ONE Championship founder and CEO Chatri Sityodtong wants to take jiu-jitsu to the next level. “I think that ONE is going to be the game-changing platform that brings jiu-jitsu to the mainstream globally, at the largest scale possible,” Sityodtong tells the Jiu-Jitsu Times. “So that jiu-jitsu athletes will not only have a bigger fanbase but also more sponsorship opportunities and bigger fight purses than ever seen before in history.”
He’s not afraid of putting his money where his mouth is. The most recent additions to ONE’s grappling talent roster include twin grappling sensations Kade and Tye Ruotolo, as well as five-time black belt world champion Mikey Musumeci. Previously, Sityodtong also signed no-gi king Gordon Ryan, rising star Danielle Kelly, and IBJJF Hall of Fame member Michelle Nicolini.
So, equipped with a talent stable full of jiu-jitsu’s most sought-after superstars, what can we expect from ONE’s matchmakers?
Sityodtong breaks the news that Musumeci already has his first grappling match with ONE booked. “Next month, Mikey Musumeci is fighting [Masakazu] Imanari in ONE,” Sityodtong shares. “Imanari’s obviously the heel hook specialist, so that’s going to be a fun match.”
According to Sityodtong, he and the competition department approached Musumeci and Imanari with the matchup only a couple of days after signing Musumeci. Both athletes signed in a day. The match will be a one-round, twelve-minute super fight, under a submission-only ruleset with no points.
That said, Sityodtong doesn’t think the particulars of the ruleset will matter much. “If you match up the right athletes, the ruleset doesn’t matter,” he says. “If you match up a staller with a staller, no matter what ruleset you give them, they’ll find a way to stall. But if you match up a finisher with a finisher, it’s like two lions or lionesses coming in. Twelve minutes, fifteen minutes – it doesn’t matter, they’ll look for the finish.”
That’s not just Sityodtong’s opinion either. He recalls a recent conversation with John Danaher: “I asked him, ‘Do you think we have the right rules for submission grappling?’ He said, ‘Look, ninety to ninety-five percent of a match outcome is determined by the two athletes. If they are aggressive finishers, you’ll get a finish. The ruleset actually doesn’t matter that much.’”
“At ONE, if I look at our competition department – which organizes all the matchmaking and signs all the athletes – they put on fights with a 70 percent finish rate, which is almost double that of the UFC and Bellator,” Sityodtong notes. “We try to do the most exciting matchups, and all our athletes – in MMA, in kickboxing, in jiu-jitsu – they’re all finishers. So, I don’t think Imanari versus Mikey is going to end with a decision.”
How exactly did Musumeci end up at ONE in the first place? Sityodtong grins, recounting, “Mikey reached out to me a year ago on Instagram, and I didn’t read his message – I literally just read his message two or three weeks ago. He was like, ‘Sir, I’d love to join ONE,’ and so forth, but since Instagram has those filters [for DMs], I never checked his. And one day, I just checked, randomly, and it turned out I’d missed all these messages. So I went through them quickly, and was like, ‘Mikey Musumeci! That’s crazy, I’m a big fan!’” Sityodtong got Musumeci on the phone shortly after and signed him a few days later.
In other words, one of the best grapplers in the world literally slid into Sityodtong’s DMs – quite the testament to ONE’s popularity as a promotional platform.
One way that ONE sets itself apart from other major MMA promotions – most notably, the UFC and Bellator – is through the sheer breadth of its events. Sityodtong has built a true combat sports empire, but one where cage fighting alone isn’t the sole path to superstardom. That’s a tremendous boon for grappling specialists who aren’t certain of – or interested in – donning MMA gloves.
“We always try to work with our athletes about what they want,” says Sityodtong. “Part of the appeal is that they can win world titles in submission grappling, as well as MMA, eventually – be a double sports champion – which you can’t do in other organizations. Like, if you join the other two major global MMA promotions, the UFC or Bellator, you can only do MMA.”
