Saurabh Mittal and Chatri Sityodtong’s friendship has sustained them through good times and bad. Now, it is the secret weapon they're wielding to make One Championship Asia’s largest sports league.

In most photographs that accompany articles about One Championship founder, chairman and CEO Chatri Sityodtong, the lifelong martial arts practitioner looks dead serious. Often his arms are folded, sometimes his fists are clenched, and he is almost always not smiling. That intensity befits a man who started learning muay thai at age 13, still trains every day, and now heads a company whose mixed martial arts (MMA) matches are broadcast to 1.7 billion viewers in 128 countries and counting.

Growing up

Today, however, we are shooting Chatri together with his close friend and business partner Saurabh Mittal, who sits on One Championship’s board of directors and has been instrumental in helping Chatri with key decisions since he first dreamed up the idea of creating a major Asian sports league in 2011. And it is hard not to smile when you are horsing around with your buddy for the camera. The two first met in their 20s, during orientation at Harvard Business School.

“But we really became friends in the cafeteria a few days later, when I asked him to join me in a study group,” Chatri remembers. “I don’t know why I asked him. He was just walking with a tray of food. I didn’t even know if he was a smart person or not, he could have been an idiot.” They both laugh, before Saurabh calmly counters with a wisecrack of his own: “The others had all run away. I was the only gullible guy left.”

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All jokes aside, it turned out to be a great ask. Saurabh, trained in electrical engineering in India, was new to the world of business. “In the first month or so, it was very apparent that my business knowledge was far ahead of his,” says Chatri, who had studied economics as an undergraduate at Tufts University in the US. “But it also became clear that he was the smartest guy I’d ever met in my life, full stop.”

Saurabh had been a top student in his cohort at Delhi’s Indian Institute of Technology and had worked on oil rigs to save money for Harvard. “My mum taught in a university, my dad was a government doctor. At that time, India was a socialist country, and honest people who worked for the government made no money,” he says. When he arrived in the US at the age of 23, “I was completely fresh off the boat”.

Chatri, born and raised in Thailand, was the eldest of two boys whose architect turned property broker father went bankrupt during the Asian financial crisis and abandoned his wife and children soon after. Going to Harvard for his MBA was a gamble Chatri’s Japanese mother was willing to roll the dice on because the opportunity might give her son the chance to lift the family out of their dire straits. He survived those tough years by taking out loans and working jobs such as delivering food and teaching muay thai.

The two soon became fast friends, along with a third study group member, Soon Loo, who is now the CEO of Brunei Economic Development Board. “We were some of the poorest kids at that school,” Chatri says. “We had no reason to be friends other than the fact that we liked one another. The three of us hung out 24/7, not just to study, but for meals…,” he starts, before Saurabh chimes in, “… and finding the cheapest places to eat.” (Yes, they often finish each other’s sentences). In hole-in-the-wall Asian eateries, over pocket‑friendly Korean buffets and Vietnamese noodle soups, the boys forged the enduring foundation of their friendship.

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Ask them to reveal things about each other (that is fit for print), and you see more evidence of their camaraderie. “Chatri comes across as a complete hard-ass when you first meet him, but he’s actually very loyal and relationship-driven,” says Saurabh. “He’s been known to cry—tears of joy, not unhappiness.” Probe gently for more details, and he makes sure to protect his friend’s privacy. “The context is not relevant. It’s the emotional vulnerability which is unique, and that’s not obvious to 99.9 per cent of the people who know him, only to the inner circle.”

“We had no reason to be friends other than the fact that we liked one another. The three of us hung out 24/7, not just to study, but for meals [as well]" - Chatri on his early days of friendship with Saurabh.

In a neat inversion, Chatri says the normally reserved Saurabh can be boisterous in the company of close friends. “A lot of people think he’s this billionaire entrepreneur who’s very tough, which he is. But they don’t know he has a heart of gold,” he adds. “He’s actually very soft inside, very kind and gentle-hearted. Whether it’s his family or friends, he’s the guy people go to when they want help, and he’s always the one to extend the help, sometimes to his own detriment.”

