BEVERLY HILLS — Six years ago, when ONE Championship (then ONE FC) was getting off the ground in Asia, the vision among executives for their product was very much inspired by the UFC and other Western MMA promotions.
“The only sort of model that I could reference of what combat sports could be was what we had here in North America,” ONE CEO Victor Cui told MMA Fighting in a recent sit-down interview. “So we tried to develop storylines that were about good, bad, arrogant, trash-talking fighters.”
Phil Baroni, “The New York Bad Ass” who found fame in both the UFC and Japan’s Pride, was an early signing. Baroni fought for ONE in 2011 and 2012. Cui was a fan, but execs found out quickly that Baroni didn’t mesh with the expectation of Asian fight fans.
“They were not connecting with Baroni,” Cui said. “I thought that they would, but it made them hate our brand more. They didn’t appreciate it.”
ONE chairman Chatri Sityodtong was quoted recently that ONE would not be interested in signing Conor McGregor. The comment was mocked by people on social media. ONE wouldn’t be interested in picking up the UFC lightweight champion and biggest financial draw in the history of MMA? Yeah, sure.
It isn’t that they wouldn’t be interested, Cui said. There’s little disputing his elite level and box-office attraction. But ONE doesn’t think McGregor would click with its audience. And if he got involved in any kind of altercation like the infamous bottle-throwing mess in Las Vegas with Nate Diaz, there’s no telling the implications for the promotion.
“Let’s say we had a press conference in China and he threw a water bottle,” Cui said. “I would go to jail. They’d put me in jail. I’m not kidding around.”
Cui now lives in Shanghai and works out of ONE’s office there. ONE also has an office in Beijing. China is a big part of the promotion’s plans for growth, like it is for many companies across the world. But there are certain limitations in that country and some things that are forbidden.
For instance, Cui said, the Chinese government regulates everything, including what songs with what lyrics are played at MMA events. ONE must provide the government all the music beforehand and if they deviate from that list there are consequences.
“At the end of the shows in China, I meet with the government officials and they have a checklist,” Cui said. “Did we play this song, did we play this song? If you played one extra song, they can throw me in jail and they’ve done that to other concert promoters.”
Even outside of China, Cui is unsure how McGregor would be viewed in Asia. Ben Askren, arguably ONE’s top fighter, has gotten mixed reactions from fans, Cui said.
“After he won [a recent fight], he stood in the cage and he didn’t say anything really cocky by any standard,” Cui said of Askren. “I think he said something to the effect of, ‘I’m the best in the world and I’ll fight anyone.’ And the entire stadium booed him. They just thought that was too arrogant. Like, you just won, why do you feel the need to brag about yourself? This was in Singapore, and I was surprised about that.”
The philosophy of ONE and its fans is very different than combat sports in North America, Cui said. They don’t necessarily view it as prize fighting or people fighting in a cage in the region. It’s the evolution of martial arts.
“A big part of what drives the spirit of ONE Championship is really just the belief that martial arts makes the world a better place,” Cui said. “Of course want it to be successful business, of course we want to continue to grow in a successful business enterprise. That philosophy of we’re making the world a better place permeates throughout the entire organization. I think it’s something our fans really appreciate in Asia.”
So while McGregor would likely make many more people in the United States and Europe pay attention to ONE, there could be adverse effects on the continent in which ONE calls home.
“The comment is not about his skill set or his ability as an athlete,” Cui said. “The comment is about his match with our DNA of what our company is. Could you replace me in Asia with another promoter in America? It wouldn’t work. It’s different.”