That range of options for career growth is clear even among ONE’s most recently signed jiu-jitsu talent. “Mikey [Musumeci] for example only wants to do jiu-jitsu, and we’re cool with that. I think there are some phenomenal matchups for him,” says Sityodtong.
On the other hand, the Ruotolo twins, also recently signed under the ONE banner, have expressed an interest in adding MMA to their repertoire, which Sityodtong equally encourages. “They want to make their MMA debuts by year-end, so they’re not looking at the slow track for MMA,” he confirms. “They want to go out there, guns blazing. So I think we’re going to first ease them into submission grappling for the next several months, and then MMA toward the end of the year. But apparently, they’ve been doing striking and wrestling and all that stuff already, so it’s not like they’re newbies. They’ve been preparing for this for many years. Of course, nothing’s going to prepare them for the nerves of twenty thousand people in a stadium, and a hundred million viewers – they’re going to be surprised by how much media attention and fan attention they’re going to get, which is a shock to the system – but I think they’ll rise to the occasion. If anything, it’ll inspire them to perform at a higher level than they’ve ever performed.”
Sityodtong also wants to give the twins space to develop independently as athletes, depending on their individual needs and inclinations – and thanks to the flexibility of ONE as a platform, he’s well-positioned to do so: “I think of Kade and Tye as separate individuals, and we’ll work with them on what they want – yes, they are brothers, and yes, it’s great for marketing that they’re twins – but I think Kade and Tye are individual human beings with individual needs and wants. Maybe for a moment in time, those needs and wants will be similar, and maybe down the road, one of them decides to only do submission grappling, or only do MMA, or the other decides they want simultaneous world titles in both – you know, there’s a whole platform for them to discover here. Who knows, maybe one of them wants to do a kickboxing fight, or a Muay Thai fight – that’s an option here too.”
What inspired Sityodtong to unite such a wide range of combat sports promotions under a single banner?
“Obviously, my first martial art is Muay Thai, I’ve been doing Muay Thai for thirty-five-plus years, and I’ve been doing jiu-jitsu since 2005, [so] when I started ONE, I had a very simple motivation,” says Sityodtong. “It was literally just because I wanted to share my greatest passion in life with the world. I grew up on martial arts, ever since I was a kid, and I just wanted to showcase it in its most authentic light, with the greatest martial artists in the world – but do it in a way that represents the true martial arts ethos, the bushido code, if you will. The way of the warrior.”
To Sityodtong, that means staying true to the hand-to-hand and self-defense roots of martial arts. “If you look at our ruleset, it’s always about reality,” he elaborates. “At the same time, I really do want all our athletes to give an honest and authentic expression of themselves – but also, the vast majority of our martial artists come from years and years of training and learning and growing and competing and setbacks, and all that: the whole journey of the warrior. So I encourage them, at the end of the day, like, ‘Look, we have the biggest martial arts platform in the world, with the highest viewership numbers – I think the next event we’ve got coming up, ONE X, has a hundred million viewers, that’s the equivalent of a Superbowl – and jiu-jitsu has never had that kind of eyeballs.’”
That kind of viewership, according to Sityodtong, could be a game-changer for grappling as a whole.
“I have a lot of friends in the jiu-jitsu community who are rooting for ONE to help jiu-jitsu blow up all over the world, on a global scale, in the mainstream,” says Sityodtong. Those friends include movers and shakers like John Danaher, Renzo Gracie, Roger Gracie, and Léo Vieira, to name just a few. “All these incredible legends of the sport have given me so much positive reinforcement and encouragement that it really keeps me going.”
It helps, of course, that Sityodtong has a proven track record of showcasing grappling talent on a stage designed to excite – and multiply – their fanbase.
“I think it really started with Garry Tonon, several years ago,” says Sityodtong. “He came to Singapore, we met, and hit it off. I’ve been doing jiu-jitsu for a number of years as well, so I love jiu-jitsu. We’re a whole martial arts organization – it’s not just about MMA for us. If you think about it, MMA is really only one vertical of martial arts. We showcase mixed martial arts, kickboxing, submission grappling – we’ve even done world championship boxing on our platform. So it’s a celebration of the greatest martial artists on the planet, and when I first signed Garry, we did a Shinya Aoki versus Garry Tonon submission grappling match – and that’s the first time Asia’s ever seen that in primetime, free-to-air TV, and it was a hit! So the seed was planted.”
