With familiar faces on board, can ONE Championship make inroads in the U.S.?

The ONE Championship belt. (Robertus Pudyanto/Getty Images)
The ONE Championship belt. (Robertus Pudyanto/Getty Images)

LOS ANGELES — There was a Hall of Fame’s worth of world champions on display at a gym in Downtown L.A.’s industrial outskirts Tuesday.

Present for an open workout and meet-and-greet were pioneering women’s fighter Miesha Tate, the former UFC and Strikeforce bantamweight champ; former UFC middleweight champ Rich Franklin; former longtime UFC flyweight titleholder Demetrious Johnson and former UFC and Bellator lightweight kingpin Eddie Alvarez. Also in tow was a man who until recently was being groomed for big things by the UFC, Sage Northcutt.

But it wasn’t a UFC event which brought out a throng that wrapped around the building and down the block on a weekday afternoon. Rather, this is the North American rollout for ONE Championship.

ONE, a Singapore-based promotion which includes mixed martial arts, kickboxing and muay thai, puts martial arts ideals of honor and respect first and foremost in its promotional pitch and has become Asia’s dominant MMA promoter, having branched out to China, the Philippines, Malaysia, Cambodia, Thailand, South Korea, Japan and Vietnam.

For Tate, who retired from the sport in 2016 and moved her family to Singapore last year after accepting a position as ONE vice president, the enthusiastic turnout affirmed her belief that a significant portion of MMA fans in the U.S. are turned off by the trash talk culture which has pervaded the sport and is ready for a product which is simply about competition and not controversy.

“I believe there’s an opportunity to capitalize on, and regain, some of the fan base that has been lost due to the other antics that have been promoted, the more shortsighted antics,” Tate told Yahoo Sports. “So myself, I like martial arts, I don’t care about the trash talking. And there are some people out there who are like me and share that sentiment and lost interest and they’re just over it. They’ve tuned it out. So I think there’s an opportunity to bring them back.”

To that end, the company, flush with a $166 million round of investment money procured last year, went on a bit of a shopping spree, signing both Alvarez and Northcutt when their UFC contracts came up. They also pulled off an unprecedented move in October, as they engaged in MMA’s first major trade of note, bringing Johnson, who holds the UFC record for most successful consecutive title defenses with 11, over to ONE, in exchange for the contract of former ONE and Bellator welterweight champ Ben Askren, who debuts for the UFC on Saturday against Robbie Lawler at UFC 235.

“I think that it’s better for the athletes to have multiple places to go,” Tate said. “It shouldn’t just be one organization, there should be many organizations, just like in the NFL there are many teams, and I like that there’s been a trade between ONE FC and the UFC, it goes to show that hey, we’re going to work with you, we can work together and make the sport great.”

With big U.S. names in tow, the time was right to strike a television deal. ONE came to an agreement with Turner Sports which will see 24 of its live events stream on the B/R Live service, while taped events and shoulder programming will air on TNT.

That will give fans the opportunity to keep up with the likes of Johnson and Alvarez, both of whom will compete on a March 31 card in Tokyo. (Northcutt will debut against Cosmo Alexandre on May 17 in Singapore in a welterweight bout.)

Former UFC flyweight champ Demetrious Johnson was traded to ONE Championship in October. (Getty)
Former UFC flyweight champ Demetrious Johnson was traded to ONE Championship in October. (Getty)

The way Johnson, who meets Yuya Wakamatsu in the opening round of an eight-man flyweight tournament in Tokyo sees it, ONE’s approach to multiple combat sports can help make new MMA fans.

“You look at ONE Championship and it’s totally different where, it’s not just based on mixed martial arts, right?” Johnson said. “All North American companies are based on mixed martial arts and it’s the same thing over and over and over, it’s almost looking like the pieces of a conveyor belt. But what ONE Championship is doing, they’re putting in different art forms of martial arts, muay thai and kickboxing, submission wrestling they’ve even had a WBC boxing world championship fight. Maybe an MMA fan sees my fight and then a kickboxing fight and becomes a kickboxing fan. Or maybe a kickboxing fan sees me and becomes a fan of me. That’s pretty exciting.”

Alvarez, for his part, meets Timofey Nastyukhin in a lightweight tournament quarterfinal bout on the Tokyo show. After working for the cantankerous Dana White in the UFC and snake-oil salesman Bjorn Rebney in Bellator before ONE, having the likes of Tate and Franklin to answer to in their vice president roles makes ONE an attractive destination for fighters.

“One thing that we’ve had in ONE Championship that we didn’t have in the UFC that when you look the whole list of people behind running this whole company, they’re real martial artists,” Alvarez said. “So they have empathy for the fighters. They know what it’s like to be a fighter and they can walk in our shoes, so that means everything.”

The path charted by ONE’s recent moves — the signing of familiar names, the Turner deal, and enthusiastic crowd in Los Angeles, which was one leg of a tour which also went to Seattle and Las Vegas — leads to an obvious next question: Will there be a ONE live event here in the United States?

“We’re ready,” Tate said. “ONE Championship has been ready. The format has been proven. In 2011, we’ve gone from 700,000 viewers on YouTube to over 20,000,000 [in 2018]. If that doesn’t say something about how we’ve grown and of the trajectory of ONE Championship, I don’t know what does. I don’t have an exact timetable for you, but I know that if we can keep building momentum in the right direction and keep building like this with the media and fans access to these great fighters they are already familiar with, we’ll be able to familiarize them with their opponents, their competition, and be in position to bring them a show they’ll remember.”

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