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The Peak Interview: Chatri Sityodtong reconciles his fighting soul with money making flair

The martial arts empire founded by the Thai millionaire speaks of his inspiring rags-to-riches story.

Chatri Sityodtong is barking to one of his many world-champion instructors in the lobby of his sprawling flagship gym at Far East Square.

“You can be a world champion, but if you don’t fight for a year, nobody will remember you!” he shouts. The recipient of his pep talk – a stocky 30-something man with the rugged demeanour of a seasoned fighter – stares sheepishly at his feet during the one-sided exchange.

Chatri is sprawled on a sofa with an Evolve cap on his head, but he might as well have been perched on a throne wearing a crown. Because here in this gym – his gym – the founder of Evolve Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) sits at the epicentre of a sports empire that spans the region and made him one of the biggest names on the fast-growing MMA scene (see sidebar “The Evolve Empire”).

The 42-year-old’s success is all the more remarkable because of the route he took to reach it: one that carried him from near poverty on the streets of Bangkok to the hallowed halls of Harvard University, through the trading rooms of Wall Street and finally here to Singapore, to his biggest triumph. The one constant throughout was Muay Thai, a martial art he has practised and taught over two decades.

In March, Chatri unveiled his most ambitious plan to date: Evolve University, an online college that will enable anyone anywhere in the world to learn martial arts under the tutelage of former world champions.

“If you don’t fight, you are nobody,” he repeats forcefully, while the loud thuds of feet kicking training bags echo in the background.

Two sides of the same coin

  • The Peak Interview: Chatri Sityodtong

Shortly after, when The Peak meets him for this interview, the machismo is gone, replaced by a more restrained, gentlemanly demeanour.

We get the sense that we are now meeting Chatri the businessman, whose amazing rags-to-riches life story has become an advertisement for what Evolve is all about, which is “transforming lives” through martial arts, as he puts it.

Indeed, his globe-spanning tale of overcoming adversity – financial, personal, even academic – is sprinkled with inspirational talk of making the world a better place and giving back to society.

But, when the topic turns to his personal connection to the fight game, the swagger re-emerges, and we realise it is Chatri the fighter speaking now. At one point, he takes off his cap to show a deep scar on his forehead that resulted from being elbowed by an opponent during a recent sparring session.

He then whips out his smartphone to show us a photo of the injury right after it was sustained. Blood was streaming out of the gash. It is as if he wears the scar like a badge of honour.

The point of this dramatic show appears to be this: I may be a millionaire businessman with philanthropic ambitions, but it’s how I fare in the ring, not the boardroom, that really matters. As for his earlier battle cry – “if you don’t fight, you are nobody” – he may well have been exhorting himself.

The dual identities – maverick entrepreneur out to change the world and Muay Thai fighter who, by his own admission, was never quite good enough to become world champion – are two sides of the same coin.

Throughout his adult life, he has turned time and again to his martial-arts teachings to overcome the obstacles in the way of his eventual business success. But, ironically, if he had gone on to become a world champion, Evolve and Chatri the businessman may never have existed.

“Money comes and goes, but to say you were the best at something among the seven billion people in the world? Nothing can beat that.”

A Personal Crisis

His quest to become the best started in the ’80s when he was a teenager at the famed Sityodtong Muay Thai training camp in Pattaya, Thailand.

“Money comes and goes, but to say you were the best at something among the seven billion people in the world? Nothing can beat that.”
– Chatri Sityodtong

He trained under Grandmaster Yodtong Senanan, one of the legends of the sport, who eventually bestowed upon him the name Sityodtong (his surname at birth is Trisiripisal).

It was here that the foundation upon which the success of Evolve would eventually be built was laid.

But he was thrown way off course on that journey, due to a crisis faced by his upper-middle-class family when he was in his early 20s.

Soon after returning from his studies in the US, where he graduated with a BA in economics from Tufts University in the early ’90s, his father’s business took a turn for the worse. Any hope of a revival was wiped out by the Asian financial crisis in 1997.

The family lost their home and was forced to subsist on one meal a day. “There was a sense of hopelessness. My father was selling mangoes on the street,” he recalls.

“The most painful thing was seeing my mother not eating, so that my brother and I could have something to eat.”

An Education

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Part of Chatri’s mission for Evolve is to better the lives of underprivileged youth from Boys’ Town and Singapore Children’s Society, by providing them free martial-arts lessons. Through this programme, he hopes that deserving youngsters will gain the confidence, focus and discipline to tackle adulthood.

As the crisis showed no sign of letting up, Chatri’s mother proposed an unusual solution to the family’s woes. She wanted her son to return to the US and attend the best business school in the world.

“My parents pinned it on me, the oldest son, to get us out of poverty, and my mother thought going to Harvard was the best thing. I didn’t think I could get in, and we had no money for the fees, so I was very scared of going,” he said.

He was accepted into Harvard and he started school in 1997, but his fears only grew upon reaching Cambridge, Massachusetts. He didn’t even have money to buy textbooks during his first week of school.

To get by, he took any job he could find, from teaching Muay Thai to delivering Chinese food. He cut costs to the bone, and established a spartan budget of US$4 a day – spent mostly on a US$3.25 meal at an all-you-can- eat Korean eatery near campus.

“At the lowest point, I survived on one meal a day. I couldn’t afford the subway, so I walked or ran to my meetings. I didn’t go to the movies, I didn’t attend any parties,” he recalls. “But it’s amazing how many things you can do for free in a city.”

He turned to his Muay Thai training to sustain him.

“Without martial arts, I wouldn’t have made it. It gave me the mental strength to overcome adversity. It gave me work ethics, it gave me discipline. It gave me focus. Above all, it gave me a warrior spirit, an unbreakable will to succeed.”