Their friendship has been an emotional ballast as they both emerged from those early years of struggle and carved out successful careers. After Harvard, Chatri co-founded an internet software company and made his first million when he sold it. They both also managed Wall Street hedge funds. Today, Saurabh is the founder and chairman of his private global investment holding company, Mission Holdings, which has One Championship as part of its portfolio. “It doesn’t matter what our successes and failures were. When we see each other, it’s like back when we were kids,” says Chatri. “We’ve gone through so many ups and downs together over the last 20 years, and we genuinely don’t judge each other on any of that. That’s the beauty of having friends before you make it.”

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Passion and purpose

“When we were really poor, money was a big attraction,” Saurabh says thoughtfully when we ask how their definitions of success have changed since their Harvard years. “Later, we learned that money is a means to give you the freedom to do what you really enjoy. When you build on that and do meaningful things, that’s when you find the most happiness.”

For Chatri, there has never been any doubt that he felt happiest in the world of martial arts. When he was nine, his father took him to Bangkok’s Lumpinee Boxing Stadium to watch his very first muay thai fight. Just like that, he was hooked. “It was just one of those things. I always say, you don’t choose the people or things you love. In life, love chooses you. I just loved muay thai from that moment on.”

It took a few years before he was able to start learning the sport, however, because there was no such thing as classes for amateurs in those days—all the training was meant for professional fighters and his parents thought it would be too dangerous. Finally, at age 13, his father relented, and Chatri joined the Sityodtong Camp to learn from legendary trainer Kru Yodtong Senanan. “He taught me a lot; he made me a warrior in and out of the ring.”

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The discipline and grit his teacher instilled in him helped him through the stress of juggling schoolwork while saving every spare cent to help out with family expenses. His passion for martial arts was infectious, even among their somewhat jaded classmates, Saurabh remembers. “Harvard Business School is a hard-ass place, nobody has time for anything. You can have the best speaker in the world come, and very few people in class would show up. But Chatri used to run regular martial arts sessions for our classmates, and a significant number of people would show up regularly for it. It was unprecedented.”

When Chatri broached the idea of One Championship in 2011, Saurabh was the only person in his life who thought the business would work. Everyone else felt it was insane to give up a successful hedge fund career to do it. It was a difficult conversation to have with his mother in particular. “She’s a very conservative lady who really cares a lot about what typical Asian society cares about. Harvard, Wall Street, prestige, status—my mum was really into that, and she still is,” Chatri explains. “The American view of the world is ‘do what you love’. In Asia, you don’t really get that. It’s ‘go be a doctor, an engineer, an accountant’, even if you don’t care about it.” But he felt strongly that it was time to pursue his real passion. “I just did it. I didn’t get a blessing from anybody.”

Saurabh was not being blindly supportive. “Chatri is passionate about the business, so the ups and downs are things he will power through. He’s extremely competent, both in the sport, and also as a businessman. He has the ability to attract the assets and people needed,” he enumerates in his measured way. “That leadership and rare combination of skills are not easy to find. I would back that horse any day.”

“A lot of people think he’s this billionaire entrepreneur who’s very tough, which he is. But they don’t know he has a heart of gold." - Chatri on Saurabh.

Since then, as Chatri puts it, Saurabh has been his partner in every critical decision for the Singapore-based One Championship. In fact, whether in life or in business, “we are probably each other’s first call”, he says. “If I have a major strategic problem I can’t solve, he’s the guy I go to. We don’t let our egos get in the way, we let the best idea win. That’s the way it was when we were kids, and now, because this project is so huge in magnitude, it requires all of our strengths collaboratively.” 

For instance, to scale the business, Saurabh suggested expanding broadcast matches from cable channels to free-to-air channels, so that they could reach a mass audience. “That literally changed the trajectory of the company,” says Chatri. At the same time, he became an early adopter of social media, making these platforms a key branding engine for the company. “So he saw this other opportunity,” says Saurabh. “We were able to do both, and that together has made One’s growth a lot more powerful.”

