ONE Championship: Company culture and branding as a competitive edge.
How MMA’s biggest upcoming promotion creates its own lane and manages to escape the UFC’s shadow.
As some of you might know (Mom, if you read this), I have become quite a Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) enthusiast these past few years. What initially started as a morbid -and somewhat quite common- interest in seeing people getting knocked out in brutal fashion, has slowly evolved into a genuine interest for the sport, athletes, and business dynamics of modern MMA.
Although I always had an interest in martial arts, I often found watching professional competitions underwhelming, most likely due to my lack of expertise and deep understanding of these sports, and the poor entertainment value for the uneducated viewer. I first got acquainted with MMA through the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) as a teenager watching freak knockout highlights, and it eventually developed into more of a serious hobby of mine years later when living in Ireland, around the time a young Conor ‘Notorious’ McGregor started making waves.
I was sold on the character like the rest of the country, and it led me to look into the sport further. From the Ultimate Fighter shows to the pound for pound debates, the classic fights… Fast forward years later, McGregor was a global star and I was staying up most Saturdays until 5am to watch the UFC fights (European problems).
Beyond the sport itself, the business aspect is also what started to captivate me. Matchmaking, power plays, marketing and all the ‘outside of the cage’ parts of the industry started fascinating me more and more, as I watched the sport evolve and truly break into the mainstream.
UFC: A monopoly?
As a startup guy, I’m always interested in business strategy and competitive positioning. Yet when it comes to mainstream MMA, it has been hard to find any worthy competitor for the UFC. Bellator is another very popular promotion, but often considered as a cheaper alternative. Partly because the UFC was here first, but mostly because of the talent pool: While some big names have left the UFC for Bellator in recent years, many still consider the UFC as the pinnacle of MMA and a move to Bellator, like it or not, as a downgrade.
The UFC seems to have a monopoly on everything MMA (see this great presentation to go over whether the UFC can actually be considered a monopoly, or a monopsony), so where could a competing promotion get an edge?
- Talent pool?
- Corporate culture?
- Potential Market?
- Product quality?
Enters ONE Championship
Based in Singapore, ONE Championship positions itself as more than a MMA promotion: “The home of Martial Arts” showcases fighters from all over the world in various disciplines: MMA, Muay-Thai, Kickboxing, Grappling.
It has been launched in 2011 but for me and many other MMA “casuals”, it was another distant Asian promotion until a somewhat recent, historic event: the first ever MMA trade. In 2018, Ben Askren, a charismatic former Olympic wrestler and undefeated ONE welterweight champion, transferred to the UFC, while Demetrious Johnson, arguably one of the greatest MMA athletes of all time and former UFC flyweight champion, went to ONE.
In a (great) article in Bleacher Report about his historical trade, Demetrious ‘Mighty Mouse’ Johnson opens up on the reasons behind his move from the UFC to ONE last year. As expected, these go beyond the size of the pay-checks:
“… It’s kind of the vibe. It’s kind of the values. In North America, people like controversy. I understand. Controversy creates emotion, creates buzz. Over in Asia, you see a lot more respect and athletes who have honour, integrity and discipline.”
— Demetrious Johnson
Throughout his 11-title defenses, Johnson has never been one to trash-talk or ignite controversies, which seemed to be a source of issue in his relationship to the UFC. Over the past few years, with the rise of Conor McGregor (not the first to do it, but maybe one of the first with such a platform), trash-talking and controversies have been at the forefront of the UFC strategy for promoting fights.
In an interview with MMA Fighting.com, ONE’s CEO Chatri Sityodtong states his stance on the topic:
“For me, as a lifelong martial artist I do feel that the word Mixed Martial Arts has been tainted severely by the west […] I think that the West has taken the physical aspects of martial arts and glorified it and taken it to some extremes. Anger, hatred, controversy, steroids, cocaine and all this ugly stuff that we see. That’s not martial arts.
You come to Asia, Jackie Chan: that’s martial arts. Bruce Lee: that’s martial arts. Humility, honour, respect, integrity. Good people.
- Chatri Sityodtong for MMAFighting.com
While some found these comments ironic in light of some of Asia’s biggest fighting promotions’ shady practices in the past (see K1, Dream or Pride), the values and cultural undertones that Sityodtong puts forward really made a difference as I watched my first ONE fight card dubbed “ONE: A New Era”.
The opening ceremony, atmosphere and overall show were focused on positivity and tradition, promoting the fighters’ backgrounds with martial artists ailing from Burma, China, Japan, Brazil, and the US. The show was great and the fights impressive, but what ultimately really struck me was the respect between fighters, with a standout moment being the main event post-fight interview.
Most fighters (UFC, ONE, Bellator or else) are well-spirited most of the time after their fight, showing respect and thanking their opponent. But as I watched light heavyweight champion Aung La San celebrate his title defense, ONE’s heavyweight champion Brandon Vera stepped into the cage to challenge him to a fight later that year, in a fashion UFC fans like myself are just not used to:
How nice was that? Callouts are a classic occurrence in MMA, Boxing and combat sports in general, building the anticipation for the next big thing. And while it’s usually an exciting moment, it can definitely get out of hand. Brock Lesnar walking in the UFC octagon to challenge Daniel Cormier to a fight and insulting Stipe Miocic (knocked out minutes prior) comes to mind:
Leading by example
This is one of the many striking examples of how culturally different the UFC and ONE are, highlighted by their two ambassadors: While Dana White, UFC’s president, is famous for his brash and straightforward style, ONE’s CEO Chatri Sityodtong embodies the martial arts culture he’s instilling in ONE. He took the stage during that card’s post-fight press conference to speak on the event and re-iterate the company’s mission and values:
“For me this is the beginning of a New Era for Martial Arts globally, not just for Japan. And to receive so much love across the entire globe is just unbelievable to me. The fight were unbelievable, high-level, the world’s best at it, the stories… but most importantly as you saw our heroes, the values of humility, integrity, honour, respect, courage, discipline and compassion. These are the values I believe are going to resonate all over the world.
We live in a time unfortunately of a lot of negative energy, a lot of divisiveness. And I want to use ONE Championship the platform. We have a hashtag #WeAreONE because we want to unite the world.”
The Bottom Line
What I take from this short analysis is another interesting lesson on product and brand positioning, and how diverse a market can be, even with a seemingly untouchable global leader. This is something I have observed time and time again in SaaS businesses: For every giants like Salesforce, Hubspot and Zoho, you can find hundreds of other Customer Relationship Manager software, for every business sizes, industries and focus.
Ultimately, there’s no reason to chose between the UFC and ONE. If anything as fans and viewers, having the option is amazing. I’m definitely not going to stop watching UFC which I thoroughly enjoy, but I have also started watching more ONE events.
The fact that the Asian promotion has been able to position itself as a true, unique alternative by embodying strong, positive values is amazing, and the accent on brand identity behind this choice is inspiring as a business strategy. It’s no wonder Sequoia Capital, one of the biggest tech investment fund in the world (Apple, Google, Oracle, PayPal, Stripe, YouTube, Instagram, Yahoo!, WhatsApp) has led ONE’s latest investment round.
As more athletes navigate between promotions, using their leverage to get better working conditions and opening up the opportunity for cross-promotional fights, I believe we are entering the golden age of Mixed Martial Arts. There’s never been a better time to be a fan, so come onboard!