In 1999, he graduated with the most sought after academic qualification in the business world: an MBA from Harvard Business School.

Trading Up

In his second year at Harvard, Chatri and a classmate started a software company that sold services online – an “eBay for services”. He spurned job offers to focus on the business, which, at its peak, raised US$38 million and hired 150 employees.

“I knew I wasn’t going to be poor anymore. Till this day, I remember being poor, and I don’t want to return to those days. I can suffer but I can’t watch my family suffer,” he says. The first thing he bought with his newly garnered wealth was an apartment for his mother in New York, where she still lives today.

It was another Harvard connection that led him to Wall Street, where he worked at a former classmate’s US$1-billion hedge fund. Following that, he became the managing director of one of the largest hedge funds in the world. He eventually launched Izara Capital Management, a US$500-million (S$618-million) New York hedge fund where he was the chief investment offcer. By the time he retired from Wall Street in 2009, he had spent seven years there. But something was still missing from his life, and that was a return to his roots: Muay Thai.

Fostering an Evolution

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To nurture future generations of businesspeople, Chatri delivers lectures as a guest speaker at Singapore Management University about every two months. He is pictured here with Professor Soon Loo (left) from the university.

In 2007, during a working stint in Singapore, Chatri, who holds dual Thai and US citizenships and plans to apply for Singapore permanent residence, saw an opportunity to open a world-class martial-arts school that boasted world champions as instructors.

On paper, it looked nothing more than a great business idea: bring the world’s best talent from various martial-arts disciplines under one roof, target the wealthy and charge accordingly.

“I thought, why not create a school that could do all the different martial arts under one roof. I’ve been a fighter all my life and I was grateful for what martial arts had given me. I wanted Evolve to be a place that can transform lives,” he says.

The first lives his new business transformed were those of his friends from Camp Sityodtong – Chatri hired them as his first batch of instructors. Many had gone on to become world champions, then retired, working in menial jobs.

But perhaps Evolve was also a way of reconciling his tumultuous past and present, a platform for melding the fighter and the businessman in a way that made sense and, along the way, also made money. He could train every day in his beloved sport with its best practitioners, while indulging his talent for making money.

“Making millions on Wall Street didn’t fulfil me the way I had expected. Something was missing in my soul,” he says.

He goes to great lengths to show that he’s just one of the guys: a fighter hanging out with other fighters. He says several times that he doesn’t own a watch and that gym shorts and tees are his usual attire. To show that here is little gulf between himself and his instructors, he mentions that they have regular meals together.

But, after making millions first on Wall Street and now with Evolve, it would be hard to fault anyone for indulging a little, particularly after the hardships he endured. We later learn that he lives at St Regis Residences and owns at least one Armani suit.

Irreconciliable Differences

The one part of Chatri’s life that Evolve can’t fix is the one regarding his father. Late in the interview, the story of his father abandoning his family while Chatri was in the US crops up, almost by accident. It is the one time during the interview that he is neither businessman nor fighter, but something more basic.

“The only person I have anger towards is my father,” he says. After a short pause, he adds: “Probably in my heart, I have forgiven him.”

His emotional compass spins in the opposite direction when he speaks about his mother. Of all his achievements, he is most grateful for not having let her down.

“She said to me a few years ago, ‘Chatri, if I die tomorrow, I have nothing to regret because my duty as a mother is done.’ Her kids were able to make it out of poverty after she had sacrificed everything for them.”

The Evolve Empire
GLOVES

Chatri is the founder and chairman of both Evolve Mixed Martial Arts and Evolve University, as well as the head coach of the Evolve Fight Team.

He oversees a staff of 51 world-class instructors, including 14 world champions. Evolve was voted the No. 1 Mixed Martial Arts Gym in Asia by ESPN SportsCenter, while Chatri was recognised as the third most powerful person in Asian MMA by industry website Fight Nation.

Evolve has two outlets in Singapore, including its flagship gym at Far East Square, with plans to eventually open another 50 gyms in the region, including three or four more in Singapore, Chatri tells The Peak.

In the meantime, Evolve University – which provides online martial-arts tutorials – will give millions around the world the chance to learn from the gym’s world champions.

Outside of MMA, Chatri is the chairman of Indiabulls Properties Investment Trust, a Singapore-listed real-estate investment-trust with S$1.5 billion in net assets. He also has interests in sports, technology and media businesses.

“Making millions on Wall Street didn’t fulfil me the way I had expected. Something was missing in my soul.”
– Chatri Sityodtong, on retiring from Wall Street in 2009

SELF DEFENCE
GLOVES

Chatri Sityodtong, who has fought and taught Muay Thai professionally for over two decades, shares some defence tips if you’re confronted by an assailant.

“My first piece of advice would be to walk away, even if you’re a champion. No amount of money in your wallet is worth it. If someone wants your wallet, give it to them. “But, in a situation where you have no choice but to defend yourself, focus on three strike zones.

“First, strike the eyes with your hands in a board format (fingers together, pointing forward).

“This will blind your opponent for a few seconds, regardless of his size.

“Then go for the throat and the groin. That will give you a window of opportunity to run away.”

LESSONS FROM THE RING
GLOVES

TAKE SMART RISKS

You can never win in the ring without taking risks. Likewise in business. But it must be intelligent risk-taking. If you take reckless risks, you are going to be vulnerable. In business, you have to make intelligent decisions without emotions interfering.

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PLAY BY THE RULES

I tell my world champions that if you are going to win, you must do it with integrity. No steroids, no drugs. Martial arts is a serious craft. If we are going to lose, do it with honour, if you win, win with humility. This is important in business, too. You must live with the highest integrity.

GET UP

When you get knocked down, you must find the strength to get back up. In business, there will be good times and bad times. You need to have an unbreakable will.

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