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ONE Championship's focus on fighting helped attract Eddie Alvarez, Demetrious Johnson

by Jason Coskrey

Staff Writer

Eddie Alvarez is here to fight. That’s it. “The Underground King” isn’t interested in playing a character or engaging in over-the-top WWE-style promotion.

The selling point of a fight should be the fight, according to the Philadelphia native. That’s why he says he’s felt so at home in ONE Championship since his high-profile move to the Singapore-based martial arts circuit in October. Because he can be himself.

“In America especially, the UFC in particular, I think there’s more condoning and pushing of fighters talking disrespectful to each other, more selling of a fight,” Alvarez told the Japan Times last week at a Tokyo hotel. “The fans themselves, they don’t understand the sport enough to be emotionally invested in it. They need a story, they need s—- talk, they need that in order to watch the fight and pay for the fight.

“Whereas I think in ONE Championship, and the Asian culture in general, martial arts is deep-rooted enough where all they need is a fight. For me, that’s a breath of fresh air.”

The ONE Championship approach also appealed to MMA legend Demetrious Johnson, who like Alvarez joined the company in October.

“When I heard Chatri for the first time, he was very passionate, not about mixed martial arts but martial arts in general, and what he wanted to bestow upon the world and about creating real-life heroes,” Johnson said, referring to ONE Championship CEO Chatri Sityodtong. “My wife, she texted me when I got back to the hotel room and she was like ‘I’ve never heard someone talk so passionately about their company and their athletes.'”

The pair, along with women’s atomweight champion Angela Lee, were in Tokyo recently to help promote the company’s first event in Japan, scheduled for March 31. They met fans and put on demonstrations for the over 400 people who attended.

Even as UFC dominates the global market, ONE Championship is making a name for itself in Asia. The company bills itself as a martial arts circuit, as opposed to only MMA, and also stages kickboxing, muay thai and other types of bouts at its events.

Alvarez is also impressed by the talent on the ONE roster.

“There are amazing lightweights here,” he said. “The lightweight grand prix is stacked with super talented guys. There’s a difference between guys who are popular and guys who are good at fighting. In America, it’s hard to distinguish for fans who is popular vs. who is good at fighting.”

Bringing on board established greats such as Alvarez and Johnson has seen a rise in the brand’s global reach. The pair will debut at the ONE event in Tokyo.

Alvarez, 35, is 29-6-1 in his career and is the only fighter to have been the lightweight champion in both Bellator and UFC. He’s no stranger to Japan, having previously fought for former Japan-based promotion DREAM.

“I know the energy that I’m bringing to the arena. I just need the crowd to match my energy,” he said of fighting in Japan. “I know what I’m coming with, I know what I’m bringing here, and I’m excited. I’m looking forward to the fans matching it.”

Alvarez, a legend in the sport, will face Timofey Nastyukhin in Japan.

“He has very strong punches, good hands,” Alvarez said. “I don’t think he’s as well-rounded as I am, but I’m expecting a very tough opponent.”

Johnson,32, is one of the greats. He has a career record of 27-3 and reigned over UFC’s strawweight division for nearly a decade, winning the title in 2012 and making 11 successful defenses. The next chapter of his career will begin with a fight against Yuya Wakamatsu.

“I spent most of my career in North America, so I figured it was a perfect time to do it, so I took advantage of it,” Johnson said. “Here I am in Asia, ONE Championship, brand new weight class, brand new opponents, brand new organization. I think I have five more years left in me and I think it’s a perfect way to end it.”

Johnson says ONE Championship isn’t ready to go toe-to-toe with UFC yet. He does, however, see a path for the organization to continue to grow.

“Now it will get even bigger, coming to Japan,” Johnson said. “It will continue to get bigger as long as you keep signing the right talent. Once you start getting Americans into the organization, then the followings who have been watching them in America will follow them to wherever they go.”

The MMA great says word-of-mouth will help the company continue to grow as more fans are exposed.

“There’s a lot of people who say, ‘I had never heard of ONE Championship until you signed with it. Now I’m going to watch it,’ ” he said. “Then, boom, they get exposed to kickboxing, the muay thai, the submission wrestling. Then they’re like, holy s—-, they actually have kickboxing here? Then he tells his friends he tells and his friends’ friends.”