There are few people who have a better understanding of the ins-and-outs of Asian Mixed Martial Arts than Evolve MMA owner Chatri Sityodtong. He was voted by MSN as one of the top coaches in the sport along with many of the sports most notable trainers and fighters and has grown his school from a mere 50 students to thousands in just a few years. His gym is also home to the likes of Shinya Aoki and has hosted a number of other champions past and present including Ben Askren and Rich Franklin.
Most people think of Japan when they hear the term Asian MMA, and while everyone longs for the return of the ‘PRIDE-era’ level of attention, the fact of the matter is that mixed martial arts in Asia as a whole is in its infancy stages. Martial Arts has been a part of the culture in Asia for thousands of years, but MMA is one of the fastest growing sports in Asia because of Evolve MMA and One FC.
Sityodtong grew up in Thailand idolizing the Muay Thai champions, and even competing himself professionally, but only until recently have Muay Thai fighters been able to earn money in combat sports outside of Muay Thai. It just wasn’t an option when he grew up.
“With true elite Muay Thai fighters, they are only really beginning to discover MMA now. The Lumpinee Stadium champions, the best Muay Thai fighters in the world, have never heard of MMA or the UFC until recently” Chatri said in an interview with Five Ounces of Pain. “In the next three to five years, because of the efforts of Evolve MMA and a bunch of other gyms bringing the best-of-the-best Muay Thai fighters and matching them up with the best-of-the-best Brazilian jiu-jitsu and wrestlers, we are going to see them transition into MMA and do very well.”
Historically in the United States, many combat sports junkies compare the striking of top level MMA fighters to boxers, and very rarely do you hear someone make a legitimate case that they are on the same level. Muay Thai fighters see MMA the same way. According to Chatri, “When you take the level of striking in the UFC, we would consider it to be very low as to what we would consider a high level of striking in Thailand.”
He continued “We have seen high level BJJ fighters and D1 wrestlers come into the UFC and do very well, but we don’t have a Muay Thai champion coming in and fighting because they hadn’t heard of it in Thailand until a few years ago.”
Sityodtong doesn’t say these things to insult the UFC or its fighters, in fact it’s quite the opposite, as he speaks highly of the hard work UFC CEO Lorenzo Feritta and President Dana White have put in.
“MMA in Asia IS the UFC marketing brilliance. They are the main driver for the global expansion of MMA, but Asia has been the birthplace of martial arts for the last five thousands years,” Chatri explained. “We have had big heroes on the big screen like Jackie Chan, Bruce Lee and Jet Le on TV and movies who have become our heroes, but we don’t have any real pro-fighters in Asia. Not yet anyways. We have always had MMA in Japan, but Japan is only 70 million people. There are 3.9 billion people in Asia, and there is so much more room to grow. Every country has its own martial art here, and because of that I think the adoption curve will be much faster here in Asia. We get fighting, we get martial arts.”
The UFC had a card in Japan earlier in the year, and they have their first card in Macau, China scheduled for later in the year. Sityodtong says there is plenty of room for everyone, and feels they will be welcomed with open arms.
“Just like any industry, every region is going to produce superpowers,” the fighter-turned-businessman stated. ” UFC is a global brand from America, and is the number one MMA organization on the planet, but 95% of the fighters don’t look like the people in Asia. It’s hard for people [Asian fans] to relate to them. As an Asian guy you aren’t going to relate to a Jon Jones or a Georges St-Pierre because you don’t grow up around that. If suddenly we had a Muay Thai champion in the UFC, you would see a huge wave of Asian fans.”
The seasoned instructor views the UFC as a huge positive for global MMA, saying, “Dana and Lorenzo have done big things for mixed martial arts all over the world, and they will continue to do so all over the world. They are unbelievable businessmen and they know how to commercialize fighting so it attracts millions of people, and hopefully billions in the future.”
Sityodtong also feels that the UFC needs to be careful with the commercialization of fighting in Asia, as it is much more than just a sport.
“The UFC has to be very careful when bringing MMA to Asia. When they go to China, and if they have some white dude kick the crap out of Chinese guy, you will have political problems. It’s a national heritage, it’s akin to a religion, and its much more than a sport. The governments are very protective of martial arts.” However, Chatri feels that the UFC coming into Asia is a good thing, adding, “It will introduce people to the sport of MMA, and they will have to work on growing the sport with the culture so it isn’t viewed as a threat and the governments rally around it.”
A perfect example of this is that Mixed Martial Arts is now banned in Thailand, a topic Sityodtong obviously had thoughts on as well.
“The organizations did not do the right things when bringing MMA to Thailand. They didn’t take the right steps in winning over the government, and convincing them it was symbiotic with Muay Thai, and not a threat. Those things didn’t happen and the government banned MMA about 4-5 months ago,” Chatri concluded “It will be hard to undo this now. Once you have created a backlash with the government, it’s tough to say what can be done at this point to change their minds. If it was going to be undone, someone would have to come in with massive credibility-like the UFC-and the desire to work WITH the government. They need to show them the sport is growing safely and not at the expense of the motherland sport of Muay Thai.”
Part Two Will be Featured Tomorrow Where Sityodtong Discusses One FC’s Rising Popularity and Over-Saturation in the MMA Market
PHOTO CREDIT – EVOLVE MMA