In an interview with Business Insider, ONE CEO and founder Chatri Sityodtong discussed what set his organization apart from the UFC. His response paints a picture of a company that is above the fray when it comes to larger controversies in combat sports.
“We celebrate values of integrity, humility, honor, respect, courage, discipline, and compassion. We unleash heroes who inspire and unite countries and tell their stories of impossible triumphs over improbable odds.”
Those words, the celebration of discipline and honor, have been a selling point for ONE. But is the company itself adhering to those same high standards?
Some of ONE Championship’s fighters and employees have previously discussed concerns about the Asian promotion, and in this follow up, more issues were raised. Once again, these sources spoke to Bloody Elbow on the condition of confidentiality for fear of retaliation from the organization, citing its difficulty accepting criticism.
Matchmaking and money issues
ONE has collected an impressive collection of international fighters. But two sources - fighters and management - have alleged a strong bias towards fighters in the countries where ONE is most interested in expanding.
Fighters from countries like Egypt and India were brought in with very little experience and/or preparation, only to be fed to significantly more accomplished fighters who are said to be favored by the organization.
One curious and widely discussed possible example of recruiting inexperienced fighters involves the crew at Egyptian Top Team, out of Nasr City in Cairo. A bevy of their fighters were brought in to fight for the promotion, but amassed a combined record of 1 win and 22 losses under the ONE banner. Despite the promotion still constantly booking them fights, the only fighter to earn a win in the ONE cage was Hisham Hiba (1-1 in ONE) back in 2014. The other notable fighter in that group is Sherif Mohamed, who went 0-4 — the most losses of the group.
Those who have improved their official records from beating fighters from Egyptian Top Team include ONE stars such as champions Angela Lee (twice) and Aung La Nsang, UFC vet Yoshihiro Akiyama, former title challenger Agilan Thani (twice) and others.
One fighter was brought in with no prior MMA training. The athlete was telegenic having a promising kickboxing career in their native country, but unfortunately no clear knowledge of what mixed martial arts was at all.
This fighter’s coach simply informed them that if things got to the ground and became too difficult, they could just tap out. That fighter got paid a purse of $750, with only one cornerman allowed.
Despite the fighter’s lack of experience, ONE signed them to a lengthy contract with no easy exits. As of this writing, the fighter in question is still uncertain whether the exclusive contract they were signed to is still valid or not. But like some other businesses, ONE seeks to commit fighters for the life of their careers. As one source put it “they wanted people like [said anonymous fighter] to die with ONE, and not be able to sign with any other promotion. Like how they’re treating (other fighters).”
As these fighters kept losing, they kept getting more of their teammates brought over. This led one source, a person from within the company, to believe that these fighters would help bring attention from their home regions, while also serving as fodder for more experienced talent ONE was looking to elevate. This insider said “fighters from two countries, India and Egypt… they’re in the ring as cans, which is sad.”
Fighters from outside Asia also may end up with the short end of the stick when it comes to purses and matchmaking. Two sources say that these fighters often have a very difficult time negotiating pay regardless of their progression, popularity, or position on the card.
In contrast, fighters supposedly more favored by management are said to be paid monthly stipends of varying amounts, on top of fight purses. One source claimed that former two-division champions Martin Nguyen and Aung La Nsang, and former UFC fighter Brandon Vera are among those select fighters “under payroll.”
Bloody Elbow has reached out to the fighters, with two-division champion Nsang confirming that he indeed gets a “monthly stipend besides the fight purse” from ONE. Nguyen has declined to comment, while Vera has yet to reply as of this writing.
Relationship with Evolve
Sources also claimed that there is an effort to have fighters that work with and for Evolve in favorable matchups.
The relationship with the gym and ONE have a clear through line, seeing as ONE and Evolve were both founded and currently chaired by Chatri Sityodtong, which some believe raises questions regarding a potential conflict of interest.
Herbert Burns, a UFC fighter who was previously with both ONE and Evolve, publicly aired his grievances with both companies in the past. He thinks it’s an issue that the two organizations are owned and run by the same person, but alleges that it isn’t brought up enough because ONE has “control” over the local media.
“They control the local media really well (in Asia), so it’s hard to talk about (ONE and Evolve),” Burns said. “That’s the truth, they have a control over the Asian media and no one will talk about it.”
When explaining the issue, a ONE insider notes how this would be a big issue if the UFC had a similar framework. “Dana (White) doesn’t own any MMA gym to put his fighters on his (MMA promotion) to promote as ‘world champions’ and give out an easy opponent.”
Evolve has been one of the most impressive gyms in Asia, with a world-class roster of instructors and personnel. Recruitment videos reminiscent of Amway ads have been released to recruit young and energetic prospective employees to the gym, offering the opportunity to be alongside “world-class businessmen“ and “self-made entrepreneurs” as part of the sales pitch. Other videos show what can be a fun time being part of the crew, including this one of a retreat to the Maldives, or this one in Phuket. Employment opportunities with the gym have the familiar jargon of “joining a family” and leaving “the daily grind” behind and “to unleash the human potential of those who may not be as fortunate in life.”
An administrative insider described one Evolve video as a “pyramid scheme promo” and the people involved were a “brainwashed bunch, and a money-making scheme. It’s like they’re in (a) church-like cult. Almost everyone there.”
“Most of the people who trained there are working professionals that make big money. Company directors, big time managers and all, (because) the fees aren’t cheap. And that is how Chatri (Sityodtong) makes contact with these people. Chatri has the money and turned this gym into like, ‘the only professional MMA gym in Singapore (where you are) trained by world champions.’ They have good gimmicky marketing.”
This same insider also put this way: “ONE is Evolve. Evolve is ONE. (Chatri’s) using almost everyone from Evolve or connected to Evolve, and I’m not talking about the trainers. The students.
“The only, I think, profitable business from Chatri in Singapore is... Evolve. But still, you don’t get to be super rich from these businesses. It’s profitable to a point but won’t turn you mega-rich, that’s why so many MMA gyms in Singapore shut down.”
Despite the allegations of favorable matchups to pad fighters’ records, there is no doubt Evolve has some amazing athletes that have been champions either in or out of ONE, and in some cases, both.
Bloody Elbow reached out several times about these allegations, but never received an official response from the promotion. It remains to be seen whether ONE Championship can address these criticisms, as they paint an unflattering picture for Asia’s premier organization — a company that presents itself as the home for “discipline” and “honor.”