Interview with ONE Championship CEO Victor Cui: "We will be in India in the next 24 months"

Ratish Menon
Victor Cui, CEO ONE Championship

MMA has long been termed the world’s fastest growing sport and rightfully so. The growth of this sport into an industry over just about 20 years has been nothing short of incredible. This growth story is nowhere defined better than in the rapid strides that ONE Championship has taken since its inception 4 years ago.

ONE Championship in its journey over 4 years has gone on to become the single largest MMA promotion in the whole of Asia. And the man who has orchestrated this amazing growth chart of ONE championship has been Victor Cui, the CEO of the company. Sportskeeda had the opportunity to speak with Victor, who took the time out to share details about everything from ONE’s approach and also plans for India. Below is the transcript of my chat with the Victor Cui, CEO of ONE Championship.

Ratish Menon: ONE Championship has been aggressively entering new territories in the past couple of years. What is the 5-year plan for a growing company such as ONE?

Victor Cui: We’ve been fortunate that we got some of the biggest blue-chip brands that are working with us like Disney, DC Comics, Marvel’s Avengers, Star Wars are some of the biggest movie titles in the world we are working with. Now we are also partnering in the release of The AntMan. We are working with them as partners in Asia. In fact we are the only sports property in Asia to have partnered with Facebook. LG, Kawasaki and Casio are some of the other brands we are working with.

Lot of the countries have also invited us to host the ONE Championship on their turf and talking on that lines we plan to hold major event in every major city in Asia like Manila, Shanghai, Beijing, Singapore. Of course India is a very huge market, we haven’t launched there yet but would be launching very soon. Someone living outside Asia would never be able to comprehend what it takes to launch in a country like that. There are so many disruptions you face, you have to forge relations with the government, with the bureaucracy and all.

We could have entered China long before we did, but we believe in entering new markets the right way and I believe my experience in bringing X-Games to China helped me in that. And we’ve entered China in a way bigger than any international company could have done.

RM: In your previous interviews, you have always expressed your opinion that ‘There’s nothing more Asian than martial arts’. Has that belief been reinforced in your journey through all these newer destinations in Asia where ONE championship has launched.

VC: Definitely, the thing is we don’t have to explain the sport in whichever country we go to. Ofcourse the sport of MMA is still new but the concept of martial arts and pitting the best martial artists against each other is not. If I would have to promote cricket in China or in Myanmar, using my resources then I still wouldn’t be able to do it as they don’t understand it, there is no cultural relevance. So I would say almost every other sport has no cultural relevance in each of the Asian countries except martial arts.

RM: In all the newer markets you have permeated into, including China, UAE and now Myanmar, which has been the toughest and why?

VC: Regarding which one is the most tough I believe each and every market is tough. See staging 4 events in one country is tough, but we’ve been doing it in all these different countries. Our team is on the road, working non-stop with different people, different government, different rules and religions so it takes a toll, so I can’t point to any single market as tough. And I would like to thank my fantastic team for making all of this possible.

RM: ONE Championship has done 29 events so far across Asia and the Middle East. If you had to choose a particularly memorable event out of the 29 events, which one would that be and why?

VC: It would be our very first event in Singapore. It was during a time when nobody could even spell MMA, nobody knew anything about it. We were the first sporting body in eight years to stage a completely packed and sold out event and it opened the eyes of many people regarding the potential of MMA.

RM: With ONE: Kingdom of Warriors, you are foraying into Myanmar, a country which is rich in martial arts history but has never had a big event like this. How do you go about choosing a country like Myanmar, which has never been a conventional choice for a sport such as MMA?

VC: All the great leaders in the world like Steve Jobs and Warren Buffett said when everyone goes left, you go right. See we are not here to follow the herd, if we wanted to do that we would be having our events in USA or Canada. Myanmar has always been a country rich in martial arts and why won’t we go there when we have their government support, media support along with their rich fighting tradition, its a win-win situation for us.

And top that with the fact that it is a emerging market, everybody is worried about economic downturn and its effects, but in a emerging market like that of Myanmar you have nothing but growth. All the top companies like Coca Cola want to be there as it promises growth. So we too want to get started there in the early stages of doing business and want to become the biggest sports organisation in the country. Right now it’s a fantastic opportunity and we are taking it. Now if I have to talk about my game plan everyone would be jumping ship and heading to Myanmar right now.

RM: In my personal experience at ONE: Reigns of Champions in Dubai last year, the production values of the event was spectacular and the event screamed world-class. That’s something that has your extensive background in Sports media shining through?

VC: Well Thank You for that, Dubai wasn’t even a full-on show. You go to any of our regular shows and will see more than 20,000 people there. We had to face many challenges with that so couldn’t do a full show.

Let me tell you how we go about our business. We believe in Sports Entertainment and not just showcasing. I think people in India understand the concept of Sports Entertainment really well, you see in your cricket and hockey leagues, it’s not just about cricket or hockey, it’s about entertainment. The celebrities come, the papparazzis come to root for their teams and that’s simply entertainment. And all that is all about making the sport entertaining. That’s not something new in India, it might be new around the world. And all that comes naturally when you are into sports.

