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Kicking off a storm

Initially among the poorest of Harvard students, Chatri Sityodtong and Saurabh Mittal have fought their way to become partners in ONE Championship

‘I always had this vision and desire to do something big in martial arts, but I didn't really know. Saurabh (left) was my sounding board. ESPN had approached me to do something, and I told him, dude, I should do this on my own. Let's do this.' – Chatri Sityodtong.

WHEN Chatri Sityodtong and Saurabh Mittal met as graduate students in Harvard Business School in 1997, few would have predicted that the friendship would ignite and spawn multimillion-dollar fortunes.

The two were among the poorest of Harvard students, scouring the campus vicinity for the cheapest meals. They were in the same study group and their deep friendship – they fnish each other's sentences – was forged in the pressurising confnes of the academic hothouse.

But they also share a passion that is much larger than just making money. In their common calculus, money is a byproduct of doing the thing that you love.

Since separately pursuing wildly successful careers as hedge-fund managers post-Harvard, they are now partners in ONE Championship, which bills itself as Asia's largest sports-media property. ONE Championship, brainchild of Mr Sityodtong, who is himself a practitioner of Muay Thai or Thai boxing, showcases Asian mixed martial arts (MMA).

Says Mr Sityodtong: "We all got lucky breaks in the genetic lottery. We're relatively smart, but of course we work hard. At the same time, I genuinely believe that the ‘X' factor is our intensity, passion for excellence, our desire to make an impact on the world, do something with our lives.

"We could have taken many turns after we became successful, eased off and chilled out. But we chose to go through to the next project. Hopefully we'll be 90 together and start a new business."

Mr Mittal says: "If you work hard, if you have a deep desire to put your best foot forward and also have generosity of spirit, you carry the world with you. Chatri has a very big heart and generosity of spirit. Successful entrepreneurs are typically very good people because they generate positive energy. You can't lead a team unless they truly trust and believe you will look out for them. Over a 20-year period, you can't fake trust or generosity of spirit.

"I believe we're truly lucky. Sometimes, I feel that the universe conspires to make us successful. So many things happened that are lucky breaks that really give you that next leg of growth in any part of your career."

The best pals' paths have intertwined since graduating from Harvard university, garnering millions of dollars of net worth to their respective names along the way.

Mr Mittal, 43, an engineer by training, worked on an oil rig to help pay Harvard's school fees. After graduation, he became a senior partner at an affliate of Farallon Capital Management, focusing on investments in fnancial services and TMT (technology, media and telecom). In late 1999, he co-founded Indiabulls, India's leading fnancial services and real estate conglomerate. He exited Indiabulls in 2014.

He now runs his own investment holding company Mission Holdings, which believes in partnering its portfolio companies for the long term. One of its major investments is ONE Championship.

Mr Sityodtong, 46, grew up in a middle-class family but his father's real-estate business went bankrupt in the Asian crisis. His family lost everything and his father walked out.

His mother saw his offer of a place in Harvard as a lifeline that could potentially turn his life around, but she had no money for fees. Hence, Mr Sityodtong worked his way through school, teaching Muay Thai, delivering food, and survived on US$4 a day. In his second year at Harvard he and a friend started a software company that sold services online, which eventually raised US$38 million. After Harvard he joined Wall Street and founded a US$500 million hedge fund frm Izara Capital Management.

Lit a fire

But Wall Street failed to satisfy a yearning inside him. Mixed martial arts, however, "lit a fre'' in him. He started Evolve Mixed Martial Arts, a chain of martial arts training centres, in Singapore.

Says Mr Sityodtong: "The seed was planted way back when I was a kid. When I went to high school, university and graduate school, I was always doing it, teaching it." He founded a martial arts club at Harvard and was its frst president.

Mr Mittal says: "What he did was remarkable, way beyond just being president of a club. He effectively founded an important social activity and got 10 per cent of the class to regularly show up for it… He ignited a passion in people and these were people who by and large never did martial arts before. Asia already has a very strong martial arts culture, but igniting that, bringing that out, getting people together for it was the secret sauce and magic he was able to do." ONE Championship was conceived on a cocktail napkin at a bar in 2011.

Says Mr Mittal: "We literally wrote a basic business plan on a cocktail napkin, cliche as it is to say that. We went to the side and literally spent the whole evening talking about this." Mr Sityodtong says: "I always had this vision and desire to do something big in martial arts, but I didn't really know.

(Saurabh) was my sounding board. ESPN had approached me to do something, and I told him, dude, I should do this on my own. Let's do this."

He adds: "I'd say (Saurabh) was the catalyst. Sometimes, you need a third party, because this plan is so big. It's a multibillion-dollar opportunity. You need someone who knows you very well, to say your skill set is matchless and your passion is there, and they'll partner with you. A lot of elements came together. He pushed me out the proverbial cliff to fly.

When he has confdence and I have confdence, it gives an extra edge."

ONE Championship started in 2011 with the backing of the Economic Development Board. It has since attracted an enviable stable of investors. In 2016, it caught the eye of Heliconia Capital Management, a subsidiary of Temasek Holdings. Heliconia was to lead a consortium of partners to invest – reportedly an eight-fgure sum – in ONE Championship. Earlier this year, ONE Championship also raised a total capital of US$100 million in equity investments from Sequoia Capital India and Mr Mittal's Mission Holdings. The company has set its sights on an initial public offer, and a US$1 billion valuation over the next year or so.

So far, its profile has been growing. It is currently broadcast in 128 countries with a potential viewership of over one billion. It will feature 28 events next year, compared to 18 last year. The company has shown tremendous growth in viewership and social-media metrics. As at October, for instance, it garnered a stunning 8.3 billion social-media impressions in 2017, from 352 million in 2014.

Social media video views totalled 1.5 billion across multiple platforms compared to just 312,000 in 2014.

Clearly, ONE Championship's offerings resonate across a burgeoning audience. Part of the appeal may lie in the ethos it champions, which Mr Sityodtong believes permeates Asian martial arts. This ethos is a far cry from the picture of violence and gore that quickly comes to the minds of the uninitiated. "It's the biggest misconception. Throughout my time as a teacher or martial arts artiste, people say ‘oh my God, the violence, it's dangerous'.

But throughout my foray into teaching, I was able to show the beauty, how it can give you discipline, courage, a work ethic, a warrior's spirit. Those are the values you can get from martial arts – humility and integrity. If you create a school that just fghts and beats people up, that attracts a certain type of people and maintains a small market opportunity for you.

"We teach authentic self-defence at Evolve but also impart the life knowledge that hours of martial arts training imparts. In many ways, Evolve's ethos proved to be ONE Championship's foundation in terms of philosophy."

Mr Mittal believes ONE Championship could emerge as the "truly defning Asian sports property", and is potentially the largest project he has been involved in. "Asia has not had a strong local sporting franchise and that's a massive void. The martial arts genre lends itself to being a world class sporting franchise because it resonates with Asians. It's a very active sport that people have deep connections to and have an interest in watching.

"The opportunity is not just to build strong martial arts franchise in Asia. It's to build a truly defning Asian sports property. Think about NBA (National Basketball Association) or NFL (National Football League) in the US – those are such massive organisations built over decades... To exceed them on a global basis, that's the opportunity set. It's massive; it will take all our efforts." w

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