“We were living on one meal a day, and dirt, dirt-poor,” is how ONE Championship chairman and CEO Chatri Sityodtong begins the story of how he founded the sports entertainment platform six years ago.
Speaking at the Forbes Under 30 Summit Asia held last week at the Solaire Resort and Casino in Parañaque City, Sityodtong recalled how the Asian financial crisis “wiped out” his family in Thailand. His father soon abandoned them: him, his brother and his mother.
“We became pariahs,” Sityodtong said. “The whole circle of family and friends just disappeared.”
His mother nevertheless believed he was destined for greater things, and urged him to go to Harvard Business School. But he doubted his smarts; what’s more, they had no money to pay for his education.
He got into the school and earned a scholarship. But he also took out loans and worked by teaching Muay Thai, which he had learned as a kid in Thailand.
“I was the poorest kid by far,” Sityodtong said of his experience in Harvard Business School. “I was really embarrassed and ashamed… I didn’t think I was smart enough… I didn’t have one month of money. I didn’t even have a month to survive there, let alone school fees.”
He did his best to hide his poverty from his classmates.
“So when people would say, ‘Hey, let’s go out for dinner next Friday,’ or ‘Let’s go out for a drink,’ I’d make up all these, ‘Aw, I’m busy,’ ‘I’m feeling sick,’ ‘I gotta sleep,’ whatever. And then my second year, because my mom was homeless, she actually flew from Thailand and lived with me in my dorm,” Sityodtong said.
His mom slept on the bed, and he slept on the floor.
She hoped that he would land a job at a Fortune 500 company, earn a good salary, and live a stable life. But his second year of business school coincided with the technology boom in Silicon Valley.
His classmate brought up the idea of starting an Internet software company, and they eventually got funding. Sityodtong’s mom went along.
“The first year, my mom came and we slept on sleeping bags in the office on the floor. Only a mother’s love can do that, right?” he said.
The startup eventually grew to having 150 employees, and they sold it.
“That was my first taste of getting out of poverty,” Sityodtong said.
He continued, “Growing up, I had three main passions. Martial arts is my greatest passion in life, something I do every single day. Even now, I train every single day. I did that ever since I was young. I always say my training every day is the happiest two hours of my day, no matter what I’m doing. Second passion is the stock market, and the third is being an entrepreneur, and they interchange depending on which stage I am in my life.”
So he became a hedge fund manager in Wall Street for ten years, drawing inspiration from “great investors” like George Soros, Warren Buffett, and Peter Lynch.
“I was buying and selling companies all over the world,” Sityodtong said.
One day, he was eating in a sushi restaurant by himself, having just made “a crapload of money” for the year.
“And I said, ‘I should be happy…’ But I was lonely inside,” he confessed.
By then he had already bought his mother her own house – one of his proudest moments.
“I realized, what’s the point of life if you keep on making millions and millions every year, but really not having a purpose?” he said.
He told his mom he was going to retire and do something else. She told him he had grown arrogant and reminded him of how poor they had used to be. His friends thought he was crazy.
“I don’t think that we were all put here on this Earth just to buy a house, buy a nice car, live a material life… I feel that as human beings we have to pursue a life that unleashes our greatness, that we can give back to the world more than we received by the time all is said and done,” Sityodtong said.
So he retired and returned to martial arts, despite his mother’s opposition. He had fought professionally in Thailand, and had a 20-9 record.
“And that’s the thing that I attribute to helping lift me out of poverty… People think martial arts is about fighting or violence, which is a basic misconception. Martial arts is actually about unleashing the potential, because through hours and hours of martial arts training, you have courage, discipline, mental strength, a warrior’s spirit, a desire for continuous improvement. So many beautiful attributes you apply to the rest of your life,” he said.
Most Asian countries had martial arts traditions which spanned thousands of years – karate in Japan, taekwondo in Korea, kung fu in China. Some of the biggest celebrities in the continent were also martial artists, like Jackie Chan, Bruce Lee, and Jet Li.
“It’s really really part of the fabric in Asia,” Sityodtong said.
So he decided to create Asia’s first multibillion-dollar sports league and property. At the time, he had already been following the rise of UFC in the United States.
“That obviously planted a seed. But I didn’t know how hard it would be to pull it off in Asia,” he said.
He combined his knowledge of business and martial arts, and used his own money to fund ONE Championship. He had also secured investment from Sequoia, Mission Holdings, and Heliconia Capital Management, according to BusinessWorld.
From 300,000 video views on social media for the whole year about two years ago, ONE Championship now had 600 million video views as of the latest statistics for 2017.
Sityodtong was confident that they would have a billion views by the end of the year, and seven billion to eight billion views next year.
ONE Championship also drew fans during its live events in Manila, Bangkok, Jakarta, Kuala Lumpur, Tokyo, Shanghai, Beijing, and Singapore.
“What is your purpose for being on this earth? What is your reason?” Sityodtong asked. “How will you make this world better? And for me, our mission at ONE Championship is actually, we are here finding superheroes who ignite inspiration, hopes, dreams, strength to the entire continent.”