“If we come to India, we want to come the right way” – Victor Cui

RM: When choosing a broadcast media partner, what are some of the most vital things you look for in the networks on offer?

VC: We look for a channel that believes in live sports and also we look for networks who can broadcast in their own timezone.

RM: ONE has been different from the earlier MMA promotions such as say Pride, Dream etc wherein even though Asian in terms of fighters and venues, the product doesn’t have a particular flavour of any country. Has that been a conscious effort from your end to be able to grow into more territories, say outside Asia in the near future?

VC: I would say that being distinctly Asian is still a part and parcel of what we do. My approach to life and my approach to the business is that I believe in being inclusive. We work with various communities, we work really hard to bring up those jigs together and all the martial arts together that have never before sat in the same room together.

While launching in a country, at a dinner you can see people from the Boxing Federation, Judo Federation, Tae-Kwon-Do Federation, Karate Federation. All these guys have heard of each other but never been brought together. I believe in being inclusive like that.

People talk about PRIDE, but they haven’t had a major event for twenty years. The only place where they have succeeded is Japan, and their shows were very much Japanese. I don’t want it that way, I want to show the martial art skills of the whole of Asia.

RM: There have been more than one incident in recent history where international fighters under ONE championship contracts have come out asking for release from the exclusive contracts, following long periods of inactivity. Have you been aware of it and how is it being addressed?

VC: See in every organization, there are people that will come and go. Well we could make them fight every week. A lot of fighters would love that, but that doesn’t make sense. There are some promotions in some countries that make you fight it out every single week. They don’t care about putting up a good show, we do.

We want to ensure that wherever we go we put up a great show for the fans and for that all our roster needs to be in good shape. Also to keep them from leaving we are pumping more money into their pockets and we have also hired the best in the business, Matt Hume and Rich Franklin. We are trying what we can. See there is a reason the world’s top fighters are still with us and that is because we do things the right way and in every walk of life, there are going to be people who complain.

RM: What we need to do to make MMA big in India. What plans, if any, does One championship have for India

VC: Yeah well I have been thinking about it for a while, but particularly in the last couple of years. I believe we should enter India with a solid strategy with proper partnerships and all. We can’t compete with cricket or the other local events, what we can do is to close the gap between the two while providing a level of entertainment the Indian public has not experienced before.

RM:The Indian fighters so far have made average progress in One. How do you go about choosing the fighters who represent India in ONE Championship

VC: It’s very difficult to make out what skills a fighter has. A fighter may exaggerate his record without we knowing how he’s actually like, what his skills are. So what we do is whenever we go to a new country, we hold tournaments where all the local guys go against each other and based on their performance we identify the right guys who fit the bill.

RM: One of the major talent signings from ONE in a non-fighting capacity has been the inclusion of Matt Hume and Rich Franklin in executive roles. Could you talk to us a bit about the contributions of both of these gentlemen to the growth and popularity of ONE championship?

VC: We’re really fortunate to have them on board. They are among the most respected names in the business. I wouldn’t recall any instance where any media person, or any fighter would not be able to recall who Rich Franklin and Matt Hume is. They are phenomenal and it’s a privilege to have them. They are also excited with what we are building here at ONE and decided to be a part of it, we thank them for that. Their inputs and advice have and would continue to be invaluable in steering the ONE brand forward.

RM: ONE has seen a few changes over the years and has managed to attract big name sponsors. However early this year, the FC part was dropped from the branding following Disney coming on-board. How much of an impact has this new branding had and what’s been the feedback form the long-time fans of the product?

VC: I think most of them didn’t notice it. A few of the guys who have been following us very closely did and were vocal towards it. But we got to remember that we are making new fans that have never been exposed to MMA before. So for them ONE Championship is the biggest brand in the world. We want to go mainstream and what people forget is that we are broadcasting in a dozen different countries all in different languages.

While there is no ambiguity in translating the word ONE, the same is true for the word Championship. Those two words make it very easy to expand business in other countries in different languages. So we want to be known as ONE Championship for branding purposes so that people all over can relate to us. Also I would like to say that we bring the best of the best of various martial arts under one banner and that’s what we would like our name to suggest.

RM: In closing, do you have any final message for the Indian fans of ONE Championship, who are eagerly awaiting the opportunity to be a part of a ONE live event?

VC: I think India is on the cusp of an explosion when it comes to sports, I think they almost willingly embrace new sports and new concepts. Though it’s still early days for MMA, it’s not very long before they can fall in love with the sport.

And when the world’s best in ONE Championship comes there it will blow them away. And as for the timeline, it should happen in the next 24 months.

ONE: Kingdom of Warriors takes place at Thuwunna stadium, Yangon, Myanmar on July 18, 6pm...don’t miss!

Edited by Staff Editor


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