MMA fi­nally set to make its mark in Thai­land

The fast-grow­ing fight sport ar­rives in the home of Muay Thai

7 Days in Dubai - - SPORT - “Asia is the home of mar­tial arts for the last 5,000 years.” – CHATRI SIDYODTONG

Of all the var­i­ous fight­ing styles that com­bine to cre­ate the bur­geon­ing sport of Mixed Mar­tial Arts (MMA), it is Thai kick­box­ing that is at the core of the new dis­ci­pline. Yet it has taken un­til this week for Thai­land to host its first ma­jor MMA event.

Ini­tially, there was con­cern and re­sis­tance among the guardians of Thai kick­box­ing - or Muay Thai as it is known lo­cally - who feared the cul­tur­ally im­por­tant mar­tial art would be sub­sumed by the brash new­comer, drain­ing away fan in­ter­est and fight­ers.

Partly, also, the de­lay was be­cause of the lack of a pro­motable lo­cal hero in MMA ranks, and be­cause of the dif­fi­culty many out­side com­pa­nies face in nav­i­gat­ing the reg­u­la­tory and com­mer­cial land­scape of Thai­land in order to stage an event.

It took a serendip­i­tous meet­ing be­tween two child­hood friends late last year to pro­vide the key to un­lock­ing th­ese prob­lems.

When Chatri Sidyodtong, founder of Asia’s prin­ci­pal MMA pro­mo­tional com­pany One Cham­pi­onship, met up with en­ter­tain­ment en­tre­pre­neur Kamol “Sukie” Sukosol, the first out­lines were drawn for an event that will come to fruition on Fri­day: the ‘King­dom of Cham­pi­ons’ event in Bangkok.

As Thais, they knew how to un­lock the reg­u­la­tory and com­mer­cial back­ing to make an MMA event work in the coun­try, and had the com­ple­men­tary ex­per­tise in sports and en­ter­tain­ment.

The lin­ger­ing con­cerns of the tra­di­tional Muay Thai afi­ciona­dos should be eased both by Chatri’s long and re­spected his­tory in Muay Thai, and the pres­ence of for­mer Muay Thai cham­pion De­j­dam­rong Am­nu­aysiri­choke in the main event, a strawweight fight against Ja­pan’s Yoshi­take Naito.

Chatri be­gan Muay Thai as a child un­der the famed tu­tor Yod­tong Se­nanan - he took his ring name and now sur­name from his trainer - and has a rev­er­ence for the sport that pre­cludes any de­sire to eclipse it. In­stead, he sees a sym­bi­otic re­la­tion­ship be­tween Muay Thai and MMA.

“I’ve been a Muay Thai prac­ti­tioner for 30 years, as a stu­dent, fighter, teacher and coach. I love Muay Thai, it will al­ways be my first love,” said Chatri.

“In Thai­land, his­tor­i­cally, the prac­ti­tion­ers of Muay Thai have been the lower class, it hasn’t re­ally hit the mid­dle class and up­per class, but One Cham­pi­onship is go­ing to give a big boost in pop­u­lar­ity from the mid­dle and up­per class to sup­port the sport. Even though Muay Thai is a na­tional trea­sure, who re­ally prac­tices it? I want to make it main­stream.”

Thai­land is one of the last re­gional fron­tiers for One Cham­pi­onship, which has staged events in most parts of Asia and has es­tab­lished it­self as the dom­i­nant re­gional player in MMA.

The am­bi­tions for the com­pany are high, reck­on­ing on the mar­tial arts her­itage of Asia, the devel­op­ment of lo­cal he­roes and the pos­si­bil­i­ties of a sports me­dia mar­ket which is heav­ily re­liant on for­eign prod­ucts.

“Asia is the home of mar­tial arts for the last 5,000 years,” said Chatri. “Bruce Lee, Jet Li and Jackie Chan are movie he­roes who are bil­lion-dol­lar prod­ucts them­selves, but no­body has ever tried to present the beauty of true mar­tial arts to the main­stream in a com­mer­cial man­ner on a pan-Asian ba­sis.

“There are 4.1 bil­lion peo­ple in Asia. It’s the largest me­dia mar­ket in the world, so there is no rea­son why One Cham­pi­onship can­not be the largest me­dia prop­erty in Asia by far.”

UFC is the pow­er­ful pro­mo­tional group for MMA in North Amer­ica, and moved to the verge of Asia with an event in Aus­tralia last year. Chatri be­lieves UFC and One can co-ex­ist with­out in­fring­ing too much on each other’s ter­ri­tory.

“UFC has a 90 per cent mar­ket share in North Amer­ica, we have a 90 per cent share in Asia,” he said. “It’s Ap­ple vs Sam­sung, GM vs Toy­ota, Ama­zon vs Alibaba, it’s no dif­fer­ent.

“Do I be­lieve that UFC is go­ing to suc­ceed in Asia, yeah I be­lieve so. But do I think they can take our spot? No.”

For all the business sense be­hind the com­pany’s ex­pan­sion, the trip to Thai­land is an emo­tional home­com­ing for Chatri, who is of mixed Thai and Ja­panese her­itage.

His fam­ily lost its money in the Asian cur­rency cri­sis of 1997, and his fa­ther left the fam­ily.

Chatri, af­ter study­ing in the Amer­ica, worked his way up through the fi­nan­cial world, run­ning a hedge fund be­fore de­cid­ing to chan­nel his en­er­gies into mar­tial arts.

“My fam­ily got thrust into poverty, and I didn’t know if I was ever go­ing to come back to Thai­land,” he added. “I left Thai­land on a very down note, but I’ve al­ways kept Thai­land in my heart. I am very emo­tional about this par­tic­u­lar event be­cause I’m com­ing back home.

“I do feel a sense that I was some­how maybe des­tined for this.”

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