Building an empire of heroes

Font Size

Chatri Sityodtong’s warrior spirit.


Chatri Sityodtong begins, as he often does, with a story. It’s something he picked up from a mentor he had in his youth, training in the art of Muay Thai back in Thailand, where he grew up.

Chatri Sityodtong
Chatri Sityodtong

There was once two warriors, he explains, both tasked with protecting a princess. One day, a monstrous tiger attacks their charge, and the two warriors are faced with a decision – to risk their lives and fight, or flee.

The first, terrified, looks to the princess, then to the beast, turns on his heels, and runs. The second is just as terrified, but pauses. He had spent his entire life preparing for this moment. Steeling himself, he swallows his fear, draws his blade, and rushes into battle.

Fear is constant, Chatri says. It’s the decision that follows that makes one a hero.

Last year, FOX Sports named Chatri Sityodtong Asia’s third most powerful person in sports. At 46 years old, the multimillionaire entrepreneur is the founder and CEO of ONE Championship, Asia’s biggest promoter of mixed-martial arts. Today, seven years after its founding, ONE Championship reaches nearly two billion homes across 136 countries.

Based out of Singapore and backed by Sequoia Capital and Temasek Holdings, the company today is valued at over US$100 million. According to CNBC, ONE Championship is the biggest sports media company in Asia, and Chatri says he’s devoting the rest of his life to making it the biggest in the world.

“Martial arts in Asia and the world is absolutely exploding right now,” he said. “The potential is massive. I could be in one country today, and in a completely different country tomorrow, hundreds of miles away.”

Looking past the billions of fans worldwide and the explosive growth of his company, Chatri says at the heart of it all, his success lies in the fact that he’s in the business of building heroes.

“Asian martial arts fans can relate to the stories of our local martial arts superheroes,” he said. Unlike the octagon titans of the US-based Ultimate Fighting Championship, many of the athletes in Chatri’s roster are homegrown Asian talents.

It’s because fans can identify with these athletes on a personal level, with their culture and upbringing, that Chatri believes his martial artists are so popular. “To have someone from their own community make it to the world stage of martial arts, well that’s truly inspirational,” he said.

“A lot of our athletes have amazing background stories and part of our focus at ONE Championship is to bring these stories to light.”

One example Chatri often cites is that of Eduard Folayang. One of the most dominant athletes in the ONE Championship roster, Eduard is the Baguio native and high school teacher-turned-superstar who shook the MMA world by knocking out Japanese judo legend Shinya Aoki in a fight no one believed he had a chance in.

Born into poverty, Eduard lost five of his eight siblings simply because his family couldn’t afford proper health care for them. His parents juggled multiple jobs and took out loans in the hopes of putting their four other children through school.

Stumbling across an opportunity to get into college through a wushu scholarship, Eduard decided to pick up martial arts. The rest, as they say, is history.

It’s a story that many in the region can relate to, one that highlights what Chatri calls a “warrior spirit.” It’s also a story that strikes close to home for Chatri Sityodtong, who himself struggled through poverty to reach where he is today.

Chatri was born in Thailand to a fairly well-off family. But when the Asian financial crisis hit, it hit his family hard, bankrupting them and stripping them of everything they owned. Poverty tore them apart. When his father packed up and abandoned the family, it was up to Chatri to keep things from crumbling completely.

Building an empire of heroes

It was around this time that Chatri began studying Muay Thai at the Sityodtong Camp, under the tutelage of his mentor Kru Yodtong Senanan. Chatri says the years he spent learning martial arts at the camp were the most formative of his life—so formative, in fact, that he goes by his given ring name, the name of the camp, to this day.

The decades that followed saw Chatri’s family sacrifice heavily to put him through school, eventually sending him halfway across the globe to the United States, where they believed Chatri would have a real shot at getting the family out of poverty.

Living on one meal a day, Chatri scrimped to make ends meet as a college student at Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts. Unsatisfied with his degree in economics, Chatri pursued further studies at Harvard Business School. It was while living in Boston that things really got tough for him and his family.

In his second year at Harvard, Chatri’s mother was forced to move in with him in his student dorm. Though it was against school policy, she couldn’t afford to stay anywhere else, so she took the bed while Chatri slept on the floor.

Though he was a scholar at Harvard, Chatri had to take on a number of part-time jobs to get through business school, delivering Chinese food and teaching Muay Thai between classes.

He recalls keeping a spreadsheet of all his expenditures. On average, he spent US$4.25 a day living and working in Boston, and he made it his daily goal to beat that average.

