Punching above his weight

He sets “unreasonable” goals, and handpicks many of the talents joining his team. CEO of mixed martial arts promotion ONE Championship Victor Cui is never short of chutzpah, as he leads the organisation to unprecedented heights.

As the leader of a mixed martial arts organisation, what elements of fight sports carry over into your management style?

The values of martial arts – integrity, trust, humility, hard work, respect, and dedication – are reflected in my management style, and are a big part of our organisation.

People would probably say I’m a very hard boss. My favourite word is “unreasonable”, used in a positive way. If you set reasonable goals, you can expect an average outcome at best. You need to set unreasonable goals to get outcomes that are different from everyone else’s, to change the world, and challenge yourself to improve.

You have to continually do things that may be considered unreasonable by most standards. I look to challenge myself, my team, my athletes, and my organisation to unreasonable goals that other people might not understand.

I think my staff would also describe me as “unreasonable”. I’m always pushing them to improve. I will ask them, “Who does this the best in the world, and how can we do it better?” It can be anything from a publication, to a souvenir programme, to the way we host an event.

ONE Championship is five years old now. Back then starting a mixed martial arts organisation and making it the largest in Asia was an unreasonable goal. People told us it was crazy. But here we are today, with 90% market share in the region, broadcasting to a billion viewers, showcasing some of the best fighters in the world, and holding events in major cities. We also have blue-chip partners such as Disney, LG, Casio, L’Oréal, and Facebook working with us. For the first time, these big companies are a part of mixed martial arts.

One thing about martial arts that fascinates me is that it has never been backed by the multibillion-dollar advertising campaigns that other major sports have typically had over the last 20 or 30 years, such as Formula One, the National Basketball Association, and the English Premier League. Yet it continues to grow in Asia; every day new martial arts gyms are opening, people are participating in martial arts, and parents are enrolling their children in classes. Why? Because there is something intuitive about the sport of martial arts that Asians just get; it’s in our DNA. I think that’s a big part of why the sport of mixed martial arts is growing so quickly across Asia.

Professional fighters typically sign four-fight contracts. From an HR perspective, how do you view these people?

I see our athletes as the centre of our organisation. We are in the business of storytelling. Whether it’s Ann Osman from Malaysia, Angela Lee from Singapore, or Bashir Ahmad from Pakistan, our athletes have amazing stories to tell of their lives, and it’s our job to showcase them.

For example, one of our middleweight fighters Aung La N Sang, native to Myanmar’s mountainous Kachin State, used to be a refugee. As a child, he fled to the US, and this year he has returned to his homeland for the first time to compete in a ONE Championship bout. So that’s a big story for him, his family, and his country.

I look at them as the stars of our organisation. ONE Championship is here to facilitate them in their martial arts journey, which they have dedicated the last 15 or 20 years of their lives to. After the many years of training, they finally get the chance to compete on a global scale, to showcase everything they have spent their lives on. Our approach is therefore to make sure we are showcasing our athletes at the highest, world-class standards across all our platforms and in every aspect of the organisation, be it in television production, marketing, or operations.

What HR challenges have you faced in building such a major sports brand in Asia?

One of the greatest challenges here continues to be finding world-class talent to join ONE Championship.

We are hiring and expanding aggressively. For example, we just opened new offices in Beijing and Shanghai. Finding people who are not only world-class talents but also want to work in the world of sports can be difficult.

Building a career in sports is still very new in Asia. Ten years ago, if a young adult told their parents they wanted a career in sports, the parents would ask, “What is that? You want to be a footballer or a tennis player?” They didn’t understand that there is a whole range of other opportunities, from operations and finance to marketing and sponsorship, just like in any other industry.So the first challenge for us has been to find people who want to be in sports, followed by finding people who want to be involved in the world of mixed martial arts specifically. We are not necessarily searching for people who are athletes – we have enough athletes as it is – but we want employees who share a common vision in what we do.

I believe we can bring about plenty of positive change through martial arts, so we want to work with people who also believe we are making a difference and that martial arts has the power to change the world.

In Asia, a lot of people from other industries are transitioning to sports or mixed martial arts. But it is still relatively new. In general, if someone in Asia is thinking of entering the world of sports, their parents would likely say, “Wait a second. You should go be a lawyer or a dentist!”

How do you scout for the best talent, in terms of fighters as well as corporate staff?

For fighters, the opposite is actually happening right now – fighters all around the world are coming to us.

So it is more a matter of sorting through the thousands of fighters, coaches and gyms who are sending us what are essentially their résumés.

It is quite difficult, because from emails, Facebook and Twitter, our team easily gets 1,000 applications per week. That is where the expertise of our specialised competition team comes in, to screen and select the athletes. The team is led by Matt Hume, Vice President of Operations and Competition, whose main responsibilities include talent recruitment and match-making.

I leave the selection to Hume’s competition team, but there is a range of criteria. We may look for athletes from a particular country or region, or athletes who are talented, have a great track record, have charisma and a great story to tell, and so on. There are many factors that come together before we sign on a fighter.

As for our other employees, I must say it can be quite hard to get a job at our organisation. On average, we go through some 200 résumés before we hire one person. We have a very stringent hiring process, and that is a big part of why our company has grown so quickly.

My first criterion is that you should be the best in your industry, in the top one percent. It doesn’t matter what you do. If you’re the best at marketing, storytelling, sponsorship, writing, or sales, we want to look at you.

At the same time, I’m also looking for people with high integrity, which is one of the core values in martial arts. We want people who understand and share those values. There are plenty of people who are talented but lack integrity, and those are the kind of people we don’t want to be around.

