This former hedge fund manager wants to bring MMA to China

Can MMA become an Olympic sport?

Once derided as "human cockfighting", the combat sport of mixed martial arts (MMA) is gaining global popularity and spurring investors to pour large sums into promotion companies.

In July, talent management agency WME-IMG bought U.S.-based Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) in a deal valued at about $4 billion.

Soon after, Singapore-based MMA promotion company ONE Championship received investment from a consortium led by Heliconia Capital Management, which is wholly-owned by the Singapore government's investment arm, Temasek Holdings.

Local media reports suggested the funding was an eight-figure sum.

While much of MMA's current popularity can be traced to the UFC, ONE Championship has been making inroads in Asia, hosting sold-out events around the region.

The promotion's founder Chatri Sityodtong told CNBC that the promotion's next focus is conquering Asia's largest consumer market and the "spiritual home of martial arts" – China.

Singaporean mixed martial arts fighter Angela Lee enters the stadium during the ONE Championship Spirit of Champions held at the Mall of Asia Arena in Pasay City, south of Manila on December 11, 2015.
George Calvelo | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images

"We have the largest roster, for any global MMA organizations in the world, of Chinese fighters," Chatri, a former hedge fund manager who founded ONE in 2011, told CNBC in an exclusive interview.

Last year, the company announced a two-year tie up with a Chinese sports development company to organize fight events around China.

The company already boasts some of the best mixed martial artists in the world competing outside the UFC such as Shinya Aoki and Ben Askren. Some of its younger fighters have also gained prominence, such as 19-year-old Angela Lee, who won her first major MMA championship in May.

Chatri also said the company was looking to expand its reach and bolster revenues by securing more broadcasting deals.

"We are in 118 countries right now, globally, but that footprint will be increasing over the next year or so...[and] we hope to negotiate all the media rights," said Chatri.

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