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How a Journey of Suffering Brought Out the Greatness in ONE Championship’s Chatri Sityodtong

by Perry William Kelly

 

“I always say that the path to greatness for all of us, for every single person on this planet, is suffering — suffering through failure, through adversity, through tragedy, through setbacks, obstacles, mistakes. It is that journey of suffering that brings out our greatness.”

— Chatri Sityodtong

 

You, the readers of MASuccess, probably are better acquainted with suffering than almost anyone else these days. You suffered through however many years it took you to become an instructor in your art. You struggled through the growing pains of building your school from the ground up. And over the past two years, you persevered through the worst health and business crisis in 100 years. Even though you’re bruised and battered, you’ve remained in the fight because you possess the warrior spirit — much like the hero of our story.

Chatri Sityodtong is the CEO of ONE Championship, a Singapore-based martial arts organization that CNN and Forbes say produces events that are viewed by 1.3 billion people. He may be a globetrotting millionaire — he was worth $350 million at press time — but he’s cut from the same cloth that you are. At heart, he’s a lifelong martial artist and an instructor who’s dedicated to his schools.

Chatri believes that training in martial arts “empowers us with an unbreakable warrior spirit to conquer adversity in life.” His track record proves that he has this grit. He’s overcome seemingly unbeatable odds to rise to stratospheric heights in business, all while believing that his suffering is what forged him into the man he is today.

MASuccess recently chatted with Chatri — at 10:30 p.m. after a 16-hour workday for him — in an effort to find out what makes him tick, how he rolls with life’s ups and downs, the secrets behind his success and what you and he have in common.

 

Silver Spoon

Born Chatri Trisiripisal to a Thai father and a Japanese mother in Thailand, Chatri was later given the ring name Yodchatri Sityodtong (“extraordinary warrior”) by the head of his fight camp. Even though he grew up in a well-to-do family filled with love, he was a bit of a rebel in his early years, he said. More interested in chasing girls than in studying, he spent plenty of time in the principal’s office.

One day, after he was suspended for starting a food fight in the cafeteria, he sat at the breakfast table with his father. His dad asked what he wanted to do with his life. When the youth responded that he wished to study medicine, his father curtly told him that he’d never amount to anything.

The words hit young Chatri like a muay Thai kick. Only later did he acknowledge that the incident “lit a fire in my belly and changed the course of my life.”

The next couple of years saw him putting his nose to the grindstone and graduating with a bachelor’s degree in economics from Tufts University. Then life delivered a second sucker punch.

The Asian financial crisis hit in 1997, and Chatri’s family lost everything seemingly overnight. With no savings and no home, his father abandoned his family. They were forced to live in a shack they managed to acquire through some friends and struggled to scrape together enough money for one meal a day.

For young Chatri, this proved a pivotal period, one that ultimately taught him much about himself. “Going through that suffering really taught me that I am a fighter in life,” he said. “I’m so grateful for those days in poverty. Without all those days of suffering, I would never have discovered so much.”

 

Go West, Young Man

It’s often said that when the day is darkest, a ray of sunshine will peak through. Such was the case for Chatri, whose mother had come up with the notion that the only way out of their predicament was for him to apply to Harvard Business School and then get a good job. The dutiful son complied. Then at a particularly bleak moment in their life, a letter announced that he’d been accepted.

I wondered out loud how he summoned the courage to fly to America without a means to pay for an elite education. “I will say it is twofold,” he replied. “You need a reason for fighting. If you are not fighting for a reason bigger than yourself, then you are dying for nothing. At that time, I was fighting for my mother. Watching her cry … it was devastating [and] shattered my heart in a million pieces. One night, I decided I never wanted to see my mother crying again.

“Equally important was that I am a lifelong martial artist. All my years of training and mental toughness, warrior spirit, and grit and resilience came into play. If you are lucky to have trained in the martial arts, that gives you the warrior heart to conquer adversity in life.

“The true essence of martial arts is internal — the journey of conquering your doubts, fears and insecurities so that you can unleash your greatness in life. And that’s what martial arts gave me. I really believe that martial arts is one of the greatest platforms for human potential.”

Landing in the United States with a single suitcase and $1,000 that he’d scrounged, Chatri had one overriding thought: “How am I going to pay for school fees? I’ve got to go look for loans. I’ve got to go look for jobs.”

So he did just that. He secured a student loan, he taught muay Thai part time, he delivered Chinese food and he tutored other students. In short, he worked his butt off. He even created a spreadsheet to calculate his disposable income. It came out to $4 a day.

During his second year at Harvard, Chatri was able to bring his mother to the States to live with him — literally. Even though it meant risking expulsion from Harvard, he had her stay in his dorm room: mom in the bed and son on the floor.

