The rapid rise of ONE Championship, an Asian sports league
CONOR MCGREGOR, an Irishman who is perhaps the world’s most famous mixed-martial arts (MMA) fighter, is as famous for his mouth as for his quick feet and hands. He boasts about how much more money he makes than his opponents. He has referred to other fighters as “twerp” and “snake”.
The co-founder of ONE Championship—an MMA league stealing a march in Asia on Mr McGregor’s American-based league, Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC)—is disdainful of such behaviour. Martial arts, insists its founder, Chatri Sityodtong, who is Thai-American, is about discipline and humility, not brashness. Most of a fighter’s work, after all, takes place outside the ring. Promotional videos for ONE’s fighters tend to depict them training rather than fighting. The point, says Mr Sityodtong, is to inspire viewers to achieve their dreams in their own lives, rather than just getting them to cheer the biggest bully on the block.
ONE has pursued a policy that might be described as “hyperlocalism”. Western sports properties, such as the English Premier League (EPL), a football championship, seek to sell their brands transnationally in Asia. ONE builds up local fighters in each market. In May Angela Lee, a 19-year-old Canadian-American of Singaporean descent (pictured, upside down) won the atomweight championship in Singapore. In December the men’s heavyweight champion, Brandon Vera, a tattooed Filipino-American with a gentle manner and dangerously quick leg work, will defend his title in Manila.
Asian viewers clearly like the approach. Since its launch only five years ago, ONE has grown rapidly, with events held in 11 countries and televised in at least 100 more. The footprint in Asia of UFC, which was bought by an American talent agency, WME-IMG, in July for a whopping $4 billion, meanwhile, has shrunk. In 2014 UFC held four events in Asia; this year just one.
Victor Cui, ONE’s other founder, who is Canadian-Filipino-Chinese, believes the league’s success stems from its fealty to “Asian values”. “We’re different in Asia,” he says. “Western sports seem to encourage disrespect, breaking of the rules, arrogance [and] finding the most undisciplined, fastest route to fame.” Some will roll their eyes at such clichés, and point to another explanation. The main reason why no pan-Asian sports league has flourished is that sport is fragmented: South Asians play cricket but East Asians do not, while the reverse is true of basketball. That is why local talent in these sports dreams of heading for the likes of the EPL and their deeper pockets, not being stars at home. But ONE may be able to keep hometown fighting talent from heading West. As Mr Sityodtong points out, Asia has been the home of martial arts for a mere 5,000 years.