Here comes the boom

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Victor Cui, CEO of ONE Championship

Pushing closer to a US$1 billion valuation, having recently secured a sizeable investment from venture capital group Sequoia, ONE Championship’s CEO Victor Cui explains plans for moving forward, increasing international audiences and fighter origins, a focus on China, virtual reality, films, Tencent and more

Does the Sequoia investment change the business outlook going forward, and were you expecting it?
The first important thing about Sequoia is: when it comes to businesses, like anything, the more blue chip and the greater quality of people you bring together, the more you can achieve. And so we’re very, very lucky to have such a globally recognized, experienced new shareholder with Sequoia that can open doors for us, or build relationships. They’re a series A investor in Facebook, a series A investor in Apple, in AirBnB, so they know what is going on and they have a really great vision. They see the opportunity for ONE Championship to be a multi-billion dollar company, they want to help us get there. And they like what we’re doing already. The great thing about it is that they don’t come in and then want to change it to a completely different company because that’s what they’ve bought into.
So they like what we’re doing, they just want to add to that. So I think you’re going to see some fantastic growth continuing for ONE Championship in the next 18 months. This puts us significantly closer to our US$1 billion valuation that we’ve been working towards, and then maybe after that in a couple of years, if we want as a strategy, to IPO (initial public offering).

Does that accelerate any of the plans that you already had?
Right now it’s still too early, we only closed the deal a couple of weeks ago. So we’ve got to sit down together and find out what our first 90 days looks like and the direction we want to go. We’re excited about it, but my first board meeting is next week.

We’re seeing more non-Asian fighters on the rosters. Is that also a part of the strategy, is ONE Championship still Asian-focused?
We’re still Asian-focused, we’re still about building local heroes in Asia. We’re still about building the great heroes like we’ve done with Aung La N Sang in Myanmar and with [Edward] Folayang in the Philippines, Angela Lee in Singapore, Ann Osman in Malaysia. We’re still about building the local heroes. But particularly our global broadcast is growing so fast, we also want to have a balance between giving our fans around the world international [contenders] that they already know and can relate to, like Bibiano Fernandes [who fought in Macau last Saturday] for example, but keep that balance with the international and the local. It’s a challenging thing to do, it’s really, really difficult. So it’s not always going to be a perfect 50-50, sometimes it’s 60-40, 70-30. We’ve 18 events that we’re doing this year, next year we’re going to expand to 24 events, so we’ve got a lot of space to work with and move different fighters on the cards.

Four big events happening in Manila next year. Is that looking like one of your primary markets? Are you targeting your event locations by country, by city?
It depends on which country really. Australia, New Zealand – Australia is huge, with different state laws in each region. It’s really on a case by case basis, and we get a lot of pull from government bodies inviting us to come and bring our event, because it’s such a huge opportunity for, for example, Macau or for any country that we go to when we do a live event; 118 countries, a billion viewers, and suddenly they just get all of this exposure. Whereas sure you can have a great Dreamworks show here with Shrek or Kung Fu Panda, but that never gets televised, that’s only to service the people here. We do an event in any country and suddenly it puts them on the map. It’s huge market exposure, huge tourism dollars, huge things that they can leverage right across the board. So a lot of interest everywhere from Dubai to Kazakhstan, to Canada, to Australia, but we’ve got to stay focused. And that’s one of the challenges when we’re growing this big and this fast, is to really prioritize where we want the business to go, what are the key markets for us.
China is a really important part of our focus. I have now moved to Shanghai and I’ve been living in Shanghai for the past six months. Our headquarters is still in Singapore, and that’s where we keep our business, but I’ve moved my family and everybody and we’re building the business in China.

Is that going to be tier-1 cities?
Yeah, our focus will be on [that]. We have an event in Shanghai September 2, then October 21 in Beijing and we’ll focus on the tier-1 cities.

This isn’t your first event in China. What kind of growth have you seen so far in terms of attendance and broadcasting and what difficulties are you facing?
Because we’ve had our events so sporadically there, it’s been hard to kind of get the momentum going, and that’s because I was running the business out of Singapore. And I finally decided ‘man, I can’t make a go out of this, we’ve got to get up into China. I’m going to build the business there, I’m going to focus on it, I’m going to meet with everybody’. It’s like trying to run a business in Macau when you live in Thailand; it doesn’t make any sense.

Video games, virtual and augmented reality – what stage are they at in your business plan?
On the gaming side, we’re looking at everything from eSports to our own gaming. That kind of stuff is really, really resource draining in terms that you have to really focus on it to get it right; a minefield of challenges when you’re trying to create a world-class game. So that’s not something that we would rush into. But we have had numerous discussions with a lot of people over the last couple of years. The AR (augmented reality) and VR (virtual reality) stuff, I think our sport is particularly suited for that. Particularly suited for VR, for 360 experience, because we’ve got a confined space, we can do really unique things: corner-man perspective, referees perspective, locker room perspective – just a lot of different things that other sports cannot do. We are looking at that, I’ve been talking to a number of people. The challenge right now is: the technology is there, the bandwidth to make it live is still limited. Cause it just sucks so much bandwidth. If you want to do VR 360, you’ve got to have phenomenal internet connectivity in each venue, and not a lot of countries in Asia have that yet.
So we could do a post-produced thing easily, and that kind of stuff, but what’s really cool is if at any time you could jump online, catch each cornerman’s perspective, listen to what they’re saying, catch it in 360, all that. That just requires the kind of infrastructure that’s not in place in Asia in a lot of places yet.
Singapore is quite advanced, Shanghai is quite advanced, but then Philippines and Myanmar is a little bit different, you know. There are solutions there, and we’re looking at that. I think it’s a really cool thing, something we’d like to do, but it’s also something you have to kind of pace with what’s there. We’re not an infrastructure company, we’re not here to build internet pipelines.

There’s been a very visible spectacle revolving around the Mayweather-MacGregor fight, with lots of insults and boasting going on. How do you feel about the perception of mixed martial arts and boxing, and are they changing?
What I love about martial arts, and what ONE Championship is about in our DNA, it’s about the spirit of martial arts. It’s about the ability of martial arts to make this world a better place. I think where the sport is failing around the world is when the sport focuses on the thuggery of it, on the violence and the fighting, to me that’s not what martial arts is about. You and I coming together to challenge ourselves at the highest level of our ability as a martial artist is about skill versus skill. It’s about talent, it’s not about thugs and fighting, it’s about us as martial artists – I respect you for being fantastic, I expect you to bring your best, you expect me to bring my best. I think you want to build heroes, you want to showcase people – whether it’s female or male – about the power of martial arts.
Now I know the direction that other sports go and sensationalisation, and that’s the path that they choose, I get it. I think when you get a crossover fight like this – of boxing and MMA (mixed martial arts), what else can you really focus on to bring hype to the event but that kind of stuff – I mean what are you going to talk about? You can’t talk about someone’s MMA record, or someone’s boxing record or anything, so you have to make it WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment). There’s not many other storylines that you can do. I think that, if anything, it will raise the awareness of sports I guess, that aspect of it.

Do you think the networks need to have that type of sensationalism to drive views? Given what you’ve proven with the amount of viewers, going on the billion-dollar valuation – do you need that type of smack talk to drive views?
Maybe in some countries you do. I think that’s clearly what is appealing to North American fans. It’s not what’s appealing in Asia. People in Asia want humble heroes. They expect their leaders, they expect the athletes to be humble. They want Yao Ming – he’s a humble giant, but if he was Dennis Rodman attitude-wise he probably would not be as successful. Dennis Rodman is successful in his own right. I think if you look at who Asia embraces – they embrace Manny Pacquaio not [Floyd] Mayweather. Both great athletes. If I look at our athletes –Aung La N Sang or Edward Folayang – Aung La N Sang got in there [the ring] and the first thing he does is thank his family and his parents. He’s not up there pounding his chest [going] ‘me, me, me, me’. Can you imagine if you go into China and you wear a suit like that [suit Conor McGregor wore to pre-fight press conference whose stitching spelled f*** you] how the government would react?

There was a lot of blowback from the refereeing of the Manny Pacquiao-Jeff Horn fight. Do you have an opinion on that?
Manny is a shareholder so of course I was rooting for him to win. But – this is sport, and you don’t leave it up to the judges. If you want a definitive win, don’t leave it up to the judges, that’s how it is.
The thing is, any sport when it gets to the judges, can have controversy. And how you watch it as a fan is very different from the guys that watch it there in real time, that are inches away from the action. They just see minute details of the competition that we don’t notice because we’re not trained experts.
When you’re a boxing fan and you watch Mayweather, you appreciate different things. To this day, I still regularly pull up Mohammad Ali footage and just watch his footwork. And I’m just like ‘how does a man this big move like a lightweight’.

Have you had any more of a closer relationship with the local Macau government, speaking more with the local organizers? Have they approached you recently?
Not really. We have a great partnership with the Venetian, it’s always an exciting event here. We brought a stacked card here with two championships just to continue to showcase what we do. I think we’ll be here twice a year, continue to be here, maybe three times, but twice a year is pretty good already in Macau.

What kind of crowds do you expect to draw?
I expect us to sell out everywhere we go, right? (laughs) We should be well on our way to that. One good thing about Macau is we don’t have a problem with fans wanting to come to our event. But it’s hard to tell because you have to allocate a big chunk of the cheap seats to walk-ups. And you just never know – it’s Macau. If people don’t stay on the gaming floor, maybe people will come. It’s hard to say.

Are you looking at film deals, at film syndication? You’re creating these heroes, are you then thinking to propel these heroes into the film world?
Absolutely. Brandon Vera, our world champion, is starring in an A-list movie in the Philippines right now with the top two most famous actors in the country. So we’re already moving to that. We’ve got a lot of movie offers for Angela Lee – a lot of that’s just all in the works. Tencent is our partner, they’re live streaming this event. Already they’ve live streamed our last two events. So we have a big partnership with them that we’re building on and we’re going to be announcing very soon. So I think that’s a natural progression definitely.

How dependent are you on making these individual heroes and what happens if they fall?
We build the heroes because there’s a lack of heroes in Asia. There’s just a lack of Asian heroes. What other major superstar Asian athlete can you mention after Pacquiao? Yao Ming hasn’t touched a basketball professionally in 10 years. Everybody knows you need another Yao Ming, but it’s been 10 years out of a country of a billion and a half people. Because it’s that hard to find another star like that. So yes we want to build them, and one good thing with ONE Championship is we also really focus on the experience of the event. A lot of people come to our events because it’s the night to go to, not because they are actually even fight fans, or that they even follow any other fight organization. They just know that when ONE Championship comes, it’s a great night, it’s an entertaining night – they want to go with their friends or their wife or their girlfriend or their clients – and they know it’s going to be a rock concert. It’s not just a bunch of people fighting in a ballroom. They know it’s going to be a great experience.

What kind of pressure does constant social media attention put on you personally, constantly being linked in to the fans?
A lot, especially particularly as it grows, but I really believe in relationships both professional, built on loyalty and good people. There are people that supported us for years before we had Sequioa and I don’t forget that. I will make sure that I always make time for that, because those are the people that also put your effort and political capital on the line and took a chance with us when other people would not. So that’s how I treat my business partnerships. I’ll be very loyal and always give priority to those and I don’t take that lightly and I don’t forget it.

Are you thinking of doing any events in the U.S.?
Not in the immediate future. It’s not a high priority for us right now because the timezone doesn’t really work for our Asian fans. I was just in the [United] States, had a lot of meetings, talked about ‘when will you come?’ and partners and sponsors are looking at it, but it’s not an immediate priority right now.