Nevertheless, he did well at the university and started attracting attention. Before he even graduated, companies were offering salaries of $250,000, but he had other ideas. He knew he wanted to work in a field that “ignited his soul” and had been devising a business plan with classmate Yau Soon Loo. The two relocated to Silicon Valley and started a software company, which they sold a few years later for $40 million. Because he knew the pain his mother had suffered, Chatri then headed to Wall Street, determined to make enough money to keep that from ever happening again.

He initially worked as an investment analyst, then became a managing director at another firm before launching a $500 million hedge fund. Rising to the top of Wall Street after a decade represented a bittersweet victory. While he was set financially and his family would never go hungry again, he felt, in his own words, “completely empty inside.”

That’s when he decided to return to his roots.

 

First Love

Although their relationship was estranged for many years (they eventually reunited a few years before his father’s death), Chatri’s dad was the person who sparked his interest in muay Thai. It started when he took the 9-year-old to Lumpini Stadium to watch his first fights. The kid came home itching to start training — much to the dismay of his mother, who didn’t want him involved in such a dangerous sport.

She wasn’t far off the mark. Chatri said that he initially took up muay Thai to beat up bullies and impress girls. But after years of training, he started to understand the deeper meaning one gleans from training.

“I can tell you that the true essence of martial arts is the journey of continuous self-improvement,” he said. “Through the practice of martial arts, we inherit confidence, mental strength, courage, tenacity, work ethic, humility, compassion, integrity, kindness, respect, honor, discipline and much more.”

His training began at the Sityodtong Gym in Pattaya, Thailand, under Yodtong Senanan, a legend in the country. At the time, the facility was an elite fight camp with a reputation for churning out top-notch pro fighters. It didn’t host beginner classes and didn’t cater to foreigners on martial arts vacations, which made it rather intimidating for the youngster.

“Every fighter at Sityodtong Gym was a genuine monster — except for me,” Chatri recalled. “I had never felt so much pain in my life. Heavy bags were filled and packed tightly with sand, and each kick felt like my leg was on fire. Training was brutal, and the intensity was insane. With my lungs burning for oxygen, I had to sneak off to puke in the bathroom a few times. I don’t even know how I survived a 12-kilometer run, 15 rounds of heavy bags, pad work, clinching, 500 sit-ups, etc. on my first day. At the end of that day, my shins and feet were bruised, battered and swollen.”

Luckily, a senior instructor called P’Tu (or Papa Daorung, as he’s known today) took the youth under his wing. Chatri went on to compete in 30 professional muay Thai matches and was appointed one of four conservators of Sityodtong muay Thai by Grandmaster Senanan before his death.

 

ONE Mission

In 2009, Chatri, now living in Singapore, founded Evolve MMA, which he cultivated into a chain of academies spread across the region. He chose that name because he wanted them to be inspirational places where people could evolve into whatever they were meant to be in life.

His dreams, however, entailed more than simply running a bunch of schools. He wanted to unite Asia’s 4 billion people and get them to focus on their cultural treasure that was the martial arts. In July 2011, he partnered with former ESPN executive Victor Cui to launch ONE Fighting Championship, which later became ONE Championship.

ONE — which now organizes bouts in muay Thai, kickboxing, MMA, karate, silat, san da, lethwei, taekwondo, boxing and submission grappling — is proud of its many “firsts.” It organized its first event in September 2011 at Singapore Indoor Stadium. In 2012, it held its first female fight. In 2018, it promoted its first boxing match. In 2016, it produced the first fight card by a major MMA organization in Thailand and the most-attended fight card in Macau’s history. In 2019, it entered into a partnership with Shooto, and in 2020, it partnered with One Pride MMA, giving champions from those groups a shot at a contract with ONE Championship.

One of the most radical firsts that Chatri introduced into the fight game is designed to protect athletes. In an era when athletes are frequently hospitalized because of dehydration while attempting to make weight, ONE became the first organization to use “walking weight” rather than a number measured at a pre-event weigh-in. Fighters are monitored at their training camps and are tested to ensure that they’re hydrated sufficiently prior to their bouts.

Much of ONE’s success hinges on the quality of people associated with the promotion. Former UFC champs Rich Franklin and Miesha Tate serve as vice presidents. MMA veteran Matt Hume was the matchmaker. As color commentators, ONE has used the talents of Bas Rutten and Renzo Gracie. Over the years, Demetrious Johnson, Eddie Alvarez, Roger Gracie, Brandon Vera, Sage Northcutt and Vitor Belfort have competed.

This focus on excellence has catapulted ONE into the stratosphere. It’s now Asia’s largest global sports media property with a reach that extends into 150 countries. Although it’s valued at close to $1 billion, financial success is not what drives Chatri. During our talk, deeper martial arts themes kept surfacing.

