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#TFGInterview - ONE Championship CCO Hari Vijayarajan on Ritu Phogat's MMA debut, hosting event in India, Esports and more

2019 HAS BEEN A PRETTY SIGNIFICANT year for ONE Championship so far.

On the one hand, they have further established themselves as a major player in the global martial arts scene, especially with the likes of Dimitrius Johnson, Eddie Alvarez joining the promotion. On the other hand, their developmental programmes have reached deeper into countries that are either under-developed or yet emerging in terms of the proliferation and popularity of martial arts and combat sports in general.

While most major promotions like UFC, Bellator and Rizin are conscious about their product's uniformity of experience, ONE have also continued to experiment with formats and disciplines, hosting not just Mixed Martial Arts but also sports like Kickboxing and MMA. They were even willing to switch from a cage to a ring, which most MMA-centric organizations would never consider.

And then, just weeks ago, they announced a major venture into Esports, tying video game tournaments with martial arts events; something that has never been done before.

At a time when MMA is growing as a global sport faster than ever, ONE have done some experiments with it under the leadership of Chairman & CEO Chatri Sityodtong that haven't satisfied everyone, but certainly made them stand out from the rest.

And now, over the last few months, ONE Championship have taken significant steps to reach out to the Indian MMA scene, and its audience. We have already seen the first steps coming to fruition; about a dozen Indian fighters have already competed in ONE, in both their flagship events as well as the developmental Warrior Series.

When TFG caught up with ONE's Chief Commercial Officer Hari Vijayarajan, the idea was to get an impression of what's driving ONE's multi-pronged norm-defying approach: how could an organization do so many things at once and yet remain uniformity? And what could Indian MMA fans expect from the organization over the coming months?

Speaking from Singapore, the former Microsoft and Amazon management veteran seemed to be enjoying being in a company unlike any he had ever served at before. He was quick to point out why ONE was inherently different from most of the promotions MMA fans were used to,

"MMA is just one sport that we host. We are going to continue showcasing sports like Muay Thai, Kickboxing. We have already become the biggest martial arts organization in the world, and soon we will become one of the biggest names in sports as well. There's a reason we appear different, it's because we are unique."

Hari Vijayarajan with Miesha Tate, former MMA fighter and ONE vice president. Photo Courtesy - SPORTSFILE

Although a global organization, ONE Championship's activities have always conveyed their Asian roots. Their flagship events in 2019 have all been booked inside the continent, and their talent-developing platforms like the Warrior Series and the Hero Series also see the participation of emerging talent, mostly from Asia. Vijayarajan explained the philosophy behind ONE's global as well as local expansion approaches this way,

"The idea is to find local superheroes for the global stage. Asia is the birthplace of martial arts, it's where 4 billion people of the world live. You have the world renowned martial arts cultures based in China, Japan and Thailand. Then you look at a country like Indonesia where martial arts is so ingrained in the daily lives. This gives us the chance to bring together the world's best martial artists and have them compete on the global stage. At the same time, we have more localised structures running simultaneously, to build up talented fighters who can become not only world class sportspersons but role models for their communities."

At this point, across several weight classes ONE's MMA, Muay Thai and Kickboxing divisions for men and women, there are 15 championship belt holders (Aung La Nsang holds both the Middleweight and Light Heavyweight MMA belts, while Stamp Fairtex is the Women's Atomweight champion in both Muay Thai and Kickboxing). There are multiple Asian as well as non-Asian fighters in these pole positions; 4 from Thailand (in 5 divisions; all of them in Kickboxing and Muay Thai), 2 each from Philippines, Singapore and Brazil, one each from Myanmar, Sweden, China, Netherlands and Australia. In the past, there have been champions from countries like USA, South Korea, Russia, Mongolia and Kazakhstan. With the organization's global footprint getting increasingly larger, Vijayarajan was quick to point out how they were measuring their growth,

"Back in March, our 'A New Era' event was seen by 41.9 million people. Those kind of numbers easily make us the biggest martial arts organization in the world. We are already being broadcast on more than 140 countries, and the target is to reach 200 countries soon. In terms of viewership we are directly competing with some of the leading sports organizations, like the NFL. Their biggest event, the Superbowl, has a 100 million viewership. The way we are growing, we should be able to surpass that number soon. Only difference is the Superbowl happens once a year, but we will be able to put on a Superbowl-sized show every week."

When enquired about his emphasis on projecting ONE as a sports organization that's different from MMA-specific promotions like UFC or Bellator, Hari said they were driven by very different goals,

"The UFC tries to put out content that will generate maximum attention from paying viewers. That's not what we are about. ONE is not about that kind of trash talk, or Conor McGregor throwing a dolly. Our athletes impact people on a different level. Look at Brandon Vera. He is a legend in the Philippines. People look up to him, see him as a positive influence in society. We are about that sportsmanship and respect, when you have those qualities people flock around you."

He was not exaggerating. ONE are known to dial down the trash talk and they actively resist selling fights through hatred. Ben Askren, who was a champion at ONE before joining the UFC, recently said on Ariel Helwani's show, "One thing I learned at ONE Championship is that you don't have to hate all your opponents."

There are other ways ONE stands out. They don't use the round by round 10 points mandatory scoring system that's prevalent in most Western promotions, choosing instead to have the judges score the fight as a whole, as PRIDE used to do. They have also taken a tough stance against weight cutting, setting minimum hydration requirements for fighters, as well as bumping up weight classes by 10 pounds (Bantamweight is 145 instead of 135, Featherweight is 155 instead of 145 etc). Vijayarajan explained,

"We take fighter health very seriously. We don't believe in hard weight cuts. That's why we take off competition walking weight of the fighters to ensure they compete in a weight class that suits their health. Even with injuries we are very pro-active, especially the head injuries. We take CT scans of fighters two weeks before the fight, which hardly anyone does. All this is to ensure they are in full health when they are competing."

