No one will ever accuse Chatri Sityodtong, the chairman of martial arts organization ONE Championship, of shying away from a fight.
The half-Japanese Sityodtong has a grand vision for his promotion, a vision that includes ONE spreading the gospel of Asian martial arts around the world in a big way.
“People say I’m crazy, but I really believe in the future ONE Championship will be a $100 billion company, bigger than the NFL,” he said during a news conference on Thursday. “My team, all my staff, we’re going after the NFL. The NFL is worth $75 billion, but it’s a one-country sport.”
The Singapore-based ONE has grown rapidly since launching on July 14, 2011. The promotion’s next expansion will bring it to Japan for the first time, with events scheduled for Ryogoku Kokugikan on March 31, 2019, and a yet-to-be decided venue on Oct. 11 of that year, Sityodtong announced Thursday.
“Our plan is, we’re starting off with two events next year, but you’ll see us going four events, six events, 10 events and 12 events in Japan,” Sityodtong said. “That’s my plan over the next few years. Japan is a very important market for me personally, I want to make my Japanese mother proud of her son. But also, it is the whole of martial arts I really want to celebrate here.
“So, I think you’ll see ONE Championship make a very big investment into Japan. If you look at the Japanese fighters, what’s happened the last 15-20 years, 20 years ago Japanese fighters were the best in the world, no question. The Brazilians and Japanese have always dominated. But if you look at the last 15 years, even if you look at the Japanese fighters who have come into ONE Championship, they’ve not done so well.
“This is what I mean, the martial arts industry has been underinvested (in) and ONE Championship is going to invest millions of dollars into Japan, into the Japanese martial arts industry to revive it. We are very serious about bringing Japanese martial arts back to the greatest heights it was at in history, and showcase that grace to the world again. The Japanese blood in me says I want to bring Japan back to the highest it’s ever been.”
While ONE’s Japanese events are still several months in the future, Sityodtong promised they would feature some of the promotion’s top stars, such as Shinya Aoki, Mei “V.V” Yamaguchi, atomweight champion Angela Lee and even Brazilian legend Renzo Gracie of the famous Gracie family, among many others.
“Simply put, we have stories we are telling,” said Aoki, an iconic mixed martial arts star known as Tobikan Judan, or “The Grand Master of Flying Submissions.”
“We are telling a story and I think these two events will present the type of stories that will appeal to Japanese fans and their tastes.”
Yamaguchi was proud and excited for the chance to have a major event in her home country.
“I had a lot of hard times, but I’m so glad I never gave up,” she said. “Because this is like a dream come true. As a martial artist, I’m going to give everything in ONE Championship Japan.”
Yamaguchi also hopes the event will set the stage for more female fighters from Japan.
“Hopefully it will be like that,” she said. “There are a lot of good women fighters in Japan looking for a chance to compete in bigger promotions. I think when I fight for ONE, hopefully it’s been inspiring for them.”
Sityodtong has a passion for martial arts and for his fighters, who he referred to as “heroes” multiple times.
“Martial arts in the West is just the business of fighting, of just bloodsport,” he said. “But here in Asia, martial arts is a way of life. It is the bushido, it is the values, it is the foundation of all of Asia.”
For the founder, and as echoed by some of the fighters themselves, ONE is aiming to be more than just another fighting promotion.
“This company’s values are different,” said ONE heavyweight champion Brandon “The Truth” Vera.
Vera was among the fighters eager to compete in Japan.
“Japan for me, it seems to be the epicenter of martial arts,” Vera said. “Whenever we’re talking about martial arts, or anything martial arts related, other than Bruce Lee, it’s always Japan.”
The 51-year-old Gracie’s presence has many holding out hope for a rematch between him and “The Gracie Hunter” Kazushi Sakuraba, who has beaten four members of the famed fighting family. His fight against Renzo was at PRIDE 10 in 2000 in front of over 30,000 fans at Seibu Dome. The match famously ended with Gracie having his arm broken while refusing to tap after being caught in a kimura lock.
Sakuraba’s schedule has so far gotten in the way of the potential rematch, though Gracie and Sityodtong are holding out hope.
“I believe If I could fight Sakuraba, it would be unbelievable,” Gracie said. “If Sakuraba could take this match, I would love it. If he cannot, I understand it. I admire him a lot. There’s no lack of respect if he cannot. Because I know he’s a fighter. Last time, he gave me the honor of breaking my arm, and I gave him the honor of not tapping. This is the Japanese style, this is the Japanese way.”
The theme of staying true to the spirt of martial arts was a point of emphasis for Sityodtong.
“As the whole of martial arts, we want to unify everyone,” Sityodtong said. “We’re already in talks with the karate association, judo, sumo. That’s also why we chose Ryogoku Kokugikan as the first event. We want to show our respect and our honor to sumo.
“Every combat organization in the world, they’re really focused on fighting and just business. This the only organization in the world started by a lifelong martial artist for martial artists to celebrate martial arts.”