In 2011, ONE Championship was founded as a destination organization — a home for some of the biggest names in Asian MMA as well as a proving ground for up-and-coming fighters from all over the region.
In almost a decade, ONE has become an outfit that claims a viewership that can potentially reach a billion households. It ventured into mainland China, partnered with other organizations in other countries, and crossed over to not just have MMA, but Muay Thai, kickboxing, and even into E-Sports.
The groundwork ONE has laid with exciting matchups and an impressive array of fighters has led to some excellent free agent acquisitions. From former UFC champion Miesha Tate as a Vice President, to UFC legends and former champions Vitor Belfort, Demetrious Johnson and Eddie Alvarez, it’s been impressive to see the organization grow year by year.
Yet questions remain regarding many of the claims it has made. Bloody Elbow has covered various aspects of the state of ONE’s finances, addressing claims and reports of robust growth that appear to be unfounded at best. We’ve seen the company take massive losses, and recently lay off a chunk of their staff, all while boasting about an influx of cash from investors and claiming to have a “war chest.”
Perhaps downsizing during a global pandemic isn’t the most unusual thing, but the timing of this all on top of years of suspicion surrounding the financial state and well-being of the company certainly raises interesting questions.
Over the years, there have also been numerous complaints and serious grievances towards the company, both publicly and privately from fighters and former employees. Bloody Elbow spoke to four individuals, who accused ONE Championship’s management of various unfair practices, neglecting fighter safety, favoritism, blatant mismatches, as well as remarkably low pay. Furthermore, these sources complained about issues relating to contract extensions and the punitive nature of management staff for those who speak out.
All the persons who spoke for this article agreed to talk to Bloody Elbow on the condition that they not be named, due to concerns of retaliation.
Zero-tolerance criticism policy
Sources claim that some former employees and fighters want to express their discontent with ONE, but fear doing so due to possible legal action. Compounding the issue is the fact that the company is headquartered in Singapore, where some of our sources have expressed concern that legal proceedings can become very expensive to the point where the party with the least amount of resources often ends up losing the most.
A company insider, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, also claimed that there’s a reason fighters under contract have low morale but won’t speak out — they can’t.
“ONE announced things about management a while back, only going through certain approved managers [...] Now new fighters have to sign a contract that states they can’t talk bad about the company publicly.”
Unfortunately for fighters, things get tighter from there.
One fighter was approached to sign with them and the athlete declined for the following reasons:
“They pay shit. And when you’re signed, (it’s) exclusively with them. It doesn’t guarantee that they will keep you busy or give you fights.“
So with the exclusivity clause enforced without any obligation on behalf of the promoter to offer fights, the independent contractors remain locked in with nowhere to go or any way to earn their keep in the meantime. Above all else, they can’t talk about it without concerns of serious repercussions.
Bloody Elbow has reviewed correspondence between ONE and an employee, in which the company threatened legal action over social media posts. In said correspondence, ONE has also threatened to preemptively send statements to various news outlets. These communications also include threats of informing any other employer or other company a fighter may be associated with outside of their fighting career. Oddly enough, said correspondence shared also demanded a public apology to the company.
This doesn’t just extend to the public image of the company though, as it appears that this goes to the very top.
“I do know of other lesser-known fighters having trouble with them, too,” a ONE FC insider said. “(Chatri Sityodtong is) like a crybaby if he reads one single bad article about him.”
Some fighters involved in contract disputes — not unheard of in the combat sports world — complain about pressure they feel to sign extensions with only minimal increases. Lacking bargaining power, fighters that refuse are simply put on the shelf indefinitely, as their contracts can be frozen, as also seen in past cases with the UFC.
Among those high profile fighters who publicly claimed to have been put on the shelf for years is current UFC fighter Herbert Burns, who was previously with both ONE and the Evolve MMA gym. He alleged that he was frozen for two years during his time with ONE, for deciding to leave Evolve MMA and train with a different team.
