Nearly 30 years after the UFC held its first fight card in Denver, the Singapore-based ONE Championship is set to put on its inaugural US event in the Colorado city as it seeks to challenge its rival promotion’s dominance on its own territory.
ONE CEO Chatri Sityodtong says that while the Colorado state commission was particularly eager to host the fight, the location is also a “celebration of the birthplace of American mixed martial arts” and Friday’s event will be the first of many for the franchise in the United States.
“It’s a very historic moment for the company,” he told Al Jazeera.
“The UFC has a lion’s share of the Western Hemisphere [martial arts audience]. We have a lion’s share of the Eastern Hemisphere,” Sityodtong said. “I believe with 8 billion people in the world that the world is big enough for two global combat sports giants.”
The Thai-Japanese businessman and lifelong martial artist co-founded ONE in 2011. The company has since grown to be worth an estimated $1bn and is backed by investors that include Sequoia Capital and the Qatar Investment Authority.
Its fighters include greats such as MMA flyweight Demetrious “Mighty Mouse” Johnson and Muay Thai fighter Rodtang Jitmuangnon, both of whom are fighting on Friday’s card.
Unlike the UFC – which only features mixed martial arts, or MMA – ONE’s fight cards also include contests in other disciplines, such as submission grappling, Muay Thai and kickboxing.
In 2021, ONE was ranked among the world’s top five biggest sports media properties in terms of viewership and engagement, according to US-based market measurement firm Nielsen. That put it ahead of the UFC in terms of digital viewership, digital fan engagement and cumulative reach in global broadcast television.
While huge in Asia, ONE is relatively unknown in the US and is reportedly losing money.
Sityodtong says ONE has been steadily building its brand, content engines and roster to the point where it is ready to shift from investment to monetisation and make the jump to the US.
“You can’t come into America with anything less than the very best athletes, the very best world champions, the very best production values, the very best brand,” he said.
Sityodtong said ONE will bring a more wholesome and “authentic” martial arts ethos to the US – a swipe at the florid trash talk, threats and peacocking often found in the UFC – and says fighters should be role models.
“Why do millions of parents send their kids to martial arts schools all over the world? It’s not to become a trash talker, insulting other people’s religions and families and children. It’s to learn honour, respect, work ethic and courage and all the incredible values that martial arts espouses. And we hope to showcase authentic martial arts,” he said.
But some industry insiders believe ONE will struggle to lay a glove on the UFC in North America.
MMA commentator Sean Wheelock told Al Jazeera that international martial arts promotions need to get a foothold in North America and Denver is well-respected as a sports city. But he says the UFC has grown too dominant to challenge and MMA fans in the US are by default UFC fans.
“For ONE Championship, I think it’s a major step for them. I think if you’re the UFC, you don’t even pay it any attention,” he said.
The UFC, meanwhile, is going from strength to strength. This year, it merged with WWE into a company reportedly valued at $21bn. Wheelock said ONE’s real competitors are promotions such as Bellator and the Professional Fighters League (PFL).
“Trying to be a dominant second position in a very, very lucrative and profitable industry. That’s something that ONE could definitely attain.”
Wheelock noted that ONE’s rule sets pose the biggest challenge to its expansion in North America.
ONE follows its own global rule set, which most controversially allows kicks or knees to the heads of a grounded opponent – moves that are illegal in the unified rules, followed by the UFC and other US-based promotions. ONE also has self-created judging criteria, which do not score on a round-by-round basis – unlike in the UFC.
While Colorado commission agreed to ONE’s rule sets, many US states are unlikely to follow.
“If ONE wants to have a foothold in the United States, I think they really need to do some soul searching and think, are they going to absolutely insist on using their rules and judging criteria,” Wheelock said.
“Or do they go into the unified rules, which means that their fights are now going to look a lot like everybody else’s fights in North America, but they can get into states that are very desirable in the fight game – like California, New York, New Jersey, Florida, Texas, Nevada.”
Jerry Millen – manager of Russian heavyweight MMA star Fedor Emelianenko and the former vice president of Pride, a popular Japan-based MMA promotion, which staged US fights and was active from 1997 to 2007 – says that while he respects Sityodtong as a “real martial arts purist”, ONE’s many disciplines featured in the same event could turn US fight fans off.
“American crowds don’t like jiujitsu. Let’s be honest, they don’t like it when the fight goes to the ground,” he told Al Jazeera.
Millen highlighted the growing buzz in the US around the Bare Knuckle Fighting Championship, which has been thrilling many fight fans with its rawness, simplicity and fast-paced wars.
“[ONE is] all over the martial arts world, which is great, but you don’t want to be jack of all trades, master of none.”
Millen said that while it is a long and hard road to make money in the fight game, it was worth ONE testing the US market with an event that did not pose a risk to its business.
“You know, a lot of people talk a big game and a lot of people say they’re going to come to America. Well, [ONE] did it. So you got to take your hats off to them for even pulling it off,” he said.
Wheelock said what ultimately appeals to fans is “great fights with great fighters and seeing fighters who they know and are stars or are quickly developing stars”.
ONE’s negotiations to sign former UFC heavyweight champion Francis Ngannou, arguably MMA’s most coveted free agent, for a reported $20m fell through this week.
Sityodtong said they failed to reach a deal over “non-financial” matters, including requests by Ngannou for a seat on ONE’s board of directors and a say over his opponents’ pay.
But Ngannou told journalist Ariel Helwani that he had just met Sityodtong as a courtesy and has another promotion lined up, rumoured in the media to be PFL.
Nevertheless, ONE’s stock is rising, and Friday’s fight card, to be screened on Amazon Prime, contains intriguing match-ups.
Johnson, regarded by many as the greatest-ever MMA flyweight, is looking to settle accounts with the Brazilian Adriano Moraes in their trilogy fight for the ONE flyweight title and has hinted that it may be his final bout.
Meanwhile, Sage “Super” Northcutt, 27, a former UFC hot prospect, is making his first return to the octagon in four years.
In 2019, during his first and so far only fight with ONE, his face was fractured in eight places in a knockout loss 29 seconds into the fight.
After healing from that injury and overcoming complications from a bout of COVID-19, he is now raring to go and says his skillset has improved since his time off – although he faces a dangerous and well-rounded opponent in Pakistan’s Ahmed Mujati in their lightweight MMA bout.
“I haven’t really got to show ONE Championship fans what I’m able to do because obviously my first fight with ONE didn’t go as planned,” he said. “I’m just very excited. I want to make ONE happy with who they signed and to have a great, long career. I’m still young, so I have plenty of time.”
Northcutt said the multidisciplinary nature of ONE drew him to the promotion.
“After [this fight], I would like to do some submission grappling, kickboxing, Muay Thai, I would love to do it all, actually.”
Sityodtong, meanwhile, is excited about his prospect and talks up Northcutt’s future with characteristic chutzpah.
“I think it’s going to be one of the greatest comeback stories in MMA history.”