Those who work with ONE Championship are the crème de la crème, from the top to the bottom of the organisation, and that’s how we get the best brands in the world working with us and why we have Temasek, one of Asia’s largest investment companies, as a shareholder.

How do you engage and retain your employees?

There will always be the possibility of somebody leaving for another organisation – that’s just how it is. So your responsibility is to make sure you are giving them the greatest value proposition, and the way to do that is to give them the best opportunities to do the best work of their lives. That’s a promise we give to everybody on our team.

ONE Championship and the mixed martial arts industry are exploding, so this is a fantastic opportunity for our people to do their best. If you give me your best, I will give you my best, and the company will give you its best so that you can do amazing things you’ve never done before.

We are still a very young company, so people who join us have the chance to really make a very big impact, as opposed to those who join a large corporation with tens of thousands of staff and simply become a cog in the wheel.

To me, employee engagement is also an ongoing, everyday effort. I don’t put a lot of emphasis on holding one big party a year, or a major celebration every four months. I think formal initiatives like that can be just token gestures. If people don’t live the brand every day, believe in what they’re doing every day, or understand why they’re doing their job and what they’re a part of, then they are not motivated.

Everyone in ONE Championship understands that they are part of something that gets to change the world through the power of martial arts. We are making an impact on the sporting industry and fans’ lives, and creating a whole new set of opportunities and value propositions for businesses.

We also travel a lot, and when we are overseas, we do fun activities. With our busy event calendar, we are always on the road at some point; I myself travel four days a week. When we were in Dubai, we went on a desert exploration trip, had a big meal together and partied in the middle of the desert.

In other countries we have also gone bungee-jumping and particpated in activities that are not necessarily related to martial arts. But sports remain a big theme throughout the organisation; we do a lot of competitive, crazy things like bowling and nerf gun competitions.

We are a very flat organisation. I’m very accessible, and we have an open-office concept so everybody can see me and I’m not behind a closed door . The speed of our business also moves very, very fast, so I continually need direct access to people and vice versa, in order for us to make quick decisions.

How closely do you work with your HR team?

Very, very closely. I am directly involved in the HR aspects of ONE Championship. I still interview every single person in the company that we hire, often for the final interview round.

Sometimes I even handpick new hires myself. I am continually looking for good people, and I’d say it is kind of my hobby. I like looking around at other people, I like going on LinkedIn, and I like meeting people when I’m at conferences and learning about what they do. I’m always curious to find out what drives them, and whether there is an opportunity for us to work together.

How do you encourage a healthy competitive spirit among your fighters?

That one we don’t have to encourage. It’s naturally there. What you have to remember is, these are athletes who have spent 15 or 20 years of their lives for this moment. Their goal is to challenge themselves to reach the highest level of competition. They want to meet somebody who can challenge them, and they want to fight against the best. That is everything they have been building up to in their lives.

I love mixed martial arts because it is the only sport in the world where two people can battle each other for 15 minutes and put their heart and soul into it, and then after that, they hug each other. They congratulate each other, thank the opponent for giving them the opportunity to compete, and go to the opponent’s corner and bow to the coach and teammates. After a tough bout, Singapore’s Angela Lee and Japan’s Mei Yamaguchi even posed together for a selfie.

That, to me, is what is beautiful about the values of martial arts. We see athletes being humble and respectful. In other sports, particularly in the West, they encourage rule breaking and disrespect: things which are the complete opposite of what the sport of martial arts is about.

What was the most difficult decision you had to make as a leader at ONE Championship?

As a leader in a startup, we are making difficult decisions every day because the company is changing and growing so fast.

One of the very first and most difficult decisions in the company was actually just coming up with the name of the organisation. This wasn’t the first choice, and we recognised that we were a new sport and a new organisation, and we were doing something that was going to go across Asia and around the entire world.

It had to be a name and brand that people could understand even if English was not their first language. It had to be something that transcended the language and cultural barriers from country to country.

So we took a long time to decide, and we finally ended up with the name “ONE”. If you don’t speak English, you usually still understand what the word means.

Bio Brief

With his promotion company commanding some 90% market share in Asia, CEO of Singapore-based ONE Championship Victor Cui has been dubbed the most powerful man in Asian mixed martial arts by industry players and the press.

Cui has led ONE Championship since its days as a fledgling organisation in 2011 to its present status as the largest sports media property in Asian history, on track to achieve a US$1-billion valuation and an initial public offering within the next few years. ONE Championship’s fights are broadcast to 118 countries, and it currently has 350 fighters on its roster, as well as 110 employees.

Prior to launching ONE Championship, Cui spent six years with the Event Management Group for sports broadcaster ESPN Star Sports. He headed event business development across Asia and project-led some of the biggest sporting event brands and television partnerships in the region.

Born in Canada to a Chinese father and Filipino mother, Cui was raised in Africa and has lived and worked all around the world. He describes himself as a global citizen who is drawn to diversity and new environments.

 

Me  Myself  I

I love: Learning and growing. The opportunity to challenge myself and people around me to new heights gives me great satisfaction.

I dislike: When people say, “You can’t do that.” To me, that is a reflection of their limits, not mine.

My inspiration is: To be the best husband and father that I possibly can. Everything I do in my life is for my family. Making sure that I’m the right example for my children and wife is critical to me.

My biggest weakness is: Sweets. I have an extreme sweet tooth. I love desserts, and I’m completely irrational when it comes to eating them. My stomach can be completely full but I’ve always got room for dessert!

In five years’ time, I’d like to:   See ONE Championship as the largest sporting organisation in the world, with everybody watching our events every week.

Favourite quote: “Even best friends were strangers at one point.” That’s what my grandfather used to say to me. I’m a big believer that everything starts with a strong relationship.

 

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