Back in March, ONE Championship CEO Chatri Sityodtong discussed a bold promise with the Jiu-Jitsu Times: he intended to build a platform that would turn jiu-jitsu into a mainstream spectator sport. Barely three months later, he’s already made daring strides toward his goal, launching crowd-pleasing debuts for fan favorites of the grappling world, including Silver Fox BJJ ace Danielle Kelly, Atos’ up-and-coming Ruotolo twins, and multiple-time IBJJF world champion Mikey Musumeci.
“When we look back five years from now, I really believe these past few months will be seen as the start of a major revolution in grappling on a global level because ONE’s platform is so big,” Sityodtong tells the Jiu-Jitsu Times. “We have an average viewership of approximately 40 million viewers per event. We’ve hit a high of as much as 87 million viewers for a single event. So you can imagine the exposure. It takes the right athletes – meaning the very best in the world.”
That doesn’t mean that ONE will sign just any garden variety ADCC champ either – Sityodtong wants entertainers. He doesn’t just want grapplers who win – he wants grapplers who excite their audiences. He wants jiu-jitsu that’s fun to watch, even if you don’t practice jiu-jitsu yourself.
“I can tell you that every top jiu-jitsu athlete has contacted us in the last few weeks,” says Sityodtong. “We’re inundated! But at the same time, Léo Vieira – our head of grappling – and I have talked it out, and we want to be extremely exclusive in terms of who we sign. Because I think the responsibility for the true globalization of grappling rests upon ONE’s shoulders. So we have to pick the right athletes with not only the right kind of jiu-jitsu, but the right out-of-cage personality, story, character, charisma, looks – whatever you may call it: a kind of X factor.”
“I believe we already have the greatest roster on the planet,” he adds. “Between Buchecha – who’s going to make a comeback in grappling in ONE; he wants to win double world titles in MMA and grappling – and the Ruotolo brothers, Garry Tonon, and Mikey Musumeci, and Tainan Dalpra, as well as Jessa Khan and Danielle Kelly. So I’m confident that we have the world’s greatest roster of grappling talent. And I think it’s fitting that ONE being the home of martial arts – and the world’s largest martial arts organization – I think this is the time to really blow up jiu-jitsu.”
The results of Sityodtong’s efforts have spoken for themselves. “Mikey [Musumeci]’s match against Imanari is the single most watched match in the history of jiu-jitsu,” confirms Sityodtong. “Twenty-one million views. And just for perspective, Gordon Ryan typically gets one million views, and ‘Roger Gracie versus Buchecha 2’ got a million. And Mikey got twenty-one million. Of course, our platform’s much bigger, but Mikey and Imanari gave the fans a really special treat – so again, I think this is just the start. It’s only in the last couple months that we really started [featuring more] jiu-jitsu, and already, we’re breaking records on all-time highs in viewership for jiu-jitsu, as well as all-time highs in terms of pay.”
As Sityodtong has alluded to in previous conversations with the Jiu-Jitsu Times, fair compensation for his athletes is a particular point of pride for him. “Athletes on our roster are the highest paid, bar none, in jiu-jitsu,” he emphasizes.
Citing his own extensive combat sports background, he adds, “I genuinely care about our athletes. I genuinely want to do right by them. I want to grow their brands, I want to see them achieve their dreams on the ONE platform, whether it’s economic, whether it’s fame, whatever it is that they aspire to on this stage. Of course, they have to earn it, they have to beat the best of the best, but I have a lot of empathy and compassion for our athletes because I know the whole process of what it took for them to get there.”
High pay has also allowed him to court more talent – and create more opportunities for them. “I’m excited – obviously, ONE pays the highest in the world for any jiu-jitsu athlete, so we’ll be making some big announcements on signing [in the coming weeks],”says Sitoyodtong. “We’re also having our first world championship title match in jiu-jitsu. We’ve obviously had it in MMA, we’ve had it in Muay Thai, we’ve had it in kickboxing, and now jiu-jitsu will have its first world championship crown in ONE.” It’s all part of Sityodtong’s plan to turn jiu-jitsu into a true spectator sport.
He’s done it before. “We’ve been able to blow up Muay Thai globally, we’ve been able to blow up kickboxing globally,” says Sityodtong. “So we have a clear track record.”
How are the rest of ONE’s latest crop of grappling debutants faring, in terms of results? Not half bad. Viral footage of the ninja-worthy highlights from Atos phenom Kade Ruotolo’s grappling debut against longtime MMA fan favorite Shinya Aoki has blown up online. Meanwhile, according to Sityodtong, Kade’s twin brother Tye took home what may be the biggest fight purse in jiu-jitsu history – ousting longtime king Gordon Ryan.
