ONE Championship’s nascent grappling product has hit some major milestones since the last time CEO Chatri Sityodtong sat down to chat with me. ONE not only has its very first submission grappling world champion in Mikey Musumeci; the promotion is already looking to crown a second champion on Friday, October 21, in a showdown between record-smashing ADCC 2022 champion Kade Ruotolo and Russian sambo and judo world champion Uali Kurzhev.
It’s part and parcel with Chatri’s ongoing quest to get ordinary people – who don’t necessarily train jiu-jitsu themselves – to start watching jiu-jitsu, the same way non-boxers have tuned into boxing for years. Hardly an easy task, as grappling tends to look less visually dynamic than striking, and short of spectacular takedowns and brutal submissions, can be difficult for a non-practitioner viewer to understand. However, the ONE CEO doesn’t think it’s impossible.
“We need to do far more education on the submission grappling product,” Chatri tells me. “That’s for sure. But I do believe that over time, we’ll be able to blow it up.”
His formula, on the surface, is simple: take two highly talented, popular athletes, stick them in a cage, and incentivize them to fight as hard as possible for a submission. “This is the thing: you need the best in the world, and then you need the finish. When you have the finish, that’s when [an ordinary person] sits up, and goes, ‘Wait, what happened?’ They’ll rewind, or watch again, going, ‘What was that? Did he break his arm? Did he choke him out?’”
He cites jiu-jitsu black belt Rodrigo Marello’s record-breaking submission victory over two-time sambo world champion Ruslan Bagdasarian as an example. “That fight was so exciting – the viewership was insane, because people went, ‘Oh my goodness, what happened?’ And they’d want to watch it again, and again, and again. So it becomes a talking point both in the stadium and [among viewers] around the world.”
However, Chatri also acknowledges the high barrier to entry for most casual fans when it comes to submission grappling: “I think it’s true that it’s far easier for the beer-drinking couch potato who knows nothing about fighting or competing to watch boxing, to tune into see someone get KO’ed by Mike Tyson – and as you go down the spectrum of martial arts, submission grappling is definitely the most complicated to understand, and watch, and enjoy.
“But because ONE is a platform for so many martial arts, at any single ONE event, you’re going to see Demetrious Johnson KO Adriano Moraes – but you’re also going to see Mikey Musumeci submitting Imanari. So we believe that the crossover between different [combat sport] communities is key.”
It helps that he’s seen this tactic work before. MMA fans who weren’t originally interested in ONE’s other sports, for example, have caught glimpses of Muay Thai fights on the same card as MMA bouts, and gotten unwittingly sucked in. “They see our Muay Thai product, and they’re like, ‘Holy s**t, that is unbelievable,’” says Chatri.
He also points out that sometimes, an audience will fall in love with a new sport purely because of their devotion to one athlete from another sport who made the leap. Stamp Fairtex of Thailand, the Muay Thai queen turned MMA contender, is perhaps ONE’s most prominent example. “We see fans from Thailand, who hate MMA, because it’s grappling and cage wrestling and has a negative connotation over there,” explains Chatri. “But now, the ONE brand in Thailand has exploded.” And much of that is a credit to Stamp’s fanbase in Thailand – and the way they rally around her no matter what sport she competes in.
Furthermore, given that many of ONE’s MMA fighters have impressive jiu-jitsu pedigrees in their own right – and are more than happy to mix things up here and there with a submission grappling superfight against a worthy opponent – the promotion may have the makings of a fan pipeline there.
Chatri and Léo Vieira, who runs the grappling shows at ONE, are also hard at work brainstorming potential tweaks to the ONE grappling ruleset that could make individual grappling superfights more visually appealing. They’ve considered penalizing the guard pull, for example, in order to force more action on the feet between grapplers – and potentially, to even the playing field between BJJ experts and takedown artists from other grappling sports.
“Léo was just telling me the other day that he thinks we should abolish guard pulling,” Chatri reveals. “We haven’t agreed yet to do it, but there is a probability that we might – because when two combatants are standing up, it’s a little easier for audiences to understand.”
Getting rid of guard pulls might not solve everything, though. “A lot of hand fighting also ends up being so boring!” exclaims Chatri. He laughs. The ideal ruleset remains a tough nut to crack, but he’s not afraid to experiment.
Where ONE really shines, though, is courting those crossover audiences between combat sports that Chatri alluded to – which plays into ONE leadership’s overarching strategy for boosting viewership for its grappling content. For example, if you feel like you’ve seen a lot of rivalries between BJJ and sambo communities bubbling up on social media recently, that’s no accident.
“We’re trying to play a little bit on the sambo-versus-jiu-jitsu theme,” says Chatri. “And we’re doing that because now, after thirty years of combat sports rising in popularity around the world, out of the grappling arts – the finishing grappling arts – jiu-jitsu and sambo are the best. We know that. I think the others are inferior. So, we’re creating that rivalry all around the world, between sambo practitioners in Russia and Eastern Europe, versus jiu-jitsu practitioners in the US and Brazil and Asia.”
What about finances? After all, ONE has been spending generously on promoting its product, handsomely rewarding its athletes, and letting global audiences tune into major fight cards without shelling out for PPV rates – but with all that money out, there’s the question of generating a return.
According to Chatri, it’s all part of playing the long game. A former combat athlete himself, he doesn’t mind taking on some risks to chase bigger rewards and bigger profits down the line.
“The reality is that one day, a portion of our events will be like the UFC’s – it’ll have to go behind a paywall,” he admits. “But right now, the reason why we have so much growth in viewership and fandom around the world is because I made the strategic decision not only to sign the very best world champions in every martial art – but also to distribute that content live, free, and on every single platform: on TV, on social media, and on digital streaming. So that’s why, in America, at least among the hardcores, ONE is already very, very famous.
“So this is what’s happening: the UFC is going behind a double paywall on their biggest events, but we want to be a part of Amazon Prime. There’s 200 million subscribers globally, for Amazon. They love the fact that this is a value-added service – just like the NFL. They love that combination of football one night, combat sports the next night. This is our entry in America.”
“We’re also very fortunate [with regard to our investors],” he adds. “Sequoia Capital, which was our first investor, is the most revered venture capital firm in the last fifty years, and had the highest returns, actually. We are their first sports investment.” He cites several other major investors, elaborating, “These are literally some of the smartest blue-chip institution investors, and they see what ONE’s doing. They say, ‘Look at the production value, look at the athlete roster.’”
“So I don’t want to promise that our content is going to be available and free forever,” says Chatri. “A big portion of our content will always continue to be free and available – but the highest premium content, like mega cards, such as ONE X – will probably go behind a paywall eventually, when the time is right.” That’s also the key to how Amazon intends to monetize ONE – by using the same paywalls for exclusive fight cards that Prime Video uses for, say, brand new Hollywood releases.
Ultimately, the next few years will paint a clearer picture of where ONE is going, but the man in charge remains confident that his dream will bear fruit. “I’m committed to jiu-jitsu and grappling,” says Chatri. “I’m going nowhere, and ONE is going nowhere. But it’s going to be an investment and educational process.”
Curious about what else the man behind ONE Championship has to say? Check out our previous interviews with Chatri Sityodtong here: