“I work really really hard. I never want to be complacent or I feel that if I'm not moving faster then someone's going to catch up on me.” —Victor Cui. Photograph by Tammy David
Drive Sports and Fitness

The singular ambition of mixed martial arts impresario Victor Cui

“When I walk into a room, I'm almost always not the smartest,” says the co-CEO of ONE Championship. “I'm almost always not the strongest, never the richest, never the best-looking, and I'm always never number one. But when I look at the person next to me, I know for sure that I probably outworked them.”
Ces Oreña Drilon | Dec 13 2018

As a boy, Victor Cui was introduced to the world of sports by his father, a boxing aficionado. His old man showed him how physical exertion could tame his excess energy and keep him out of trouble.

Cui was born in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, where his parents, who have roots in Cebu and Camiguin, migrated in the 70s. He grew up in Africa, where his father worked as an engineer. “My father built a boxing ring in our backyard as any Filipino dad would. Everyday, kids came to our house and we played in the ring.” But it was really martial arts—Taekwondo, specifically—that fascinated Victor. He later parlayed his interest in sports into a career in sports media.

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Victor and his grandfather Roberto Cui in front of his grandparents house in Naga, Cebu. 

Cui’s parents Remedios Mahinay Cui and Victoriano Cui, Victor at 1 and 1/2 years after he was born in Canada. 

Victor’s early Taekwondo certificate which he earned while he was growing up in Africa. 

training in Muay Thai, 1998. 

Victor Cui in the Canadian Navy Officers Training Boot Camp. 

Today, the forty seven year old is the CEO and co-owner of ONE Championship, one of the fastest growing sports platforms in the world—an exceptional enterprise that’s been valued at $1B. The Asia-based mixed martial arts platform was established only in 2011. Asked when their first break was, Victor says, “I sometimes feel I'm still waiting for that. Like, truthfully, I take every day like it's a struggle still, and I work really, really hard. I never want to be complacent. If I feel that if I'm not moving faster, someone's going to catch up to me.”

He says it wasn’t luck but sheer hard work that got him to be on top of his game. “When I walk into a room, I'm almost always not the smartest, I'm almost always not the strongest, and [I’m] never the richest, and never the bravest, and never the best- looking, and I'm always never number one. But when I sit in a room—when I go in there and sit down, and I look at the person next to me, I know for sure that I probably outworked them. And I worked harder than that person next to me cause I work really, really hard every single day.”

Victor has played marketing and communication roles in such events as the Olympics, Commonwealth Games, various World Championships in Athletics, as well as the PGA Tour. He was also with ESPN for 6 and a half years before launching One Championship with current Chairman and Group CEO Chatri Sidyodtong, ONE’s largest shareholder.

Cui and Chatri Sityodtong, ONE Chairman and Group CEO chat backstage at the MOA Arena. Victor says of his relationship with Chatri, “If you're able to set aside your ego, you're able to find the right partners and complement each other.”

As a senior executive of ESPN Asia, the sports television channel, Victor was tasked by the company to look for their next multi-billion dollar opportunity, “So I was doing the due diligence on every sport in Asia that you could ever think of: football, basketball, tennis, golf, darts, marching bands, cheerleading, every single sport.” He identified 3 opportunities and one of them was mixed martial arts. This is how he met Chatri Sidyodtong, a fellow martial arts enthusiast and former hedge fund owner, who co-founded ONE with him. Chatri made a fortune in Wall Street, but sold his company to look for other opportunities. All Vic knew about Chatri at that time was that he was a gym owner. Until their conversations took a more serious turn.

Partnering with a Wall Street Hit
The two tossed ideas back and forth for two years, “Every time I talked to him about the business plans, he’d say, ‘what do you think about this or why don’t you correct this or you’re doing this wrong.’ And I said to myself this guy is really smart and has incredible business acumen.” It was not until later on that Victor realized he was tweaking the concept for ONE Championship according to Chatri’s observations, and was being interviewed to see if he would make a good partner.

Victor initially planned a joint venture between Chatri and sports media giant ESPN. In 2010 he set up Martial Combat, a promotion which ran two shows per month at Resorts World Sentosa in Singapore— a year before setting setting up ONE. “And after months, and months, and months of discussion, finally Chatri said the opportunity is now, it makes a lot of sense, if you want to leave ESPN .”

ONE Championship mounted 30 events (like this one at the MOA Arena last November) in 2018.

Starting Small and Ending Big

Victor made that leap seven years ago. Together, he and Chatri are the largest shareholders in ONE. Today, it is touted as one of Asia’s largest sports media properties. It is backed by Temasek Holdings, the Singapore Government’s investment company and Sequoia Capital, the American venture capital firm which has investments in companies like Apple and Google. “It’s the fastest growing sport in the world. By many key metrics, with what One Championship is doing, we’ll top the world in terms of our television reach, our ratings, our video views on our social media. We are one of the most engaged brands of any industry in Asia in terms of video views and impressions for all our social media content.” In 2017, ONE’s social media video views were over 300 million, social media impressions were 4 billion, and according to figures from Nielsen and Facebook, it has an 11-12% average peak TV ratings share.

The idea that propelled the pair to form ONE was the absence of a homegrown multi-billion sports property in Asia, compared to every major continent. The US has the NFL (valued at $82B), The UK has the English Premiere League (EPL), where club values can reach a £1B. Europe has F1 and India has cricket.

In a championship event, Victor shuttles between athletes’ locker rooms, the ringside where VIP guests are feted and the cage.

 “[We established] One because a life in the world of sports is still quite young in Asia. And if you think about it, ten years ago there was no such thing as a career in sports. [Even] fifteen years ago. You could tell your parents, ‘Oh I'm going to become a professional golfer,’ and the parent says, ‘no you're going be a lawyer or a doctor or a dentist or whatever,’ right?”

Victor and Chatri have grown into savvy promoters of mixed martial arts, but Victor says their belief in the sport as a discipline and a way of life is their real strength. “I believe in the power of martial arts to make this world a better place. When we look around in the world today with shootings and more, and racism and terrorism—if there’s one place people really get together as equals, doesn’t matter how rich you are, how poor you are, whatever your title is, it’s in the gym.”

Cui says you have to see beyond what others would view as violence, “Martial artists, the people that do martial arts in Asia don’t do it because of fighting. Parents enroll their children in martial arts not because they want you to fight. Why [do they do it]? Because they believe in the values of martial arts. You put your children in martial arts because you want them to learn the values of respect, honor, humility, hard work, integrity, dedication. Does it make you a great athlete? Does it make you able to defend yourself? Does it make you strong, a more confident person? Absolutely. But the values of martial arts that we believe in, in Asia, and why people commit their lives to it, have nothing to do with violence.”

Cui says Asia is the home for martial arts. It’s that one sport in Asia that has deep culture heritage, whether it’s Muay Thai in Thailand or Arnis in the Philippines.

Returning Martial Arts to its Asian Roots
This is also what differentiates ONE from UFC—its Western counterpart, and its sports template. “Asia’s the home of martial arts. For the last 23 years, all we’ve done in Asia is import sports from the West—we import football, basketball, soccer, golf, tennis, cricket; these are all Western sports. What’s that one sport in Asia that has deep culture heritage? Martial arts. Every single country in Asia has its core martial arts. Whether it’s Muay Thai in Thailand, Arnis in the Philippines, or Sanda or Wushu or Taekwondo; that’s something that’s in the DNA of Asians that you don’t need to explain.”

And it seems that the rage has spread like wildfire. The sport has grown so big that something like the ONE Championship event is a major spectacle—with laser lights, a gigantic video wall, ring girls in skimpy uniforms, and screaming fans rooting for their idols. It’s a modern-day colosseum.