One common denominator in the highest-profile ONE grappling debuts has been the matchmaking formula. Sityodtong has typically matched his young jiu-jitsu prospects – including Kelly, Musumeci, and the Ruotolo brothers – against some of ONE’s most hardened, battle-tested MMA veterans. According to their boss, that’s by design. “The platform lends itself perfectly for these amazing matches,” says Sityodtong. “For example, we’re thinking of doing Mikey Musumeci versus Demetrious Johnson, down the line. That’d be crazy – DJ’s a phenomenal athlete, phenomenal grappler. So you can imagine Mikey Musumeci versus Demetrious Johnson in a match, let’s say a few months from now. That’s a very real possibility.”
The cross-pollination between ONE’s various combat sports talent stables has also been good for growing new audiences. “Obviously, our MMA product has a much bigger viewership than our nascent jiu-jitsu product,” Sityodtong points out. “So by cross-proliferating between the martial arts, we are able not only to pull in fans from all these different communities, but also create a lot of intrigue.”
However, ONE’s recipe for success isn’t just contingent on signing hot young up-and-comers. As proven by the tenacity of its longtime MMA stars in the face of opponents sometimes two decades their junior, the older athletes on Sityodtong’s roster also boast some serious longevity. “That’s a consequence of having the greatest roster on the planet,” says Sityodtong. “With that mindset, when we signed [for example] Shinya [Aoki] ten years ago, he was in his prime, elite judo black belt, elite jiu-jitsu black belt, so it’s really a function of us always seeking the very best talent in the world. Our mindset whenever we sign one of our athletes is, ‘Can they become a global superstar beyond their respective sport?’”
Considering that question carefully – along with how well that stardom will age over the span of an athlete’s career – allows ONE’s team to think about their talent stable with a shrewdly long-term view. In other words, it’s not enough to simply sign budding phenoms – to build a sustainably watchable promotion, Sityodtong believes it’s equally important to continue nurturing the athletes and developing their individual careers long after the ink is dry on their contracts.
Part of that also means looking out for each athlete’s best interests as they grow within the promotion. For example, despite the fact that the Ruotolo twins have gone to war against each other in major competition before, Sityodtong is hesitant to matchmake Ruotolo versus Ruotolo for his own promotion: “I can’t read the future, but I don’t really want to do that one, mostly because I really like Kade and Tye a lot as people, and we get along fantastically as friends – I’d love to see them both live their dreams in ONE without having to face each other. They have a special, special relationship. They’re incredibly close brothers. There’s a lot of competitive tension between them, but also a lot of support as brothers. They’re brothers before they’re competitors, but at the same time, they need each other. They are where they are because of each other.” Rather than pit brother against brother, Sityodtong would rather they leverage their bond as twins and training partners to forge individual paths of success against the many other dangerous opponents waiting in the ONE ranks.
Unlike any other global MMA promotion, ONE is also faced with the unique task of ensuring smooth transitions between different combat sports for athletes looking to cross-specialize. Often, that means getting creative with events that offer a gradual transition from one ruleset to another. For instance, in the special-rules combination superfight between Muay Thai star Rodtang Jitmuangnon and MMA legend Demetrious Johnson, Sityodtong wanted to ensure that both athletes could show off hard-won skills in their respective primary disciplines. “We did [that match] so they could excel at their respective arts, yet put it together,” says Sityodtong. “That one was first round Muay Thai, second round MMA, third round Muay Thai, fourth round MMA. So I can see that happening again, whether it’s Muay Thai, whether it’s jiu-jitsu, or whether it’s MMA – special rules matches that allow the specialist to actually compete in their stronger arenas, but at the same time, compete in their weaker arenas.”
The promotion also works with individual athletes to chart a course that maximizes their chances of success in a new sport. “Let’s take Stamp Fairtex, for example,” offers Sityodtong. “She grew up as a Muay Thai athlete her whole life, and recently transitioned to MMA. She’s been doing jiu-jitsu for about three years, and is technically a blue belt, but if you look at her skills, she’s purple belt level already. And once she set her sights on it, we gave her the path and said, ‘Look, you’re going to have to spend a few years in jiu-jitsu, and you’re going to have to get wrestling training, etcetera, and meanwhile, we’ll keep you active in Muay Thai and kickboxing.’ And when she felt ready to take the plunge, she had a couple fights, and then it was the atomweight grand prix. Which she won – she went up against India’s best wrestler, Ritu Phogat, and submitted her. I would say that Stamp, today, is a solid purple belt. Not a hobbyist purple belt – a solid competitor purple belt. So, you just need that time.”
