Striking Gold: An Inside Look at Asia’s Rising Powerhouse Gym

The small island nation of Singapore might not be well known within the MMA community, but if EvolveMMA owner Chatri Sityodtong has his way, the former British colony will soon become synonymous with liver kicks and championship belts.

Four years ago, Kru Saknarong lived on a dirt floor in the Team Sityodtong training camp in Pattaya, Thailand. He was earning $300 per month and sharing a living space with his wife and the fighters he trained. He had no net worth.

Today, the lead instructor for the EvolveMMA Fight Team stands inside a glass-enclosed workout facility in Singapore, a few feet from a full-service juice bar, well-equipped locker rooms, and a retail shop selling pink boxing gloves. The 46-year-old Saknarong, who looks a decade younger with his pudgy, round face and soft eyes, is trying to ignore the distractions of Asian pop music and ambient conversations.

A timer buzzes, and Saknarong walks over to a handful of the trainers and levies a series of subdued directives in his native Thai. The trainers set free with a series of feints and footwork meant to get their exhausted, panting fighters to move. The fighters launch into complicated and unique patterns of punch-kick-knee-elbow connections that are equal parts choreography and randomized motion. Each connection is forceful, technical, and repeated until considered perfect, and always accompanied by a chorus of liver-splitting shin strikes and distinctive Thai yelps, “Yaow! Okaaaayy! Auwwf.”

Saknarong reviews the room, now awash in the chaotic violence of Muay Thai, glances at his stopwatch, and flashes a grin.

*****

Singapore’s Central Business District (CBD) is the lower Manhattan of Singapore, a capital of finance with high-price residential complexes abutting restaurants with $35 crab cake appetizers. The island-nation, which was run by the British Empire until full independence in 1965, is one of the wealthiest countries in Asia, but due to its diminutive land mass (about the size of Chicago) and relative economic and social stability, it’s a country ignored by the American press until some teenager gets flogged for spray painting cars.

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Singapore is small, but with 5 million people, it’s one of the world’s most densely populated countries. The country thrives from the economic impact of almost one million expats, with more than 1.5 million Singaporean residents rumored to be millionaires. Singapore has no peer within Asia—there are few temples (unless you consider banks as the temples of Capitalism), bubble gum is outlawed, and the streets are cleaner than a stainless-steel kitchen. Health care is $100-a-month for expats, but the rent would make a Manhattanite squeal with a sense of camaraderie.

Chatri Sityodtong knew Singapore’s unique position within Asia would be vital to launching his mixed martial arts company. He wanted an Asian-focused fight team whose brand could be utilized in consumer gyms, clothing, and in an online martial arts training academy. The Thai-born businessman grew up in Bangkok and trained at the legendary Sityodtong camp as a child, which is where he earned his last name. Toward the end of high school, his parents shipped him off to America, where he eventually ended up attending Tufts, earning a Harvard MBA, and enjoying a successful 15-year career in finance.

Once Chatri earned enough money in finance, he started thinking about what was possible. He wanted to be back in Asia, where he could enjoy the food and culture of his childhood, but not the frustrations of a life in Bangkok. “It was too polluted in Bangkok, too inefficient,” he says. “It takes three hours to go three blocks.” Chatri wanted a city that combined the luxury of the West with the familiarities of Asian culture—he wanted Singapore.

“Singapore is the perfect city for Evolve,” Chatri says from inside the lounge of his EvolveMMA studio in the CBD. “I moved here because I wanted to live here, and the reasons I find it attractive—efficient government, cleanliness, culture, and weather—are what’s also attracting our staff and fighters. I don’t think I could have started this gym in Delhi or Bangkok. I don’t think it would have gotten the same response.”

Over the past four years, Chatri has methodically interviewed and hired a staff of nearly 80 employees, including several Muay Thai trainers who, like Saknarong, were highly accomplished trainers living their post-competition years living in squalor. Chatri’s hiring spree included business-side employees, like an operations managers and PR executive, and the fight team, which includes 20-plus Muay Thai world champions, half a dozen Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belts, and a legitimate MMA and wrestling coach, Heath Sims, the former brains behind Dan Henderson’s training camps.

image desc“I never thought I’d live out here,” says Sims, a 2000 Olympian for the United States in Greco-Roman wrestling. “But once I got out here, saw what Chatri was able to do—not just for me, but for the fighters we’d get—I wanted to be a part of something like that. It also doesn’t hurt that you’re so close to so many cool places to visit.”

According to Sims and the rest of the EvolveMMA coaching staff, the lure of Singapore was more than just Chatri’s personality, clean streets, and the chance to gallivant around Asia. For many who struggled with finances and lived hand-to-mouth, Evolve was the first chance in their life to work a lucrative and sustainable job that rewarded hard work with a chance to create personal wealth.

