‘The Voice’ Finds a New Calling

By Jason Burgos Apr 25, 2019
Michael Schiavello has earned his moniker during a distinguished career as “The Voice” for many mixed martial arts promotions around the world. He currently holds that role with the Singapore-based One Championship organization, which made its debut in Japan with “A New Era” on March 31.

“It was a new era,” Schiavello told Sherdog, “because I think anytime you do your first show in Japan -- if that show was a resounding success as this one was from an audience, television [and] especially from a fight point of view -- and you overcome the mental logistics and boundaries Japan can present, it represents a new era for any company.”

The event showcased a number of current and former champions in several sports, as well as the promotional debuts of globally recognized stars in Eddie Alvarez and Demetrious Johnson. The company has grown its brand throughout the South Pacific region of the world and has made recent inroads in North America. However, Schiavello feels putting on a successful event in Japan, where the often-quiet crowd loudly expressed its enjoyment, meant something more. In his opinion, it brings a new level of prestige to One Championship’s name within the sport. He compares it to earning the blue verification check on social media sites like Twitter and Instagram.

“It does something to your credibility,” Schiavello said. “It sort of verifies amongst the martial arts world that you’ve broken into that spiritual home of martial arts in Japan, and I think we did that.”

A helpful element in what he feels was a successful event was the inclusion of Shinya Aoki in a headlining role. Schiavello sees Aoki as the current face of Japanese MMA and thinks he is closing in on a level of adoration that Pride Fighting Championships legend Kazushi Sakuraba attained over a decade ago.

“The name Aoki is a bigger name in [Japanese] mixed martial arts than Sakuraba is at the moment,” he said. “Sakuraba at his peak, though, was a whole different breed of animal.”

In Schiavello’s view, Aoki has carved out a legendary niche of his own through the “spectacular” and “inventive” submission victories he has racked up during his career. He believes vintage Aoki has returned after some difficult losses in recent years.

“His approach to the game has changed,” Schiavello said. “He’s become a lot more philosophical. It’s sort of a return to the Aoki of old who was tapping people out in highlight-reel fashion.”

Schiavello believes the noteworthy Japanese media attention Aoki received heading into the event shows that fans realize their countryman has returned to his “old-school, nasty, relentless” style. It was a style he put on display with an impressive first-round arm-triangle choke submission of Eduard Folayang -- the reigning lightweight champion at the time and the same man who took the title from Aoki in 2016.

Elsewhere at “A New Era,” Alvarez debuted in the quarterfinals of the One Championship lightweight grand prix. In a surprise turn for many, Alvarez lost to Timofey Nastyukhin by technical knockout in the first round. However, Schiavello anticipated a tough test for the former Ultimate Fighting Championship and Bellator MMA titleholder.

“Unless you don’t know about the talent One Championship has, you make comments like, ‘Eddie’s going to run through the lightweight division,’ but anyone who actually watches One Championship on a consistent basis knows that was never going to be the case,” he said. “I said to everyone, ‘Don’t sleep on Nastyukhin. [He’s] a beast [and] an animal.’”

Meanwhile, atomweight champion Angela Lee also competed on the card and tasted defeat for the first time as a professional. The 22-year-old has competed under the One Championship banner for her entire career, becoming one of its most marketable stars. Yet in a bold move, she moved up in weight to face strawweight queen Jingnan Xiong in a bid to become a two-division champion. Schiavello feels Lee was leading in the bout until a fourth-round momentum change saw “Unstoppable” start to fade and Xiong turn up the output. “You can tell the game plan was to draw Angela into deep water and get her to the fourth or fifth round,” Schiavello said. Lee lost by technical knockout in Round 5. Although it was a difficult setback, Schiavello thinks Lee has shown unusual mental toughness for a fighter her age and respects how she handled the loss publicly.

Angela Lee’s a young phenom, and she’ll bounce right back,” he said. “I get a feeling she may meet Jingnan Xiong again in the future at atomweight. I think [Xiong] may drop down. I’ve heard some whispers about that.”

With the massive undertaking that was “A New Era” in the rearview mirror, One Championship has moved on to churning out more events and preparing for the next big moments in its history. Those plans could consist of a 2020 event in the United States at New York’s Madison Square Garden, as One Championship CEO Chatri Sityodtong told Sherdog in March. Although the promotion has major goals in America, Schiavello feels the Asian market will remain a key priority for the organization.

“The US market is big for people in the US, [but] you’ve got to understand, outside of the US, there’s a whole huge world in Asia, some 4.4 billion people,” he said. “I don’t think there’s any overwhelming drive and desire to conquer America. The focus for us is to utterly and continually dominate and conquer in Asia. I mean, these are major markets that are much bigger than the US. The US would be nice; [it would] be nice to make an imprint in the US once a year or something.”

Schiavello thinks the promotion may have a strategic focus on nations like China, Japan and India after the addition of new television deals in those highly populated countries. Trying to reach billions with a given product is an ambitious goal, but he believes that is what makes Sityodtong a unique force spearheading the promotion. Aiming to get numbers comparable to the National Football League, putting on events at Madison Square Garden and trying to rival K-1 with the promotion’s One Super Series are lofty endeavors. Those long-term goals are why Schiavello respects his boss. Sityodtong has a desire to make One Championship a major force in the industry.

“The thing that sets Chatri apart is really his passion,” Schiavello said. “You won’t find a man who is more passionate about his product, his company and the people he employs than Chatri. [He] knows the insides and outs of every bit of the company. The guy used to be a muay Thai fighter, and he still spars every week with muay Thai and Brazilian jiu-jitsu champions.”

In Schiavello’s opinion, the fact that Sityodtong trains affords him a greater understanding of what his fighters go through and creates better relationships with them. Sityodtong’s love for martial arts and its values is the driving force behind One Championships ideologies and why the company preaches ideas like honor, respect and humility.

“You hear [martial arts] teachers saying, ‘Respect other people. Don’t bully anyone. Use martial arts only when you need to defend yourself. Use martial arts internally to improve yourself as a person, to humble yourself [and] build integrity,’” Schiavello said. “It’s very important in our sport.”


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