Fighting Spirit: Lessons From ONE Championship Founder

Mar 12, 2021 10 Min Read
Inspired by Chatri Sityodtong. No, that's not his fist, but it could still beat you up.

You're Fired!

Yesterday I was scrolling through my Linkedin feed when I stumbled upon a trailer for The Apprentice: ONE Championship Edition. To say that it looked intense would be an understatement!

This latest version of The Apprentice is unlike no other because it is by far the toughest with its combination of physically demanding tasks and business challenges. It will feature 16 candidates from around the world and the winner will receive a $250,000 job offer to work directly under ONE Chairman and CEO Chatri Sityodtong as his protégé in Singapore. There will also be special guest CEOs such as Anthony Tan from Grab and Patrick Grove of the Catcha Group. 

Chatri’s energy and intensity was blazing through the screen and it definitely looked like he wasn’t going to make it easy for the candidates! 

Later last night I was also scrolling through my Clubhouse feed as I had just recently joined the new social networking app. Coincidentally enough, I discovered that the Dragons Den Tigers Cave Club was going to host an event titled 'Zero to $1 Billion: A Founder Story with Chatri Sityodtong.' 

Naturally I was interested because I had just seen The Apprentice’s trailer earlier in the day! Initially, I only thought I would listen in for a short while as it was quite late but I was so inspired by Chatri that I stayed till the very end. 

The school of hard knocks

For those who are unaware, Chatri is the Founder, Chairman and CEO of ONE Championship which is Asia’s largest global sports media property. He was raised in Thailand and his mother is Japanese while his father is Thai. He had a relatively comfortable childhood but this idyllic life was shattered during the Asian financial crisis when his father lost his business and went bankrupt. If that was not heartbreaking and painful enough, his father subsequently abandoned the family. 

Chatri still vividly remembers seeing the helplessness on his mother’s face as she cried in desperation, not knowing how the family would be able to make ends meet. As a result of this life changing incident incident, Chatri swore to himself that he would make sure his mother would never have to suffer again. 

During this low point, there were many times when Chatri didn’t believe in himself. So what gave Chatri the strength to carry on? He poignantly explained during the conversation, “It was my mother’s love that gave me courage.” 

In addition to this, he found solace in his childhood training in Muay Thai which also gave him the fighting spirit. In fact, his last name “Sityodtong” was given to him by his Muay Thai master Kru Yodtong who gave him the ring name “Yodchatri Sityodtong.” 

We are not put on this earth to succumb to our fear, doubts and insecurities. We are here to overcome them.

His mother was also the one who encouraged him to apply to Harvard Business School. Chatri was very worried because they didn’t have the money and didn’t know how they could possibly afford it. The most frightening prospect was that if he did not graduate, they would be deeply mired in debt and be in a worse situation. 

Nevertheless, his mother believed in his abilities and told him to go for it. His mother would go on to say, “You are going to grow up and help the world.” When Chatri first heard her say those words, he didn’t believe in it and wondered if she was really wrong. 

Miraculously, Chatri was accepted into Harvard Business School and funded himself with student loans and by being a part-time Muay Thai trainer to survive. He could only afford to eat one meal a day and was ashamed of his poverty amongst his other richer Harvard friends. 

In a separate South China Morning Post article, he said “I was so ashamed about my parents’ poverty that I had to keep it a secret. Eating one meal a day is not something you rush to tell people, especially at Harvard.” While at Harvard, Chatri would send a US$10 allowance to his mother in Thailand, while himself living on only US$4 a day. 

In his sophomore year, his mom even had to live with him in his dorm because she had nowhere else to go. Chatri slept on the floor while his mum slept on the bed. Despite the initial struggles and being one of the poorest students in Harvard, he eventually made it. His mom went on to say in a video that she was so proud when he finally graduated. 

Don't look back in anger

In a video at the ONE Championship website, Chatri says, “Going through that suffering really taught me that I’m a fighter in life. That’s why I said I’m so grateful for my days in poverty and I’m so grateful for the days of suffering. Without all those days of suffering for me, I would never have discovered so much.”

As a result of being abandoned as a child, Chatri also had a strained relationship with his father but he eventually decided to reconcile. Chatri subsequently found him in Thailand, living in poor conditions despite being in his 70s. 

It was then Chatri understood that his father had not intentionally tossed him and his mother aside like garbage.

His father was no longer the strong man that he used to know but very frail and old. Chatri then asked his father why he had abandoned them when his family needed him most. His father quietly explained that as an Asian man, his pride was taken away from him when he became bankrupt as he could no longer provide for his family. 

It was then Chatri understood that his father had not intentionally tossed him and his mother aside like garbage. The meeting was the first step in healing their relationship and Chatri also thought that he would still have time to further mend his relationship with his father.

Sadly, that was not to be as shortly after, his father passed away. 

Chatri said he felt a deep sense of regret - if only he had tried searching for his father earlier, maybe he could have helped him much more. Maybe he could have saved the man from his pitiful and decrepit living conditions. 

We are the sum of our life's experiences

As I was listening, I knew that this was definitely one of Chatri’s biggest regrets in life. I also wondered if Chatri had fully forgiven himself. Was he still living in remorse because of this painful memory? 