Chatri recalls the events of his life as an endless series of struggles, of failure and fear of failure. And that cycle continues to this day. “I make so many mistakes every single day,” he said. “Wrong hires, wrong decisions—I’ve failed so many times I lost count.”

“[But] there is always opportunity in failure. You have to make mistakes so you’ll learn. And all those lessons you can apply for future success.”

In persevering through that constant struggle, he says, he found strength in revisiting his early days training at the Sityodtong Camp.

“I had a goal in mind,” he said. “Because, at the time, Muay Thai taught me to never give up and to persevere, I brought that mentality into my daily life. A lot of the lessons that I have learned in life came directly from my training in martial arts.”

“Martial arts is what truly saved my life,” he said.

Chatri spent the next decade of his life after graduation reaping the rewards of those early sacrifices, enjoying lucrative positions as an investment analyst and a multibillion dollar hedge fund manager.

He became a managing director at JLF Asset Management, then later a managing director at Maverick Capital. He even launched his own New York-based hedge fund, Izara Capital Management, valued at US$500 million.

But despite the millions of dollars he was making at the time, his career on Wall Street wouldn’t last. Chatri Sityodtong had bigger plans.

Recognizing the role that martial arts played in developing his relentless spirit, and the inspiration he drew from his mother and his mentor Kru Yodtong Senanan—his own heroes—he felt the pull to pay it forward.

“When you’re dirt poor, surviving on one meal a day, I would just dream about money nonstop, because it was the only way to stop the suffering of my family, of my mom,” he said.

“Once I started making millions in Wall Street… that’s when it hit me that money wasn’t the only thing that drove me,” he said. “My soul wasn’t fulfilled. After a decade in Wall Street, I wanted to do something with my life. Instead of just taking, I wanted to give to the world and change the world.”

In 2011, Chatri founded what he now knows to be his life’s calling, ONE Championship. Just as he found strength in the martial arts and in his heroes, he dreams that people all over Asia will find the same in the stories he tells, the warriors he elevates, through his platform.

“ONE Championship is the celebration of Asia’s greatest cultural treasure—martial arts,” he said. “In every Asian nation, there is always a deep-rooted, completely local and unique martial arts practiced. It’s ingrained in our DNA and into the daily fabric of Asian society.”

Eduard Folayang, one of the most dominant athletes in the ONE Championship roster, is a Baguio native and high school teacher-turned-superstar. He is pictured here in his fight against Japanese judo legend Shinya Aoki.

“Martial arts also transcends the reaches of the dojo and into our personal lives,” he said. “The lessons it teaches resonate deeply with the people. Everyone wants to get behind this because it is inspiring and life-changing, and most of all, tangible.”

Chatri shares that, moments before a fight, after years of constant training, many of his athletes—world champions in their own right—hole themselves up backstage, trembling. But when their names come up, they get on their feet and enter the arena.

To the fans, they’re indomitable heroes. But in reality, Chatri says, every fight is a willful decision they make to choose that path. Those are the kind of stories he wants to tell.

Chatri has expanded that vision of martial arts touching people’s daily lives through another venture, Evolve MMA, Asia’s top-ranked mixed martial arts training organization. It’s digital counterpart, Evolve University, is the largest online martial arts university in the world.

Interim flyweight champion Geje Eustaquio and flyweight champion Adrian Moraes during the ONE Championship event held in Mall of Asia Arena this January.

“The people who attend Evolve are really from all walks of life,” he said. Students at his martial arts academy range from five-year-olds to seventy-year-olds. “We have executives, CEOs, MDs, we have nurses, engineers, teachers—literally all walks of life.”

“That’s the biggest misconception about martial arts,” he said. “People think that it’s a male-dominated sport, that it’s about violence. It’s really about the continuous improvement of yourself, in all aspects.”

Today, Chatri’s dedication to martial arts still bleeds from his professional life into his personal life. As a lifelong practitioner, he continues to train every day. “All my life I have lived by the values that martial arts has taught me—integrity, humility, honor, respect, courage, and discipline.”

In the face of adversity, Chatri Sityodtong has learned that fear and failure are all part of the journey. Everyone, he says, experiences it. It’s in rising above, getting back up, steeling oneself and rushing into battle that one becomes a hero.

“These values have been able to guide me through the toughest times,” he said. “I am confident they will continue to do so for the rest of my life.”

“Learn from your mistakes,” he said. “Embrace failure and take every step back as an opportunity to take two steps forward. Live by these principles and you will be successful, no matter what you pursue.”