Nearly 30 years after the UFC held its first fight card in Denver, the Singapore-based ONE Championship will hold its inaugural US event in the city of Colorado to challenge its rival promotion’s dominance in its home territory.
Chatri Sityodtong, CEO of ONE, says that while the Colorado State Commission was extremely excited to host the fight, the venue is also a “celebration of the birthplace of American mixed martial arts” and that Friday’s event will be the first of many. will be for the United States franchise. States.
“It’s a very historic moment for the company,” he told Al Jazeera.
“The UFC has a lion’s share of the Western Hemisphere [martial arts audience]. We have a lion’s share of the eastern hemisphere,” said Sityodtong. “With 8 billion people in the world, I believe the world is big enough for two global martial arts giants.”
The Thai-Japanese businessman and lifelong martial artist co-founded ONE in 2011. The company has since grown to be valued at an estimated $1 billion and is backed by investors including Sequoia Capital and the Qatar Investment Authority.
Fighters include such greats as MMA flyweight Demetrious “Mighty Mouse” Johnson and Muay Thai fighter Rodtang Jitmuangnon, both of whom will fight on Friday’s card.
Unlike the UFC – which only features mixed martial arts or MMA – ONE’s fight cards also feature matches in other disciplines such as Submission Grappling, Muay Thai and kickboxing.
In 2021, ONE was in the top five largest sports media companies in the world in terms of viewership and engagement, according to the American market measurement agency Nielsen. In doing so, it was ahead of the UFC in terms of digital viewership, digital fan engagement, and cumulative reach in global television broadcasts.
While ONE is huge in Asia, it is relatively unknown in the US and reportedly losing money.
Sityodtong says ONE has been steadily building its brand, content engines and roster to the point where it is ready to transition from investing to monetization and make the jump to the US.
“You can’t come into America with anything less than the very best athletes, the very best world champions, the very best production values, the very best brand,” he said.
Sityodtong said ONE will bring a healthier and more “authentic” martial arts ethos to the US – a swipe from the flowery nonsense, threats and peacocks often seen in the UFC – and says fighters should be role models.
“Why do millions of parents send their children to martial arts schools around the world? It’s not to become a trash can, insulting other people’s religions and families and children. It is to teach honor, respect, work ethic and courage and all the incredible values that martial arts espouse. And we hope to showcase authentic martial arts,” he said.
But some industry insiders believe ONE will struggle to put the gauntlet on the UFC in North America.
MMA commentator Sean Wheelock told Al Jazeera that international martial arts promotions need to gain a foothold in North America and that Denver is highly respected as a sports city. But he says the UFC has become too dominant to challenge and MMA fans in the US are UFC fans by default.
“For ONE Championship I think it’s a big step for them. I think when you’re the UFC you don’t even pay attention,” he said.
The UFC, meanwhile, is going from strength to strength. This year, it merged with WWE into a $21 billion company.
Wheelock said ONE’s real competitors are promotions like Bellator and the Professional Fighters League (PFL).
“Trying to be a dominant second position in a very, very lucrative and profitable industry. That is something ONE could definitely achieve.”
Wheelock noted that ONE’s rules are the biggest challenge for expansion in North America.
ONE follows its own global ruleset, most controversially allowing kicks or knees to the head of a grounded opponent – moves that are illegal in the uniform rules, followed by the UFC and other US-based promotions. ONE also has self-determined judging criteria, which do not score per round – unlike the UFC.
While the Colorado commission agreed to ONE’s rules, many US states are unlikely to follow suit.
“If ONE wants to gain a foothold in the United States, I think they really need to do some soul searching and thinking, they are definitely going to insist on using their rules and judging criteria,” Wheelock said.
Or do they go into the unified rules, which means their fights are now going to be a lot like everyone else’s fights in North America, but they could end up in states that are highly desirable in the fighting game — like California, New York, New Jersey, Florida, Texas, Nevada.”
Jerry Millen – manager of Russian heavyweight MMA star Fedor Emelianenko and the former vice president of Pride, a popular Japanese MMA promotion, which hosted US fights and was active from 1997 to 2007 – says that while he respects Sityodtong as a ” true martial art purist”, the many disciplines of ONE that are featured in the same event could put off American fighting fans.
“American crowds don’t like jujitsu. Let’s face it, they don’t like it when the fight ends on the ground,” he told Al Jazeera.
Millen highlighted the growing buzz in the US around the Bare Knuckle Fighting Championship, which has thrilled many fight fans with its rawness, simplicity and fast-paced wars.
“[ONE is] all over the martial arts world, which is great, but you don’t want to be a jack of all trades, master of none.
Millen said that while it’s a long and hard road to making money in the fighting game, it was worth testing the US market with an event that didn’t pose a risk to his company.
“You know, a lot of people talk about a big game and a lot of people say they’re going to America. Good, [ONE] did. So you have to tip your hat to them to even take it off,” he said.
Wheelock said what ultimately appeals to fans is “great fights with great fighters and seeing fighters they know and are stars or are fast developing stars”.
ONE’s negotiations to sign former UFC heavyweight champion Francis Ngannou, arguably MMA’s most coveted free agent, for a reported $20 million fell through this week.
Sityodtong said they failed to reach an agreement on “non-financial” matters, including Ngannou’s requests for a seat on ONE’s board of directors and a say in his opponents’ remuneration.
But Ngannou told journalist Ariel Helwani that he had just met Sityodtong as a courtesy and that he has another promotion up his sleeve, which the media has claimed is PFL.
Nevertheless, ONE’s stock is rising, and Friday’s fight card, which is being shown on Amazon Prime, features intriguing match-ups.
Johnson, regarded by many as the greatest MMA flyweight ever, is looking to deal with Brazilian Adriano Moraes in their trilogy bout for the ONE flyweight title and has hinted that this could be his last fight.
Meanwhile, Sage “Super” Northcutt, 27, a former UFC hot prospect, returns to the octagon for the first time in four years.
In 2019, during his first and so far only fight with ONE, his face broke in eight places in a knockout loss 29 seconds into the fight.
Having healed from that injury and overcoming the complications of a bout of COVID-19, he’s now itching to go and says his skills have improved since time off – though he faces a dangerous and versatile opponent in Pakistan’s Ahmed Mujati in their lightweight MMA fight.
“I don’t really need to show ONE Championship fans what I can do because my first fight with ONE clearly didn’t go as planned,” he said. “I’m just really excited. I want to make ONE happy who they signed with and have a great, long career. I’m still young, so I have plenty of time.”
Northcutt said ONE’s multidisciplinary nature drew him to the promotion.
“After [this fight]I would like to do some Submission grappling, kickboxing, Muay Thai, in fact I would like to do it all.
Sityodtong, meanwhile, is excited about his prospect and talks about Northcutt’s future with characteristic chutzpah.
“I think it’s going to be one of the greatest comeback stories in MMA history.”