Chatri Sityodtong: From living on US$4 a day to CEO of ONE Championship

Chatri Sityodtong studying in the US
Chatri Sityodtong is a Harvard MBA graduate, former hedge fund manager, and CEO of ONE Championship. Source: AFP

Imagine living on US$4 a day while studying in the US as an international student.

Imagine growing up in a loving, well-to-do home only to lose everything due to circumstances beyond your control.

Imagine moving to Silicon Valley after graduation, sleeping on the office floor in sleeping bags when launching your first startup, and living on US$1.50 microwave meals.

That was the reality for Chatri Trisiripisal, more commonly referred to as Chatri Sityodtong. He is the founder and CEO of ONE, Asia’s largest billion-dollar global sports media property, with a worldwide broadcast to 190 countries.

“I always say that the path to greatness for all of us, for every single person on this planet, is suffering,” Sityodtong shares in a documentary on YouTube titled “The Chatri Sityodtong Documentary | The Fight For Greatness.”

“Suffering through failure, through adversity, through tragedy, through setbacks, obstacles, mistakes. It is that journey of suffering that brings out our greatness.” 

Since its inception in 2011, the ONE brand has grown beyond the mixed martial arts (MMA) scene. 

In 2019, ONE launched Asia’s largest esports world championship series with ONE Esports. For the 2019-20 season, ONE Esports achieved the following: 

  • Held the ONE Dota 2 Singapore World Pro Invitational at the Singapore Indoor Stadium
  • Held the ONE Dota 2 Jakarta World Pro Invitational at the Indonesia Convention Exhibition (ICE) at BSD City
  • Hosted the ONE TEKKEN Tokyo Invitational and ONE Street Fighter Tokyo Challenge in Tokyo, Japan

Most recently, the CEO appeared on the award-winning reality series “The Apprentice: ONE Championship Edition,” which aired on Netflix in Asia starting Dec. 28, 2023. 

The toughest edition of “The Apprentice” featured contestants from across the globe who undergo a series of physical and business challenges.

In Season Two, Thailand’s Vanessa Techapichetvanich emerged as the winner. She secured a US$250,000 job offer and a chance to be Sityodtong’s protege.

“The first season of ‘The Apprentice: ONE Championship Edition’ was a huge success, ranking in the top 10 on Netflix in multiple countries and trending on Netflix all around the world,” says Sityodtong. 

“Our new crop of candidates will face the toughest ‘Apprentice’ season ever. I can’t wait to showcase this season to our fans and provide them with another way to engage with our brand.” 

The road to becoming the head of one of the world’s most successful sports businesses, however, was paved with plenty of challenges for Sityodtong

Chatri Sityodtong’s early life in Thailand 

Sityodtong described himself as a “rebellious punk” as a kid.

“I was sent to the principal’s office more times than I can count,” he recalls. 

“I was suspended for fighting, put in detention. My grades probably ranked in the bottom third for most of my years.”

While he often got into a lot of trouble and never liked to study, his mother — Michiyo Komatsu — shares that Sityodtong had a strong sense of justice. 

“He couldn’t ignore meanness or bullying. So, to defend those people, he ended up fighting a lot.”

When Sityodtong was eight or nine years old, his father took him to Lumpinee Stadium — a place Sityodtong describes as the mecca of Muay Thai. 

“I remember it so well. I walked in and there were thousands of screaming fans. The chanting. The atmosphere was electrifying,” he shares. 

“And I watched the fighters in the ring. They moved with such grace and beauty and power. I remember being so mesmerised, and at that moment, something inside me was ignited and I fell in love with Muay Thai.”

Muay Thai is known as the “Art of 8 limbs” because it makes use of eight points of contact namely, punches, elbows, knees and kicks. Source: AFP

Despite his mum’s disapproval, his father took him to a gym in Pattaya, which was the number one Muay Thai gym in the country.

Here, he started Muay Thai at around 13 under the legendary Kru Yodtong Senanan — a person revered as one of the all-time best Muay Thai coaches that ever lived. 

One moment he remembers from his early Muay Thai days was a training he did to strengthen the bones in the shin.

By kicking heavy sandbags that were packed tight, young Sityodtong felt “unbelievable pain” in his shins and feet with every kick.

“I remember thinking to myself that it was going to be impossible. I wanted to quit,” he says.

“It was the toughest training I’d ever experienced in my entire life.”

What’s surprising, however, is that after the training, Sityodtong never felt so alive. 

studying in the us

Thai Deputy Prime Minister Supachai Panitchpakdi addresses a conference called “Weathering the Storm: Hong Kong and the Asian Financial Crisis” in a Hong Kong hotel. Source: AFP

Surviving on US$4 a day while studying in the US as an international student 

Things quickly changed when the Asian Financial Crisis rocked Asian foreign exchange and equity markets. Many countries within Southeast Asia were affected and Thailand was no exception.

While Sityodtong grew up in a loving, well-to-do home, his father abandoned the family when the financial crisis happened — leaving him to pick up the pieces as the oldest son.

On top of this, just years before, his father’s business started to slow dramatically.

“My father lost everything: our home, our car. Just overnight, we became poor and my father abandoned the family,” he recalls.

“Watching your mother cry out of hopelessness, not knowing how we were going to survive a week, a month, or whatever. We just had no savings, nothing.”

From then on, Sityodtong promised himself that he never wanted to see his mother cry again.

