggest misconception people have about martial arts, continues Chatri, is that it’s just about kicking and punching. “Martial arts is about unleashing your potential as a human being because when you train thousands of hours like I do or my fighters do, you inherit confidence, courage, humility, integrity, compassion, a warrior spirit, and a desire for continual self-improvement. These are the very things that I want people to know.”
The time has come for us to celebrate Asia’s greatest cultural treasure, says Chatri emphatically. “Celebrate it not in terms of the punching and kicking, but in terms of the values — Asian values — of humility, integrity, respect, honour, courage, and discipline. I believe the life stories of our heroes and athletes, all of whom possess those values, are what will change the world.”
He cites Filipino MMA champion and wushu practitioner who fights for ONE Championship, Eduard Folayang, as an example. “His parents were illiterate. He had nine brothers and sisters and his family hailed from the poorest rung of society in the Philippines. Five of his siblings died from basic illnesses growing up because the family couldn’t afford a doctor.”
Folayang, continues Chatri, turned to martial arts, specifically wushu and boxing, when he was 16. Since then he has enjoyed triumphs in several international wushu tournaments, including a gold medal at the 2011 Southeast Asian Games. “He became the first in his family to learn to read and write, and go to university. He’s now one of the biggest sporting celebrities in the Philippines. It’s an incredible life story that the Filipinos can be inspired by.”
Continuing, Chatri points out that for far too long in Asia we have idolised western heroes like David Beckham et al. “Why don’t we celebrate our own heroes? Why don’t we celebrate Malaysians and Singaporeans? Because we don’t have any? It’s time to create them.”
As an entrepreneur, Chatri can see very clearly the huge economic opportunities with ONE Championship. But he’s swift to add that what truly drives him and gets him up in the morning is the thought that he has a chance to change the world. “Sometimes I find it hard to go to bed at night because I’m so looking forward to a new day to see what else I can do to impact people’s lives,” he confides, the slightest trace of a smile threatening to “mar” his serious demeanour. The economic reward for him, adds Chatri, is just the by-product of doing good in the world.
His companies, shares Chatri, are involved in massive charity programmes. In fact, Chatri serves on the Board of Directors of Project Sunshine, one of the largest volunteer organisations in the world for terminally-ill children suffering from cancer, HIV and other illnesses. Meanwhile, Evolve MMA is active with Singapore’s home for orphans and troubled children.
“When I get up in the morning, I don’t think about how much money I’m going to make,” continues Chatri. “Maybe mum ingrained it in me all those years of my childhood when she kept repeating that I was destined to help the world. I believe that somehow God or the universe gave me the good luck or blessings to escape poverty so I can use my blessed existence to help others.”
His eyes thoughtful, Chatri clasps his hands as if in a silent prayer before concluding: “It sounds crazy but when I look at my life today, I’m so grateful that I went through poverty because it taught me so much about life and gave me what I needed — the hunger and fighting spirit.”
YOUR BIGGEST SATISFACTION?
When I know what I do can change someone’s life.
THREE THINGS YOU CAN’T DO WITHOUT?
Martial arts, Thai food and a purpose in life. Every day I wake up, I’m happy and excited because I have a purpose — to change the world. If I was rich but had no purpose, I think I’d die inside.
YOUR BIGGEST FEAR?
That when I’m on my deathbed I didn’t do enough to help my loved ones, my companies, the world. Every day I say to myself I have to make a bigger impact and live my potential.
My martial arts master, Yodtong Siriwalak, who passed away five years ago. He shaped my views on life in many ways. He was 73 or 74 when he died and he died penniless. But he wasn’t penniless because he was stupid or couldn’t work. It was because he gave away all his money to orphans and impoverished children. He produced the most number of champions in Thailand’s history. The impact he left was huge. When I went to his funeral and saw the number of people who’d turned up from all over the world to pay their last respects, I remember thinking, “That’s a life well lived.”
THREE QUALITIES YOU ADMIRE MOST IN PEOPLE?
Kind heart, integrity and people who really LIVE rather than just exist. People who go beyond the mundane and try to do something with their life.
I live and breathe martial arts. If I have other interests, they tend to be very fleeting. Martial arts is my obsession. I just have a one-track mind.