“For sure, that’s exactly it, but life goes on,” Burns told MMA Fighting about feeling retaliation for leaving the team. “I spoke with the Evolve founder (Sityodtong) when I left (the team) and — apparently — everything was fine. I was going to fight for the belt, he congratulated me for the win. I came back home and kept training. For two years, they kept saying ‘you’ll fight at this month or that month,’ but the contract never came. I was always hopeful that I would fight, and that’s what bled me financially and forced me to fight for the money.”
Drug testing allegations
In 2019, Asia-based UFC veteran Will Chope criticized ONE’s alleged approach to drug testing. The organization had previously announced that they would implement WADA testing, only to have WADA themselves explain that ONE are not signatories and therefore would not be doing testing for the promotion.
One individual claimed that a fighter under their banner for over five years had never been drug tested. In his words: “They have Alain Ngalani and Vitor Belfort fighting each other soon... WADA testing.”
A separate source, who had several fights under ONE through the years, claimed a similar experience, alleging that drug tests weren’t administered for any of those bouts.
To this day, ONE has not addressed WADA testing any further.
Ticket sales, or lack thereof
While it’s been something of a minor inside joke tossed around on Twitter, ONE Championship has had speculation surrounding their ticket sales for some time. Social media posts show fans with literal stacks of free tickets to attend events, and a company insider, when asked about the figures that the organization boasted about, claimed that some of these attendance numbers are based on distribution of free tickets.
“Regarding ‘sold out’ tickets, that’s f—king bullshit. Can you imagine how many tickets ONE staff gets to give out every time? Up to 50 per staff (member).“
An executive inside the organization also claimed that stacks of tickets were given out constantly.
“Up to 50 per tickets per staff (member). Yes, up to 50. Regardless of venue, as far as I know. Could be more in certain countries.”
As referenced in previous pieces here on Bloody Elbow, ticket sales don’t account for a significant portion of ONE’s revenue. Despite increasing, and almost doubling the number of events from previous years, ONE’s ticket revenue has actually gone down in each of the last three years it filed financials for.
This also leads to questions regarding market share and growth in the MMA ecosystem.
Bold claims and market share
While two of Bloody Elbow’s sources questioned ONE’s claims regarding ticket sales and viewership, those are not the only stats the company touts. ONE has also routinely made various bold claims about the size of the promotion and their share of the Asian market.
For their first few years of operation, the company claimed to hold over “90%+ market share in Asia” on every press release. In the last couple of years, each release now has them claiming to be “the largest global sports media property in Asian history” and “the world’s largest martial arts organization.”
Spearheading those announcements was (now former) ONE PR head Loren Mack, who is on record boasting to have beaten the UFC and every single MMA promotion on just about every area.
“The reality is that our brand has smoked the UFC in Asia. That’s not PR, it’s the truth,” Mack said during his tenure with ONE. “Every metric you look at, we’ve beat the UFC in Asia.”
Mack recently left ONE to take a job with the PFL, and now appears to be taking a different line.
“What I see is that the UFC for the last several years has had 98 percent of the market share in Asia,” Mack told MMA Fighting in July. “The reason being is they were the first to get there and I would say they just were able to crack China with a Chinese champion, they’ve done a great job. What follows is a lot of ‘me too,’ a lot of ‘me too’ organizations.”
Questionable viewership and ratings
ONE has constantly hammered the point that it’s available in over a billion households in Asia, an impressive number. But there are some caveats that need to be considered. Just because there is availability to such a wide audience doesn’t mean that there is the brand recognition or consumer to reach those eyeballs.
ONE has also made many bold announcements about having massive viewership ranging from 25 to 85 million on individual shows, including claims of having the “most-watched martial arts event in history.” ONE cites Nielsen data for these numbers, but Nielsen, as a matter of policy, will not confirm or deny the number.
Anecdotally, there is reason to be skeptical, according to two of our sources. “Ask anyone in Singapore if they watch ONE on TV, they (will) probably say no,” the executive familiar with operations said, noting that ONE is available in his home country on cable, not basic television. “People in Indonesia still never heard of them.”
Continued on Part 2: Blatant Mismatches and Favoritism.