SINGAPORE, Jan 10 ― To many Asian hopefuls now earning a living via martial arts, ONE Championship founder Chatri Sityodtong is their hero.
Like most Thai kids, a teenage Chatri spent his spare time practising Muay Thai. Outside Pattaya's Sityodtong Camp where he trained, he lived a rollercoaster life.
His architect father started a real estate company in the 1980s; but became bankrupt when the Asian financial crisis hit in 1997 and left the family.
During that time Chatri was furthering his studies at the Harvard Business School in the US and could only afford to spend US$4 (RM16) a day, mostly eating one meal a day during his university life. But he “won the fight”.
He graduated, lived the life of a Wall Street trader, owned an apartment in New York and even fought over 30 amateur fights.
“Martial arts allowed me to learn more about myself. I’m blessed to be doing what I love every day,” he said when met at Evolve MMA here on Monday.
His last fight was in Thailand in 2008.
Three years later, driven by his desire to change the lives of others with similar fate, Chatri founded ONE Championship. Today, ONE Championship is home to about 350 fighters. Some of them were refugees, others lived on the streets.
“I’m blessed to have made an impact on many lives. That’s my greatest joy in my career thus far.
“We have shown that every little kid can dream big, whether you want to be a doctor or a lawyer, if you put your mind to it along with a will to succeed, you can overcome anything in life,” said the 46-year-old.
Last December, Chatri was named third in Asia’s 10 most influential sports leaders of 2017 by Fox Sports Asia behind Fifa president Gianni Infantino (first) and NBA commissioner Adam Silver (second).
“I’m thankful for the recognition, but I don’t work for awards. I love martial arts and the chance to train world champions is all that matters to me,” the half Thai, half Japanese said.
Last year was a year full of great fights, but a moment which impressed Chatri most was outside the cage, during a trip to Vietnam with Martin Nguyen, a fighter who is now ONE's first ever world champion in two divisions.
The 28-year-old Nguyen was born and raised in Sydney, Australia to refugee parents who had fled Vietnam after being unable to make ends meet.
“His family fled Vietnam as refugees and now he is back as a hero.
“My dream is to create more opportunities like this ― let kids realise their dreams,” Chatri said.
That’s because 30 years ago, he never had a chance to showcase his talent as a youngster in a renowned martial arts promotion.
Chatri said Nguyen is the exact persona he wanted when young ― a man who's given fighters a chance to earn a living via martial arts.
He has great expectations for the arts this year.
“2018 will be ONE’s greatest year in history. We should break every record we’ve set throughout Asia ― from TV ratings to broadcast hours.”
This year ONE will also start off a reality TV show where the promotion will head to a variety of cities throughout Asia to find fresh amateur talent.
“Our show will not only be about them. It’s about celebrating local culture, this is what we want to showcase,” he said.
Chatri also said that the growth of martial arts in Malaysia is huge and the future is looking bright as the nation seek their first ever martial arts world champion.
“Malaysia is full of warriors. These kids over here have the spirit and they deserve some recognition for their skills.
“Agilan Thani is one good example. Who knows if it’s next year or this year, I guarantee Malaysia will have a world champion one day.”