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It has also made their lives a lot more fun—so much fun, in fact, that when we ask Chatri in jest if he would give up the business in return for becoming the world’s greatest muay thai fighter, Chatri hesitates for only the briefest of moments. “That’s a tough one,” he finally replies with a laugh. “But to be completely honest, I love what I do now. I’m living the life of my dreams. I wake up sometimes and I think, how can this be my life? I thought you were supposed to have a serious career instead of having fun everyday. I still can’t believe it.”

The age of heroes

Happily, Chatri’s mother has since become more supportive of his business venture. “She used to think I was doing it to espouse violence, but now she understands the beauty of it.” Now in her 70s, she particularly enjoys the videos that highlight the life stories of One Championship’s athletes, many of whom come from impoverished backgrounds and had to conquer incredible hurdles on the way to athletic glory.

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Saurabh’s three young children love these videos as well, and appealing to little kids and little old ladies alike is actually a key strategy for One Championship’s expansion—the company is betting that MMA can become a mainstream sport in Asia if they effectively communicate the resilience and drive of its athletes. “Every person from every walk of life can be inspired by their stories,” Chatri believes. “When you tell these stories, watching the match is no longer about one person beating up another. It’s about someone achieving their dreams.”

In 2018, One Championship will launch Rich Franklin’s One Warrior Series, which sees the retired martial arts legend searching for Asia’s next martial arts superstar while taking in the sights and sounds of different Asian countries. The idea was inspired by singing competition The Voice, as well as Anthony Bourdain’s travelogues, Chatri reveals. By placing MMA in the cultural contexts of Asia, they are hoping to underline the values of integrity, humility, compassion, and resilience that gird all schools of martial arts in the region. “If there’s anything that unifies the continent, it would be Asian values and martial arts,” Chatri declares. “There’s nothing else that’s so entrenched in society and culture here, and One Championship is a celebration of that.”

“We learned that money is a means to give you the freedom to do what you really enjoy. When you build on that and do meaningful things, that’s when you find the most happiness." - Saurabh on the lessons they've learnt along the way

The stakes are high: the large Asian market is a coveted one among sports properties. American MMA league Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), for instance, tried to establish a presence in the region in 2014, and again in 2017. One Championship has a bigger roster of homegrown fighters, however, and while it doesn’t rule out making inroads into Western markets, it has its sights firmly fixed on triumphing on its own turf. “UFC is addressing an audience of 350 million in the US. Our audience in Asia is 4.4 billion,” says Chatri. “The runway for us is far longer, and the payoff is bigger. That’s why we are focused on Asia. Our Western counterparts sell blood sports and violence, we sell heroes.” Saurabh supplies the knockout punch: “And heroes are mainstream.”

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So far, things are going well. In 2017, the views for One Championship’s online videos crossed the 2.5 billion mark, an exponential increase from 300,000 views just three years ago. In 2018, it will hold 24 events, continuing its push into China and entering new markets South Korea and Japan. Over the next three years, the company plans to work up to 52 events a year, and get its matches broadcast in 190 countries. It already bills itself as the largest global sports media property in Asian history and the global leader in martial arts in Asia.

With economic growth now propelling the region into a new phase of intellectual property-based entrepreneurship, the two are driven by the ambition of building an Asian sports brand that can stand with the likes of Formula One, the English Premier League and the National Basketball Association. “It isn’t a coincidence that so many highly scalable global businesses are starting to come out of Asia. One Championship is a part of that,” says Chatri, citing examples such as Alibaba and Grab. Saurabh agrees: “We have the chance to build something that’ll truly resonate with Asians, at a scale that’s unprecedented. Entertainment is shifting very rapidly to digital. Sports media is dominating all of media. The axis of consumption is changing, Asia’s GDP is exploding. We’re riding megatrends that are colliding in our favour. The universe is conspiring to make One Championship the biggest phenomenon. It’s our job to make sure we execute this well.” 

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