clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Victor Cui and ONE Championship leading charge for the male strawweight division

(Dejdamrong Sor Amnuaysirichoke enters the arena at ONE FC 23, ONE Championship)

Considering the breakout star potential of Polish swagger-striker Joanna Jedrzejczyk, and the fact that 21-year-old Paige VanZant proved an apt multitasker in touring the daytime talk circuit then terminating Felice Herrig to the tune of 2.74 million viewers on American national television, the UFC's strawweight division can safely be called a success. So it's not surprising that out east in far-off Singapore, ONE Championship is days away from launching its own Lilliputian experiment -- though this one comes with a twist.

Nestled in the co-headliner of Friday's ONE Championship 27 event, a nifty slice of history will unfold when Thai wrecking machine Dejdamrong Sor Amnuaysirichoke vies against Roy Doliguez for the first male 115-pound championship staged by a major global MMA organization.

It's a weight class that, for now, appears untenable in the western world, where grumbles about 125-pound royalty like Demetrious Johnson persist with each passing fight. But a chasm exists between cultural expectations of North American fight fans and those in Asia, and ONE founder and CEO Victor Cui says calls from his fanbase for a male strawweight division eventually became too loud to ignore.

"Everybody in America is six-foot-one and gigantic people," Cui said, laughing, to "The average size of North Americans and Europeans is bigger. Remember, I'm from Edmonton, right? When I walk around in Edmonton, I'm always one of the smaller guys when I walk into a bar or a nightclub or restaurant or whatever.

"I think maybe what people have difficulty understanding is that a strawweight guy walking around here (in Asia), 5'4", 115 or 120 pounds, that's an average guy. That's the guys who you're training with and you're talking to, so you cheer for them. You relate a lot to them, you want to see it. So they have a huge fan following. There's a lot of deep talent in Asia that we can really tap into that are ready to move into MMA at that weight class."

While it's merely anecdotal evidence of Cui's point, it's true that Johnson himself received one of the loudest ovations of his career when he was shown briefly in-arena this past Saturday during the UFC's entry in the Philippines. The allure of the heavyweights remains a main attraction, but Asian combat sports has also historically valued the lower end of the spectrum, celebrating the lighter weight classes to a greater degree than its western counterparts.

Traditional Muay Thai divisions range as high as Super Heavyweight to as low as Mini Flyweight (105 pounds). It's within those lower divisions that the 5'3" Amnuaysirichoke competed over 300 times and ultimately staked his claim to stardom in Thailand, reaching the pinnacle of Thailand's national sport by capturing Lumpinee gold at both 105 pounds and 108 pounds, then exploding into the ONE Championship ranks with four increasingly brutal finishes over six months as an undersized flyweight.

Cui believes Amnuaysirichoke's success is simply a sign of things to come, as a flood of Muay Thai prizefighters find more lucrative outlets for their violent stylings in MMA.

"When we look at our strawweights and our fighters in Asia, man, there's so many talented people," Cui said. "They're people with a big following and exciting fights because they're fast and they're quick and all that kind of stuff. With Dejdamrong, I mean, he's a three-time Lumpinee world champion. Like, he is a god in Thailand. When we brought him out there and he went to Lumpinee Stadium, everybody came and rushed up to him and greeted him, like everyone knows him.

"He's fought 300 times there, right? So when you have that kind of pedigree, and then he comes into a title fight for MMA, man, it's huge news for Thailand and for the sport of Muay Thai and for Thai people."

The balancing act Cui must play remains a difficult one. Ultimately, ONE Championship is an eastern organization with the backing of eastern money marketed primarily toward eastern markets. So while Cui understands decisions must occasionally be made that may disengage western audiences, he remains hopeful that offerings like ONE Championship 27, which also features lightweight champion Shinya Aoki, will be compelling enough to hook fight fans from both hemispheres.

"It's still global, our talent broadcasts to a billion viewers and continues to expand," Cui said. "We're still getting some of the big names, like last year we had (Ben) Askren as an example of somebody who's come onboard. So I wouldn't say that our aim has changed. But what we're getting feedback from and what our pay-per-view and our fanbase and our sponsors are telling us is that, what actually people want to see: who are the Asian heroes?

"They want to find a fantastic story of a rag-to-riches world champion Muay Thai champion who has 300 fights under his belt and now for the first time ever, for the pride of Thailand, is competing for an MMA world championship. That's a story they want to hear. For us to be able to showcase the very best talent from around the world, and show the up-and-coming talents that's coming out of Asia, it's an exciting story for us."

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for the MMA Fighting Daily Roundup newsletter!

A daily roundup of all your fighting news from MMA Fighting