All these help ONE present MMA as less of a rogue sport and more palatable to the mainstream audience. CEO Chatri Sidyodtong has been a vocal proponent of making MMA an Olympic sport; an idea that UFC and Bellator are not very fond of.

These aspects of the ONE Championship have made it ideal to penetrate emerging markets, especially in Asia. In India, for example, ONE is fast replacing BRAVE as the most favoured international organizations that young athletes aspire to compete in. The events are more frequent, the high level of professionalism is appreciated by fighters and the Warrior Series is also turning heads as a dependable platform for less experienced fighters to make their mark.

The recent signings of Indian-origin fighters like Gurdarshan Mangat and Arjan Singh Bhullar have also given them star power to attract the Indian fight fans with. There have also been rumours of ONE hosting an event in India. When TFG asked for a straight clarification on that, Vijayarajan was quick to provide it,

"Yes, we are coming to India. It will be in 2020. The date and venue are not finalized but the year is committed. We will be there next year."

The implications of ONE coming to India are significant. So far, the biggest MMA shows held on Indian soil have belonged to Super Fight League and BRAVE CF. In terms of scale, star power and reach ONE surpasses them all. So their Indian debut has a good chance of being the biggest MMA event the country has ever seen. And more importantly, with ONE's growing roster of Indian talent, it may end up being the first de facto showcase event of Indian MMA talent on a global scale.

But most important of all is the multi-step plan ONE are implementing to develop talent in India. Hari laid out their plan to not just come to India but stay in the country on a long term basis,

"Of course you have to be in India. There are 1.3 billion people, and they can become one of our biggest markets. But it's not just about getting viewers and a fanbase, we want to go into the grassroots to develop talent. To begin with, we signed a broadcasting deal with Star Sports, which is the biggest sports network in the country. And they have begun to promote our shows heavily fter the Cricket World Cup ended. The viewership of ONE is growing fast over there. And next year we will be bringing a show to give the fans a chance to touch and feel the event. It will expose them to world class martial arts and become a part of the fabric of their combat sports experience. Then, we will be going into the market to develop talent. We have been holding the Hero Series in China, it has become very popular there as a platform for new talent to emerge. We are planning to launch the Hero series in Philippines soon. It will eventually branch out to other countries, even India."

This year, Indian MMA fighters like Puja Tomar, Himanshu Kaushik and Rahul Raju have notched up wins in ONE Championship events. Gurdarshan Mangat, who is of Indian origin, has also picked up two solid victories in quick succession. Arjan Singh Bhullar was supposed to promotional debut in Manila but his opponent fell sick; he is expected to fight soon. And on 16th of August, Asha Roka (4-0) will take on Stamp Fairtex (ONE Kickboxing and Muay Thai atomweight champion) in an MMA bout. But perhaps the most anticipated Indian fighter on ONE roster is Ritu Phogat, one of the famous 'Phogat Sisters', who won the gold medal in Commonwealth Wrestling Championship back in 2016.

Vijayarajan had big news to break about her, too,

"She will make her professional debut at an ONE Championship event this year, we are thinking the fourth quarter. Which weight class she will compete in is yet to be determined. Our fight cards are finalised six to four weeks before the event, we will be able to give you more details at that point."

He sounded excited about the potential star power and talent that Ritu Phogat can bring to ONE,

"Obviously, the Phogat Sisters are household names in India. They are a phenom. We all saw the movie 'Dangal' which told their life story so well. Interestingly, when news broke that Ritu Phogat had signed for ONE and had started training at Evolve MMA here in Singapore, the story started trending in China. She is very famous over there, because'Dangal' is very popular over there. It was amazing."

The intention is clear: ONE want to build up a number of Indian star names that would then feature on their event in India. The likes of Phogat, Mangat, Bhullar and others are going to be pivotal in the organization's expansion plans into this country.

But one of the most surprising moves that ONE pulled off this year is their foray into Esports. Combining video game competitions and combat sports is a strange mix, but in some ways it makes perfect sense. And not just because one of ONE's star names Dimitrius Johnson is an avid, competitive gamer apart from being arguably the pound-for-pound greatest MMA fighter in the world.

Vijayarajan explained,

"We ran a survey and it revealed there's a 30% crossover between our fans and Esports fans. A lot of martial arts fans love Esports and vice versa. And not to forget some of the most popular video games have been based on martial arts and combat sports. So we find them to be a natural fit. This October, our 100th tentpole event "Century" will be held in Tokyo. Given how big both martial arts and Esports are in that city, it feels right to start from there. We will have tournaments on TEKKEN and Street Fighter, which are two of the most popular fight games out there. We will also have the DOTA 2 World Pro Invitationals in Singapore and Jakarta later, with $500,000 prize pools. These events will immediately make us one of the biggest Esports organizations in the world."

There's no doubt ONE Esports is aiming to make a heavy first impression, partnering with PGL who are already giants in the field. Tying the Esports tournaments with the fights will also make ONE events a multi-faceted experience for the spectators. It remains to be seen how Esports and martial arts complement each other and fuel mutual growth, but the early signs are encouraging.

The addition of Esports perfectly sums up what ONE is about; taking risks, changing rules and willing to go to new places. Their impact in developing MMA has already been felt in multiple countries, and India seems to be featuring prominently on their next expansion phase.

Perhaps the arrival of ONE will be the situmulus for rapid growth the Indian MMA landscape, still in its nascent stage, has been awaiting for a long time.

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