This Asian combat sports promotion wants to crack the US market — without the blood and trash-talking

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Hong Kong

First they were seen as cage-fighting meat heads. Then testosterone-fueled trash talkers wearing expensive suits.

Could 2023 be the year mixed-martial arts (MMA) in the United States finally returns to its pure, humble beginnings nurtured in Asia nearly 5,000 years ago?

“Our mission is not to stage the biggest, bloodiest fights and have two athletes cuss at each other. That works — for a certain type of audience and consumer,” said Hua Fung Teh, president of Singapore-based MMA promotion agency One Championship, broadly seen as Asia’s answer to industry behemoth UFC, which is part of the Endeavor Group and will be merging with World Wrestling Entertainment


More than a decade since its inception, One is set to make its US debut in Broomfield, Colorado on Friday. The sold-out event stars incumbent flyweight champion Demetrious Johnson, considered one of the pound-for-pound greatest MMA fighters of all time.

“I can’t wait for the US fans to be exposed to true martial arts. Fighting on American soil, it’s amazing to be able to headline this landmark event,” said the former longtime UFC champion, who joined One in 2018.

“Mighty Mouse” Johnson will face preceding champion Adriano Moraes in a trilogy fight. The pair boast a win apiece. Other crowd-pulling fighters include Rodtang Jitmuangnon and Stamp Fairtex of Thailand, and former UFC star Sage Northcutt.

What “true martial arts” means in new-era combat sports is certainly up for interpretation. Teh used One’s longstanding mantra to explain theirs.

“It’s about unleashing real life superheroes who ignite the world with hope, strength, dreams and inspiration,” he said. “It’s about having children wanting posters of their favorite athletes, and parents walking into their room and saying, ‘Yes, that’s someone worth looking up to.’”

And while that will undoubtedly garner some eye rolls from some bloodthirsty fans, that is not to say boiling feuds and intense square-offs do not exist in their more than 600-strong fighter roster.

“In the end, just don’t cross the line,” Teh said.

“This is sports. Things can get heated and emotional. But for us, you leave it in the [ring], the court, the pitch. Rivalry, confrontation, a little bit of shoving here and there, all that is part of sports. But the sport itself provides a lot of inbuilt stories and drama without having to cross that line.

“If you look at the sponsors working with us, we’re talking family brands like Tumi, Oculus, Disney. We’re building a brand that everyone can enjoy with their kids and grandkids. That’s more true to the spirit of martial arts and its traditional values.

Hua Fung Teh, president of One Championship, speaks onstage at an event in the Chinese city of Guangzhou on November 20, 2019.

Values aside, One differs from the UFC in that it schedules different disciplines of martial arts alongside its MMA-based backbone.

For example, the Colorado co-main event is a Brazilian jiu-jitsu grappling match, while there will be Muay Thai and kickboxing bouts laced throughout.

The card will be broadcast on Amazon Prime Video in the US and Canada, part of a five-year media rights agreement. The intention is to “do multiple events, not just in the long-term,” according to Teh, adding that it will not affect its roughly 60 shows per year across Asia.

One’s formal attempt to crack the North American market is a clear sign of its intention to strengthen its status as one half of what Teh calls the MMA “duopoly” between the “biggest in Asia and the biggest in the West.”

“It’s a new market so we want to be humble”, Teh said. “But the nice thing is we’re not starting from scratch — we’re not nobodies. The US is new, but it’s not foreign. It’s a priority market and we have a clear right to play, just like how Samsung sells phones in the US.”

The organization had been in the red for years, but finally appears to be rounding a corner.

Former One Championship atomweight Muay Thai and kickboxing champion Stamp Fairtex of Thailand thanks fans at a pre-event open work-out session in Denver, Colorado.

Breaking even or becoming profitable in the three years from 2022 is a goal for the firm, whose investors include Temasek Holdings in Singapore and Sequoia Capital in the United States. Nikkei Asia and Bloomberg have reported that parent company Group One is preparing for an initial public offering.

One’s valuation of $1.4 billion, based on its last round of fundraising, is still far from the UFC’s $12.1 billion, though a Nielsen report from 2021 suggests the former has overtaken the latter in terms of social media video viewership with nearly 14 billion views.

A fan takes a photo with One Championship's reigning flyweight Muay Thai champion Rodtang Jitmuangnon in Denver, Colorado.

One’s founder and CEO Chatri Sityodtong told Tatler Asia earlier this year that he “appreciated all the rejections and failures through the years.”

“What we’re building is not a normal exercise,” Teh explains. “We’re not opening a cafe or starting a line of diapers — not things that you can start and on day 1 can sell. It’s more like a theme park. They take years to build, and you don’t monetize in all those years. But once its built and open to all, you’re selling tickets, F&B, merchandise, rides, all sorts.

“We have been burning quite a bit [of money], but since 2019, that number has been coming down very aggressively. Now we’re at the final stage of pushing the company to profitability. Many rejections in the early days — now we have all these opportunities to monetize the IP.”

Outside the combat realm, One has signed a longterm media partnership deal in the Middle East, and has branched out to esports in an attempt to conquer the Asian scene ahead of the discipline’s packed schedule, which includes a return to the Southeast Asian Games this month and debut at the postponed Asian Games in September.


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