How many casual American sports fans about a year ago had heard of One? Try none.
OK, maybe that’s a bit of a reach. But the Singapore-based mixed martial arts organization was an afterthought at best in the United States among the hodgepodge of companies trying to put a dent in UFC’s heavyweight share of the combat sports marketplace.
Try ignoring One Championship now.
After staging shows for seven years across Asia from Myanmar to China, One has come out swinging in the U.S. — throwing millions at big-name free agents, signing a major cable TV deal and raising capital needed to not only keep its grip as the dominant MMA promotion of the East, but perhaps use global expansion to eventually rival UFC as the champ of the West.
“They’re making a serious push,” One fighter Eddie Alvarez said. “I don’t think it’s going to be long before you can crown them one of the top promotions in the world. They’ve done everything possible in their favour to become that.”
Alvarez, a Philadelphia native, should know as well as any fighter about One’s commitment to becoming a major player in the U.S. fight game. “The Underground King” has fought for several MMA promotions and made his name in Bellator as a two-time lightweight champion and in UFC where he won the same title in 2016 and headlined the promotion’s first card in Madison Square Garden against Conor McGregor. The 34-year-old Alvarez became a free agent after his last fight in July 2018 and decided to explore his options outside UFC. He travelled to Singapore and met One founder and CEO Chatri Sityodtong and learned U.S. expansion plans and acquiring other name fighters were on the horizon, as well as ongoing talks that would broadcast fights in America. Alvarez was impressed, not just by One’s outline for the future, but in a multimillion dollar contract offer that he says makes him one of the highest-paid fighters in the sport.
“Our deal is more in the lines of a real pro sport deal, like football or baseball,” Alvarez said. “The package deal is an eight-figure deal. When we brought that to the UFC to match it, they declined matching it and I had to move forward. I’m happy I did because One Championship is the only major promotion that I have not won and conquered the world title in. It’s history and legacy for me.”
Alvarez was part of a flurry of transactions that put MMA fans on notice that One was intent on becoming a singular sensation. One obtained Demetrious Johnson, the long-reigning UFC flyweight champion better known as “Mighty Mouse,” in a trade with UFC — yes, a trade — for Ben Askren. Sage Northcutt, once hailed as a future UFC star, also signed with One. Meisha Tate, a former 135-pound champion in UFC and Strikeforce, has signed on as One’s vice-president and was set to move to Singapore.
One strengthened its roster with notable U.S.-based talent ahead of a North American television deal with Turner Sports. The three-year deal will see One content broadcast on Turner’s platforms including TNT, which is received by more than 90 million households in the United States, as well as streaming platform Bleacher Report Live and other Turner properties. Turner, which also broadcasts the NBA and the NCAA Tournament, is set to air 24 events in 2019 on its various outlets. B/R Live will stream One: Eternal Glory on Jan. 19 from Jakarta, Indonesia.
That date is already familiar to MMA fans — UFC is running its debut show on ESPN-plus the same night (yet in different time zones).
Johnson and Alvarez will make their One Championship debuts on March 31 in Japan in tournament competition.
“I’m not the smallest guy in the organization anymore,” the 5-foot-3 Johnson said. “In America, everybody always looked at me as a child. I won’t have that issue when I’m in Asia competing.”
More elite fighters could be on their way to One.
Alvarez, who said he left on good terms with UFC and President Dana White, has suddenly become quite popular among his MMA peers.
“Every fighter in town is sliding into my DMs. What’s going on? What are you being offered?” Alvarez said, laughing.
Sityodtong, raised in Thailand and a graduate of Harvard Business School, is the self-made multimillionaire entrepreneur behind One. He’s made a name as the most powerful MMA executive in Asia and has trained and coached in martial arts. Alvarez was wowed — and wooed — by Sityodtong’s approach toward building One into an American MMA juggernaut.
“In three years, our goal is 100 million live viewers per event, making us as big as Super Bowl Sunday,” Sityodtong said at the press conference to introduce Alvarez.
One has been aggressive in establish a U.S. foothold in large part because of an influx of cash from some of the top venture capital firms in the world. Sequoia Capital and Singaporean sovereign wealth fund Temasek helped One secure an additional $166 million in funding in October. One said at the time of the announcement it had exceeded $250 million in total capital base. One also recently announced an exclusive partnership in Japan with TV Tokyo, one of the country’s largest national television broadcasters.
One could quickly crush Bellator as the No. 2 promotion in the United States with a national TV deal and become a viable option for free-agent fighters — even with no scheduled events in America. Plenty of other promotions are also trying to compete or at least carve out a viable slice of the MMA pie, including the Professional Fighters League, which boasts Kevin Hart and Mark Burnett as celebrity investors, as well as Cage Fury Fighting Championship and numerous promotions that air fights in various disciplines under UFC’s Fight Pass online subscription service.
Alvarez has a stout belief that the MMA promotion made in Asia can make it in America.
“The fans there get it,” Alvarez said, “and it won’t be long until the American fans here get it, as well.”
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Dan Gelston, The Associated Press