While a long time had passed before he actually searched for his father, Chatri was probably not mentally ready to confront his father at an earlier stage. Sometimes, we are only capable of taking actions based on the knowledge that we possess at that particular point in our lives. However, he should still be proud as he had done everything in his power to protect and save his mother. 

As a young adult, money was Chatri’s driving force because he wanted to make his mother happy. The memory of his family’s poverty was something he could not simply erase. True to his vision, in his 30s, he became a successful million-dollar hedge fund manager at Wall Street.

He soon came to the dreadful conclusion that perhaps after all this time, he had been climbing the wrong mountain.

He then described a moment when he went to have sushi for lunch during his office break. There he was; with more money than he could ever spend and living a life he never dreamt was even possible. Yet despite his riches, he felt a deep sense of emptiness inside. On paper, he was a ‘success’ but in his heart, he felt a deep sense of emptiness which almost felt like depression and kept him awake most nights. He soon came to the dreadful conclusion that perhaps after all this time, he had been climbing the wrong mountain. 

He then questioned himself: “What is the point? How many houses and cars do I need?” He honestly didn’t care about material wealth or showing off his status to others.

His mother’s words then came back haunting him, “You are going to grow up and help the world.” He spent a lot of time alone reflecting and it eventually dawned on him that martial arts had always been his true love. It was the training and discipline of martial arts that shaped him, and it would be martial arts that would now save him. 

He then decided to leave Wall Street despite objections from everybody around him and founded Evolve MMA which is now a chain of martial arts academies. For the first 3 years, he faced rejection after rejection and everybody thought it was a dumb idea. 

He recalls a conversation with his mom where he mentioned that he wanted to quit. His mom replied, “Why don’t you just quit?”

Chatri paused and asked himself: what was his greatest love? It was martial arts. So how could he possibly quit his passion? He strongly believed in fighting for something that was bigger than himself. He whole-heartedly believed that martial arts would be a force for good and it would leave an indelible and positive impact to society. If he quit now, he would never ever fulfil the real potential of his vision. As a result, he stuck to his guts and ONE Championship was born. 

When Chatri received funding from Sequoia Capital, one of the most well-known venture capital firms, one of their investors said, “My equity is going to compound on your passion.” 

From the setup to the punchline

On the ONE Championship website, it is stated:

ONE Championship is now Asia’s largest global sports media property in history with a global broadcast to 150+ countries. As the world’s largest martial arts organization, ONE is a celebration of Asia’s greatest cultural treasure, and its deep-rooted Asian values of integrity, humility, honor, respect, courage, discipline, and compassion. Since Day 1, ONE Championship’s sacred mission has been to unleash real-life superheroes who elevate the world to dream more, do more, and be more in life.

All this would not have happened if he had decided to quit. Chatri goes on to say, “There are many ways to make money but how did you make the money? Success is not just about achieving money but it’s about having more happy days than sad ones. 

Success is not about how much you gain but it’s who you become in the process. Many of us are chasing for riches but if you want to get ‘rich in life’, you must add value to as many people as possible.

Most times, many people ask the question, “What can I get from this transaction?” The key is not to be completely selfish and self-centred. Instead, focus on how you can help others succeed and you will receive the rewards, be it spiritually or monetary in return. We will truly be rich in life when we have touched and impacted the lives of others.” 

Chatri also said as cliché as it sounds, hope is the most important thing in the world. Why do people commit suicide? It is because they have no more hope. 

“We are not put on this earth to succumb to our fear, doubts and insecurities. We are here to overcome them. Do not use your fears, doubts and insecurities as walls to be your self-imposed prison.”

“What drives me is that I’m doing good in the world. Stop listening to everybody but listen to your inner voice. Spend some time alone and think deeply about your life.”

“What is it you want to be? What are you good at? What inspires you? What is your purpose? Don’t spend most of your life living in misery trying to pay off debt for things you buy to impress others. If you are feeling empty and depressed on a Sunday evening because of the job you have to go to on Monday, that is not the way to live a life.” 

As the conversation started to reach its last moments, I couldn't help but feel completely inspired by Chatri’s stories and wisdom. Whether we choose to believe it or not, each of us have been planted with seeds of greatness and we are not supposed to live just an ordinary life. Have we ever asked ourselves why are we here? Amidst the chatter, distractions and noise of everyday life, it is our personal responsibility to discover what is our purpose. 

Remember Chatri’s words:

 Find something that ignites your soul and find your fighting spirit. Dream big, do good and live your purpose.

His purpose is to be A GOOD BOI.

Share This

Siew Yen Ng is a communications professional with more than a decade of in-depth experience in strategic branding, public relations, corporate communications and project management. She is also a Certified Professional Coach with a strong passion to help others achieve their goals by unlocking their potential and removing their self-limiting beliefs.

You May Also Like

help, leadership

Is your help, helpful?

By Michelle Gibbings. Helping others makes you feel good. Meanwhile, the nature and form that the helping takes are important to consider.

Mar 13, 2023 4 Min Read


Raise Your Game: Motivation Starts With You

Prema Jayabalan of Leaderonomics talks us through the process of summoning self-motivation and how it is the catalyst to motivating others.

May 16, 2016 23 Min Podcast


Why Do You Need A Leadership Coach?

In this episode of Leadership Nuggets, Dr. Marshall Goldsmith shares how a mentor can help guide your development and how to choose one.

Jun 26, 2014 1 Min Video

Be a Leader's Digest Reader