“We want to bring the best in the world. We want to bring world-class entertainment to every city that we go to and that’s what the show is about,” Cui says. “We are delivering a global product to 138 countries, 1.7 potential billion viewers worldwide and this is about a standard that’s at par with all the other multi-billion dollar sports properties. We want our fans to walk in a stadium and be entertained by the very best production in the world.”

Boxing champion Manny Pacquio was an early believer in the success of ONE Championship.

Not content with establishing a foothold in Southeast Asia, ONE wants to conquer the ultimate market: China. “The scale and opportunity in China is just so big—the city of Shanghai alone is composed of 35 million people. Beijing is another 38 million. There are cities in China with 5 million people. So we're really approaching it carefully. But a big part of moving there is really having to understand it. My wife is Chinese and living there is quite easy.”

Victor has been based in China for two years now, trying to bring ONE into the land of Kung Fu. “The challenge of entering any market in Asia is unique. I mean the way you do business in the Philippines is nothing like how you do business in Indonesia, and doing business in Indonesia is nothing like doing business in Singapore. And Singapore  is 30 minutes away from Malaysia but both have different ways of doing business.

Victor Cui with Oscar de la Joya

Because [these countries have] a different government, a different religion, different rules, different cultures; all have unique challenges, and we're delivering a product all across the region.”

Asked how long he is giving himself to penetrate China, Victor says, “ As long as it takes but I'm in a rush you know, I'm in a rush to make it happen.”

This year, ONE has mounted 30 events, throughout Asia; logistically, the task is herculean. That’s why Victor says there is no room for rivalry between him and Chatri. “We're very close friends and have known each other for close to ten years now. I know how he thinks, he knows how I think and it's a really good partnership that way. He is our group CEO and Chairman in all aspects of the business, he drives our capital raise; as CEO International, I focus specifically on China and all of our expansion into new territories—whether it's going to Japan or Korea or Australia. I also just created another new company under One Championship called ONE Elite Agency that is basically charged with representing and managing our elite athletes and helping them grow their personal brand, their opportunities and their ability to monetize themselves globally.”

The ONE Championship case is a modern day gladiator cage.

The secret to their working relationship, Cui says, is setting aside the ego, “When you want do something big, one person can’t do it. I could not have gone on this journey without Chatri’s expertise. I have a background in sports and media and that's what I have done all my life—but without his confidence, without his money, without his business experience, I could not have done any of this either. So, I think in life if you're able to set aside your ego, you're able to find the right partners and complement each other. That builds success.”

Victor recalls the struggle of ONE’s early years, when media companies would not take them on, “the first 3-4 years in the company, I couldn't get a deal with ABS-CBN. I would knock on the door and I was rejected every single time. Every single month I would come back and every single month I could not get the meeting and nobody would talk to me and that's how it happened in every major media company in the Philippines. Rejection. Rejection. Rejection. I literally asked 70 of my closest friends in media. And every single person said don't do it. In life, it’s not how many people understand you, it’s how the right people do. Chatri got it from the beginning. He saw the vision and he crafted a business vision that was bigger than I imagined. And he understood that early. And the other person was my wife. My wife said ‘Look, I think you're one of the smartest guys that I know. If you punched the numbers and you've done the business in hours, and you think it's an opportunity, then I support you."

Victor Cui is CEO of ONE International & the newly formed ONE Elite Agency which will manage and represent their MMA artists.

One goal for the future is to take the company public, “Well, that’s one possible exit. The company is doing quite well, and we are very well-capitalized, and I think that maybe some of our stakeholders would like to see an exit with an IPO down the road—I definitely think that is an option for us. We’re built that way. We’re built to the gold standard of being a company that is capable of listing on the New York Stock Exchange. And I think at this point we have to continue our growth, continue our execution—we have a phenomenal team, and if there was ever a team that would bet on, that could make a global sports property out of Asia, I would say, it’s us, “ Cui says confidently.

 

Photographs by Tammy David