MMA out­fit looks to make splash in U.S.

Dayton Daily News - - SPORTS - By Dan Gel­ston

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 big­name 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 fa­vor 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 trav­eled 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 Satur­day 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 es­tab­lish­ing 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 the U.S. 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.

SEAN M. HAFFEY / GETTY IM­AGES

Uriah Hall (left) knocks out Bevon Lewis in a mid­dleweight bout dur­ing UFC 232 at The Fo­rum in In­gle­wood, Cal­i­for­nia, on Dec. 29. UFC has long been the dom­i­nant MMA pro­mo­tion in the U.S.

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