Sityodtong offers another prime example in Marcus “Buchecha” Almeida. “Obviously, coming in as a thirteen-time world champion in jiu-jitsu, his striking and wrestling wasn’t necessarily there yet – but you can see, it’s rapidly improving. I think he’s going to be a truly dangerous elite heavyweight mixed martial artist within a couple more fights. So it’s not just about the record – he’s had maybe a thousand or more jiu-jitsu matches in his career, so he’s mentally used to competing hard at the elite level, so having that same mindset for MMA makes it a very easy transition.”
“If you get an athlete who’s, let’s say, 10-0 in MMA, but was only a collegiate wrestler or had a martial arts background of five years, they’re not going to be as mentally tough as Buchecha is,” says Sityodtong. “Because Buchecha literally had to run through the world’s best grapplers to win those thirteen jiu-jitsu world championships. So, that aspect, people don’t really understand [when discussing] transitions.”
In Sityodtong’s opinion, his roster of elite specialists – many of them owners of world championships or titles of equivalent prestige in their original martial art – allow ONE to thrive as a unique MMA organization. “Stamp [Fairtex] already had a hundred Muay Thai fights before she transitioned to MMA – so this is what I mean when I say that our roster is truly the greatest roster on the planet when it comes to world champion martial artists,” he explains. “Because, if you take a typical UFC athlete, they’ll be 10-0 or 10-2 or whatever it is, and they might have a little bit of a wrestling background, maybe they’ve done striking for three or four years. It’s a different level – they’re generalists. Whereas our athletes, they’re coming in with a hundred professional fights. Like, Rodtang had three hundred professional Muay Thai fights, so when he transitioned to MMA, it was a totally different mental strength, a totally different killer instinct. Even if he’s 1-0 in MMA, he will smash people who are 20-0 because he’s had those three hundred professional fights in Muay Thai.” Sityodtong chuckles ruefully, perhaps remembering the grueling wars from his own heyday as a Muay Thai fighter. “Which is arguably far more dangerous and far more painful than MMA is!”
If Sityodtong truly wants to take submission grappling to the mainstream, however, he recognizes that he’ll need to find a way to court non-practitioners. How do you get someone who doesn’t train jiu-jitsu to watch jiu-jitsu? Sityodtong’s answer is simple: good storytelling.
“We have a great storytelling machine,” says Sityodtong. “We have a tremendous production team who are truly world class storytellers and hero builders. And again, we don’t sign just anybody – you have to have that X factor outside of the cage.” He cites Danielle Kelly as an example. “Her life story outside of the arena breaks your heart, but at the same time, it’s inspiring, how she lost both her parents at a young age, how she started jiu-jitsu when her father was sick, how she continues to do jiu-jitsu to honor her parents. And of course, Danielle’s also just a wonderful human being with a heart of gold. So when you look at that, you’ve got to ask, where can the ONE platform take Danielle one year from now, two years from now, three years from now, five years from now? You can see that she has all the right elements to become a global superstar on the ONE platform.”
“Over the last decade, we’ve built a top five global sports property in terms of viewership engagement, per Nielsen reporting,” says Sityodtong. “We’ve – consciously – worked toward having the world’s largest platform by viewership and engagement for all combat sports. Our moniker is ‘home of martial arts,’ so adding Muay Thai and kickboxing – and now jiu-jitsu and grappling – is just an extension of what we’ve already been doing.”
“I’ll say this,” adds Sityodtong. “We were able to transform Muay Thai from a predominantly practitioner sport to a spectator sport – and I think we’ve done that with kickboxing – and obviously with MMA, [that process] was already well underway with the other two major global organizations, so while we definitely grew it, I can’t say we revolutionized it.”
Jiu-jitsu, on the other hand, is a sport that Sityodtong is determined to transform on a major scale, in eyes of the global public. “I think this is a moment in history: we’re going to revolutionize grappling. You combine the largest platform with the kind of athletes we’re looking for – these world champion athletes – and then our storytelling. We’re all about hero building and storytelling – as opposed to say, in America, where you have a lot of hatred and unnecessary drama. I don’t believe that grows the sport in the right way. And I don’t believe that grows the sport sustainably.”
“My ultimate vision for our grappling league is that three to five years from now, grandparents and their grandkids – who don’t even do jiu-jitsu! – end up watching Danielle Kelly because they relate to her life story. Where they’ll want to watch her win a world title in grappling. I truly believe that ONE has the greatest roster – and obviously the biggest viewership for any jiu-jitsu property – and we pay the highest in the world. So again, if you’re the best of the best, and you have an exciting style, and you have a life story you can share, that will inspire non-practitioners to become spectators – then ONE is the best choice for any athlete.”
To tune into live ONE Championship events, visit the official website.