“It comes down to values, heroes and stories,” he said. “We always talk about celebrating values that every family can celebrate with their kids and grandkids. We want heroes that inspire and unite countries by their shared achievements. And we want to tell their stories of overcoming adversity, tragedy and poverty to inspire humanity.

“This is the DNA of ONE Championship. Yes, we have a lot of action, a lot of fun fights, etc. on our social media, but we do spend a big portion of our content on inspiring the world and not promoting senseless violence.”

Nowhere was this focus better illustrated than in ONE’s Aung La N Sang, the first world champion to hail from Myanmar (formerly Burma) — in any sport. Chatri believes that if his story inspires a street kid in Manila or a young woman in India to become a success, ONE’s core mission will have been accomplished.

Charity is another key component for Chatri and ONE, and it’s something he learned from his mother. When he was just 13, she forced him to volunteer as a teacher of English and math for underprivileged kids in a Bangkok slum, and the experience forever changed his perspective. It made him realize how unfair life could be — the odds of these kids escaping poverty or even getting a good education were close to zero.

One of his core beliefs is that “we have been put on the earth to leave it better off than how we have found it.” And he’s certainly walking the walk in this regard. For the past three years, the Evolve Warrior Scholarship Award has given $10,000 scholarships to students from underprivileged families. ONE also has joined forces with Global Citizen, the world’s largest NGO in global social movements. Together, they’re working to solve the planet’s most pressing problem — extreme poverty — by 2030. And ONE supports Boys’ Town Home, a charity for abandoned children and youth in need, as well as the Singapore Children’s Society and Children’s Cancer Foundation.

Perhaps most touching is how Chatri takes care of martial artists in need. He repaid his mentor P’Tu’s early act of kindness by hiring him years later as a coach at Evolve, where he now earns more than he ever could in Thailand and lives a comfortable and productive life.

 

Higher Calling

I asked Chatri if it was difficult championing the martial arts values of honor, respect and discipline in the world of combat sports, where violence and trash talking seem to be the norm. That was his signal to explain what’s permissible in ONE Championship.

“I don’t mind trash talking per se — especially if it is authentic,” he said. “If it’s about skill, if it’s about someone’s heart, if it’s about your ability, your dreams, personality, character, that’s fine. [But] I think that there is a line that you shouldn’t cross. Crossing the line for me, which other organizations have let their biggest stars do, is to insult religions, insult genders, insult wives, kids or family members, even sexual orientation. That is unacceptable. As a media property, we have a responsibility to use our power and influence in a positive way and not in a way that only focuses on monetization.”

I asked Chatri how that will factor into his plans for ONE Championship post-pandemic. Ever the canny businessman, he kept his cards close to his chest lest he give away something his competition might jump on. He noted, however, that according to the recent Nielsen industry report, ONE is now the third most-viewed sports media property in TV worldwide, and to celebrate that milestone and ONE’s 10th anniversary, the company will stay true to its roots

“For me, it’s to continue to always grow and never forget our mission — that fans or their parents come up to me and tell me how we inspire them or how we gave them strength at home or how we changed their life,” he said. “That’s the fuel to my fire. It’s as simple as when a cancer patient tells me, ‘I wanted to fight because I saw your heroes fight.’ These are the stories that really shape me and inspire me.”

 

Bright Future

As my time with Chatri drew to a close, I asked if he was optimistic that this period of suffering brought on by COVID-19 will lead to future greatness. Even 16 hours into his workday, his eyes burned with fire when he replied.

“Yes, I have not lost one iota of confidence in martial arts schools or the martial arts industry or anything that is going on in the world,” he said. “Here’s why: At the end of the day, martial arts is a huge net benefit to society. Not only do we get our students happier, healthier, fitter and more productive, [but we also] forge in them values of integrity, humility, honor, respect, courage and compassion. Millions of children all over the world are able to bullyproof themselves through martial arts and not have their self-esteem shattered by bullies.

“At its core, martial arts is a wonderful thing that has been a part of Asian society and culture for the better part of 5,000 years. Martial arts has survived through wars, pandemics, recessions and everything else. It is definitely rough times for everybody, [but] the martial arts industry will snap back stronger than ever once this pandemic is over. It might seem dark right now, but it’s always darkest at midnight. But always remember the sun rises again.”

 

Perry William Kelly has a sixth-degree black belt in jiu-jitsu and is an instructor in four other martial arts. He’s the former national coordinator for use of force for the Correctional Service of Canada. In 2017 he was a karate gold medalist at the World Police and Fire Games, and in 2018 he received the Joe Lewis Eternal Warrior Award. His website is perrywkelly.com.

 

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