During roughly the same time period, multiple-time jiu-jitsu world champion Marcus “Buchecha” Almeida also visited Singapore and had dinner with Sityodtong. “He told me that if he ever did MMA, he’d want to do it in ONE,” Sityodtong remembers. “And then Gordon Ryan came to Singapore as well – had dinner, came to my office, and then we just hit it off. It all happened so organically.”
What exactly does he mean by that? “I think for us, it’s always been organic,” explains Sityodtong. “It’s never been like, ‘oh, let’s just go after [these jiu-jitsu champions]’ – if you look at our jiu-jitsu roster, it is the world’s greatest, but it’s also the world’s most exciting.”
In other words, to sign with ONE, it’s not enough to simply collect gold medals – the way you win matters. “I’d rather not sign stallers or folks who try to win by advantage or folks who try to win by a single sweep in the last thirty seconds of a match,” says Sityodtong. “That doesn’t represent true martial arts to me. You might be winning titles for that, but it’s not what jiu-jitsu [was originally meant for].” Instead, Sityodtong wants to sign finishers – grapplers who aren’t afraid to go in for the kill.
Sityodtong also cares about character. “I just feel very blessed and very lucky, to be honest, that all these great athletes have reached out, and want to be a part of ONE,” he says. Across all combat sports, he describes his preferred athletes as “true martial artists – people who don’t necessarily want to engage in some of the hatred and negativity and racism and things you have to do to promote a fight.”
This isn’t to say that he entirely eschews the notion of trash talk. “I think you can play psychological warfare, but maintain your humanity. You don’t have to cross a line – like you don’t have to go insulting people’s kids. That, for me, is important. I think trash talk is fun, as long as it doesn’t cross that line. When you cross a line, people know it – when you’re going after people’s kids, and insulting their wives and religion, you know?” There’s a sense of honor that Sityodtong likes to see fighters retain.
He cites the Ruotolo twins as a prime example of exceptional athletes whose personalities also appeal to ONE’s brand of integrity: “What I love about Kade and Tye is that they’re such good people, with good hearts. The way they carry themselves, I can’t believe they’re [so young], to be honest. I mean, with their jiu-jitsu, I can’t believe [how young they are], but also on a human level, their maturity, and their emotional intelligence, and what they want out of life – they told me that they have a Bob Marley quote about how life is about how many lives you touch on your journey. And I just thought, ‘wow, at their age, I definitely wasn’t thinking in those terms.’”
A lifelong martial artist himself and veteran of multiple Muay Thai fights, Sityodtong expresses a strong sense of empathy for his athletes. “If I had the genetic talent, I would have gone and tried to become a world champion,” he confides with a self-effacing chuckle. “But I didn’t have that – I’m a world-class striker and reasonably decent at jiu-jitsu, but I’m not a world champion athlete, genetically. So instead, I just do it because I love it, because martial arts is my passion, and martial arts is who I am.” He channels that same love into connecting with ONE’s athletes: “Does [being a martial artist] help me connect? Absolutely. I’m from the Muay Thai community. I’m from the jiu-jitsu community. They’re my brothers and sisters. Of the major global organizations, I’m the only CEO who truly is born from the [martial arts] community, bred from the community, and still a part of the community.”
It grants Sityodtong a unique perspective on certain business issues in combat sports – particularly the matter of pay equity. Thanks to his own combat sports background, he’s more viscerally aware than most of what fighters endure, and as a result, passionate about ensuring that his athletes are well-compensated. “I have a great relationship with all our athletes, and where we can, we try to pay the highest in the world,” says Sityodtong. “We’ve never had a problem with pay with our athletes, and I can tell you that our jiu-jitsu stars will be paid the highest in the world, full stop – there’s no jiu-jitsu promotion in the world that’s even close to our pay scale.”