This partly inspired Komatsu to send her son to study in the US, where he would have more opportunities.

Despite having little to no money, Komatsu managed to do this, sending Sityodtong to not just Tufts University but also the #1 university in the country: Harvard University.

studying in the US

Chatri Sityodtong was in disbelief when he received the offer to study at Harvard Business School, one of the world’s best business schools. Source: AFP

But coming to Harvard Business School was not easy. Attending this prestigious business school means foregoing a good income and a huge financial drain at a time when his mother subsisted on US$6 to US$8 a week.

He genuinely felt he would fail at completing his MBA as well.

“Obviously, I believed in [Sityodtong’s] capability and capacity. I did not want him to give up this opportunity,” Komatsu shares.

Hence, money, by necessity, became an obsession. 

Throughout his first year, Sityodtong sent US$10 each week to his mother in Thailand.

He earned that sum through odd jobs such as teaching GMAT preparation at Kaplan, delivering Chinese food, and teaching Muay Thai classes.

“I created a spreadsheet and I calculated the bare minimum I could spend was US$4,” he says. 

“I would model literally every single penny I spent, and if I beat that US$4, let’s say I came in US$3.57, I would be ecstatic.”

Between his first and second years, Sityodtong worked as a summer intern at Bain, a position he applied for simply because it paid the most.

He used the entire sum to help cover his younger brother’s tuition fees that fall semester at Cornell University.

His mother also slept in his dorm during his second year when she had nowhere to stay.

studying in the US

After earning an MBA. Chatri Sityodtong founded the $500 million hedge fund, Izara Capital Management, on Wall Street. Source: AFP

Launching his first startup and working at Wall Street

At HBS, Sityodtong met classmates Soon Loo and Kathleen Gasuad. The trio wrote a business plan for what would eventually become the online services marketplace NextDoor Networks, a business they launched shortly after graduation. 

Again, his mother was against the idea, considering that, safely through HBS, the MBA graduate has received lucrative job offers from Wall Street and consulting firms.

Still, she supported Sityodtong every step along the way. 

“When I moved to Silicon Valley after graduation, we slept on the office floor in sleeping bags so I could chase a crazy dream and launch my first startup with my buddy, Soon Loo. We survived on frozen microwave meals that cost $1.50 each,” Sityodtong wrote in his blog

Eventually, NextDoor Networks raised nearly US$38 million in venture capital investment before the dot-com bust of March 2000. 

He then moved to New York and worked as a hedge fund manager, where he managed — and made — millions. At the peak of his career, Sityodtong owned a US$500 million global hedge fund.  

Despite his financial success, he felt empty inside. A decade into his Wall Street career, he retired and moved to Singapore. 

studying in the US

Today, Chatri Sityodtong is the CEO of Asia’s largest billion-dollar global sports media property with a worldwide broadcast to more than 190 countries. Source: AFP

The origins of EVOLVE and ONE Championship 

Sityodtong started the ONE Championship for two reasons.

Personally, Sityodtong was looking for a job that could ignite his spirit. As a lifelong martial artist, he sought to unleash greatness in the world through the power of martial arts. 

“Martial arts have the incredible ability to change lives, to turn weakness into strength, to mould fear into courage, and to transform the ordinary into the extraordinary,” he wrote on his website

Financially speaking, there was a business opportunity in Asia. 

“I realised there are several multi-billion dollar sports media companies everywhere in the world, except for Asia,” Sityodtong shares in a conversation with Joe Ngai, Managing Partner Great China McKinsey & Company and Sityodtong’s classmate at HBS.

“At that time, it was NFL, NBA, [and] Major League Baseball. In Europe, it was EPL, F1, Bundesliga, et cetera.”

With the potential to reach billions of people through martial arts, Sityodtong started ONE to celebrate Asia’s greatest cultural treasure and its deep-rooted Asian values of integrity, humility, honour, respect, courage, discipline, and compassion. 

In 2011, he and ESPN Sports senior executive Victor Cui teamed up to launch ONE Championship, an MMA, Muay Thai and kickboxing promotion based in Singapore.

studying in the US

Recruited from all over the world, instructors at EVOLVE, another enterprise started by Chatri Sityodtong, are experts in their respective fields, which includes Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, boxing, wrestling, and Muay Thai. Source: AFP

He also doubled down his passion for Muay Thai.

Having trained as a child and fought in 30 professional matches throughout his life, Sityodtong founded Evolve MMA, which now is a chain of martial arts academies across the region.

What sets Evolve MMA apart from other martial arts organisations in Asia is that it is the only place within the region to house world champions in Muay Thai, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, MMA, Boxing, Wrestling, No-Gi Grappling, and more.

Beyond the fortune and fame, Sityodtong never forgets to pay it forward.

He, for example, called his first Muay Thai instructor to move to Singapore and work for Evolve. The ONE Championship CEO was able to provide a better future since he was mired in poverty.

Sityodtong also reconnected with his father in 2015 with the help of relatives in Thailand. The last photo he had with his father was with a table filled with Muay Thai champions. “This is how I would like to remember my father — always,” he wrote

On that note, Sityodtong’s first name means warrior in Thai.

While he may not have been a warrior when he first started Muay Thai as a kid, Sityodtong eventually received the ring name, Yodchatri Sityodtong, or the “extraordinary warrior” from his teacher — a name that best exemplifies his identity outside the ring.