What was once merely an attraction whispered about in hushed tones, mixed martial arts has become a money-making machine over the years after overcoming seemingly insurmountable odds.
In North America, the MMA market has been dominated by the brash, trash-talking Ultimate Fighting Championship since the promotion's inception in 1993, which began as an oddity fringe-sport and has since grown to earn deals with the likes of Reebok, getting sports coverage across network and cable TV.
Many have attempted to wrest that dominance from the UFC over the years, yet all have failed. President Donald Trump and billionaire entrepreneur Mark Cuban tried their luck back in 2008, when they turned an MMA apparel company, Affliction, into an actual promotion that the UFC successfully counterprogrammed.
Trump and Cuban dropped the venture, unable to compete with the world's leading mixed martial arts promotion. After two successful Affliction events, a third one went up in flames when one half of the headlining fight tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs. The promotion folded immediately after that.
But now, a new league is coming to town, one that is completely different from the product UFC fans have come to know over the years. A promotion that has dominated the Asian MMA market and is closing in on their 100th show.
A NEW PLAYER IN TOWN
ONE Championship, the biggest sports promotion in Asia will be a soon-to-be presence in the US after signing a television deal with TNT Sports late last year, president Chatri Sityodong told FOX Business.
“We offer a completely, 180 degree, diametrically opposed product to what North American MMA fans are used to seeing (in promotions like UFC and Bellator),” Sityodong told FNB in a phone interview Friday.
“American MMA is a blood sport, it promotes anger… controversy… negative energy. What ONE Championship does is offer a very different set of values. Things like respect, honor, humility.”
“We showcase the best of humanity,” he added.
In a sport that’s become synonymous with the letters UFC, mixed martial arts has always had it's roots in more traditional disciplines, ranging from standup games from Muay Thai, kickboxing and karate to wrestling and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.
In the UFC, fans have come to know household names like Conor McGregor and Jon Jones, two of the brightest stars of the sport. But both men have continually found themselves in the spotlight for the wrong reasons. Just last week, McGregor made headlines after sucker-punching an elderly man in his native Ireland, all for refusing a drink of McGregor’s whisky brand Proper 12.
Before that, it was smashing a fan’s cell phone in Miami. Then there was the time where “The Notorious” and his crew crashed a Brooklyn press conference at the Barclay’s Center, and tossed a metal dolly through a bus window in a melee with future opponent Khabib Nurmagomedov.
Things have not faired much better for Jones, who’s litany of scandals have kept him on the sidelines more often than not, over a few failed drug tests and a hit-and-run that saw Jones’ car smash into a pregnant woman’s car, breaking her arm.
Other former UFC fighters have left a permanent black eye on the promotion’s reputation. “War Machine,” formerly known as Jon Koppenhaver, is currently serving a life sentence in Nevada for nearly beating his ex-girlfriend, Christie Mack, to death, in Aug. 2014. Former UFC light heavyweight Thiago Silva was arrested that same year after bringing a gun to his ex-wife’s new boyfriend’s Florida Jiu-Jitsu studio.
The same can’t be said for the 550 fighters under the ONE Championship banner.
“You won’t find a single scandal with any of our top stars, or any of our fighters for that matter,” Sityodong emphasized. “You can’t find a single article of any of our athletes getting into trouble, no drugs, no DUIs, no assaults.”
BIG BUSINESS TO BE MADE
It’s no surprise to see ONE Championship make a concerted effort to lure North American fans over to their promotion.
MMA has become big business in the continent over the years, with the UFC being sold to Hollywood powerhouse WME-IMG for $4.025 billion in July 2016. The promotion just recently inked a lucrative deal with ESPN, valued at $7 billion after the ESPN deal, according to UFC president Dana White.
The five-year ESPN deal alone is worth $1.5 billion.
ONE Championship is looking for their piece of that pie after signing a television rights deal with TNT Sports, to air events live in North American TVs, in major North American cities, to offer their MMA product for fans who might be getting turned off from the soap opera the UFC has become. For a company that began in 2011 solely in Asian territories, ONE Championsip has turned a corner over the last year, making the move into the US market an obvious one.
In October of last year, One Championship announced it had closed a $166 million financing round led by Sequoia Capital, pushing the Asian mixed martial arts promotion's total capital base past $250 million.
The Singapore-based company is now opening offices in New York City and Los Angeles as they begin to make inroads into the North American MMA market.
CHALLENGING AN INDUSTRY GIANT, TOPPLING A MONOPOLY
The odds of going toe-to-toe with the UFC and coming out on top may seem steep, but the move has become increasingly organic and more realistic by the month. ONE Championship recently signed former UFC flyweight champion and pound-for-pound great Demetrious “Mighty Mouse” Johnson and former UFC lightweight champion Eddie Alvarez last year, with both men making their ONE Championship debuts in March.
Sage Northcutt, another name many North American MMA fans have become familiar with thanks to an eight-fight UFC stint, signed with ONE Championship shortly thereafter before making his debut with the promotion in May.
“The UFC stars who have come over, and a lot of UFC stars have reached out (to us)… we carefully select those that represent our values. Fighters like Eddie Alvarez, Demetrious Johnson, Sage Northcutt,” Sityodong said. “We are not interested in loud, brash characters like in western promotions. Our stars are role models, people little boys and girls worldwide can look to as inspiration.”
The three-year broadcast deal with Turner Sports kicked off on in Dec. 2018, with 24 events scheduled for 2019. The first ONE Championship broadcast set to air in primetime in the US on Oct. 12, and will also commemorate ONE Championship’s 100th event.