“It’s about the fact that I’ve been on the mats, and smashed, and had my knees popped, that I know everything they go through – all those things,” he elaborates. “So I really relate, and because I’ve been a martial artist longer than I’ve been an entrepreneur, I want to do right. I want to do right by our athletes. If I was a pure businessman – like my counterparts at the UFC or Bellator – and there’s nothing wrong with being a businessman, you have to be profitable at the end of the day, but being a businessman is only one lens. I like to look through multiple lenses. Because I am a martial artist, and I see how hard people train, and how they get hurt, I’m very empathetic because I’ve been there: weight cuts, injuries, losses, knockouts. Everything that happens on the journey. So for me, it’s not about how little I can get away with paying a fighter – it’s about fairness, it’s about generosity, it’s about trying our best. So I can comfortably say that our athletes are among the highest-paid in the world, in every discipline.”
That attitude also extends to breaking traditional barriers of sexism in combat sports. “When Angela Lee – our atomweight world champion – won the world title at nineteen, I made her the top three highest-paid athletes on our roster, male or female,” Sityodtong remembers. “I posted it on my social media, and I had this huge uproar – I mean, I got so much hate mail from people all over Asia demanding to know how I could pay a woman as much as a man, or how I could pay a nineteen-year-old so much.”
Sityodtong describes the experience as a seminal moment. “At first, I was of course taken aback by all the hate, but I also knew that this was an opportunity to inspire little girls all over the continent of Asia – not just to be a fighter – but to make them realize, ‘I can be the best in the world at whatever I want to be if Angela Lee can do it at nineteen, and be an equal peer to a male.’ So I stood my ground because if you’re the best in the world, it doesn’t matter if you’re male or female, you should be paid the best.”
Moments like these, the way Sityodtong sees it, are also an opportunity to shape the broader culture of the world for the better. “What shapes culture? What shapes society for the next generation?” he asks. “It’s four things: family, education, sports, and entertainment. That’s how societal norms are created. So if we create athletes who are racist, or who beat up women, or who beat up old men in bars, or are just despicable characters, that’s what a thirteen-year-old will think is right. So that’s what my team and I think about very deeply: yes, we’re a martial arts organization, but more than that, we’re a platform for humanity. Yes, it sounds corny, but I believe in it with every fiber of my being. This is why we’re doing it.”
He sees jiu-jitsu, in particular, as a sport ripe for growth and influence. “Jiu-jitsu has been growing rapidly for the past ten years, but has not yet hit the mainstream psyche in the way that MMA has,” says Sityodtong. “And I feel that our platform, broadcasting live in 154 countries, with an average viewership of thirty, forty, fifty million depending on the event [will change that]. We’re entering the US market – I’m making a major announcement of our US broadcast partner in the next few weeks, which is also going to be earth-shaking. Never before have we seen jiu-jitsu on a major broadcaster, and you’ll see that for the first time. So, I feel like this is a special moment in time for the entire jiu-jitsu community: athletes, fans, and hobbyists alike.”
So, with that in mind, what can ONE’s audience look forward to in the near future?
Quite a lot, according to Siyodtong. “Stay tuned for big things that Gordon Ryan’s going to do, that Garry Tonon’s going to do, that Kade and Tye are going to do, that Mikey’s going to do, that André [Galvão]’s going to do. You’re going to see that jiu-jitsu is going to blow up – and it’s going to be phenomenal for academies all over the world, which are going to have more and more students. That’s the biggest thing I’d like to share: that a big explosion, a big wave, a big exponential inflection point is going to happen with ONE, and I think we have the right athletes to make it happen as well. And that’s very important – if we just have a big platform, that’s not enough. We have a big platform, but when we also have exciting finishers like Mikey, Gordon, and Garry – it’s going to blow up in a huge way.”
Don’t miss ONE X, streaming on Saturday, March 26, via ONE Championship.
To purchase or stream live ONE Championship events, visit the official website.