“This is the best money I’ve ever made,” says Sims. “These other guys, the Brazilians and the Thai coaches, this is a hundred times more than they’d ever make. We work our butts off, we train a lot of people and have class commitments, but we’re all making it happen.”
Chatri isn’t running a charity. The main facility in the CBD runs 150 classes a week, while another location teaches more than 100. All classes are taught by the trainers who are involved in the fight training, which carry with it the responsibility to be on time for every class and run it in the manner set out by Chatri and the head trainers. There are more than 2,000 students, and each has goals, expectations, and follow-ups that are built into their membership program. It’s a full-on process that generates an estimated $8-10 million a year in revenue for the school and has created a passionate following in the city, meaning it’s not uncommon to see dainty Singaporean girls kicking off their Louboutins in favor of an hour-long Muay Thai class taught by a Lumpinee Boxing Stadium Champion.

“It’s the most expensive gym I’ve ever heard of,” says Jake DeBerry, an American expat who works for an international consultancy. “But I’m learning Muay Thai from legitimate Van Damme-killing badasses, not washed up karate instructors from Toledo.”

But the real focus is the fight team that includes Shinya Aoki and Rafael dos Anjos, among other regional stars and up-and-comers. Many of the fighters double as coaches during the week, and in addition to training, they are expected to teach classes throughout the week, including privates, which generate anywhere from $100- to $250-an-hour.

“If you aren’t watching out for the people in your life, what does money matter?” says Chatri. “Fighting, and life, whatever, is all about who you’ve helped. That’s what I learned from a young age and what I bring forward in my work with Evolve. We could make more money by charging higher percentages on privates or not paying them as much money or not providing them apartments, but that’s not what we’re about.”

Chatri’s mix of business savvy and altruistic assistance to friends in need is heavily reliant on the teachings of Kru Yodtong Senanan, who established the Sityodtong camp 50 years ago in Pattaya, Thailand. Chatri, who has a black belt in Muay Thai, says the man and the sport taught him work ethic and the importance of being a dependable friend. “Everything I have in the world, I owe to Kru Yodtong Senanan,” says Chatri. “He was absolutely selfless.”

Kru Yodtong Senanan died in February, and Chatri, along with seven of the trainers he’d hired from his camp, attended the funeral.

“There were thousands of people at the gathering because he touched so many lives,” says Chatri. “I grew up in Muay Thai and know what a life in martial arts can provide for people. The gym is called Evolve because that’s what I want my students to do. I want them all to improve themselves and their lives.”

But he’s also honest about just what he’s done and the impact it will have on his business and the fight team. “If any camp in America had just one of these guys, they’d have the best Muay Thai gym in the States,” says Chatri. “We have twenty.”

*****

Amid the flutter of kicks and aggressive grunting of the EvolveMMA fight team is the bobbing yellow headgear of Japanese MMA legend Shinya Aoki.

A legend in Asia and well-known among American fight fans for his smothering ground game, Japan’s most popular fighter has a well-deserved reputation for doing little more than slap boxing in the cage. Although he has massive hands and size-12 feet, after 10 years in the cage, the judo black belt was best known for his wacky socks, slick submission game, and absolute inability to knock out an opponent.

image descAoki’s reputation improved dramatically at Dream 18, when the then-new Evolve recruit broke the orbital bone of former UFC fighter Antonio McKee with an overhand right. The punch was directly accredited to his training in Singapore and his work with the cadre of Muay Thai world champions—none of whom are as acclaimed, feared, and fantastically brilliant as Namsaknoi, who is nicknamed the “Michael Jordan of Muay Thai” for his 285 wins (15 losses). The Thai native is also lauded for having one of the longest reigns of any Lumpinee Muay Thai World Champion in history.

“I use to be afraid to stand up and strike, but now I work with the trainers and my striking is okay,” says Aoki. “I am no longer afraid of striking. I enjoy it very much. I still can’t believe I knocked someone out.”

Now, Aoki attacks his striking responsibility with sincerity and force. Namsaknoi stands in front of the wiry fighter and demands heftier kicks. It’s an awkward and dynamic pairing because Namsaknoi is as fluid on his feet as Aoki is bungling. Each kick Aoki whips at Namsaknoi is less effective than the previous, but Namsaknoi coaxes Aoki to work on mixing in his elbow with low-leg strikes and knees to the ribs. Aoki is struggling, but he continues on, strike by strike.

Aoki’s wife and newborn son didn’t join him in Singapore. The Japanese fighter takes a Samurai approach to combat. For training camps, he chooses to live alone, free of distractions that make him “weak and too nice.” Training alone and staying focused on combat is an important part of Aoki’s training regiment that was missing in Japan. “Nothing is more important than to be ready for the fight, and I think my family knows this, and that’s why they stay in Japan.”

Chatri’s setup makes focusing easier for Aoki. In addition to being fluent in Japanese and giving him a place to live and train, Chatri is also Aoki’s manager. It’s a free service that Chatri willingly undertakes. It’s a simplicity that Aoki needed. Until EvolveMMA, Aoki composed piecemeal training camps—striking practice here, jiu-jitsu there, wrestling almost never. It was a camp structure that forced him to travel as often as he trained.

“I know that I don’t have to do that for any of the guys,” says Chatri. “I realize I could be making more money, but I also know it helps Shinya to focus to have all these guys in one place. I also know that making him better helps Evolve to grow.”

Evolve isn’t just growing as a business, their fighters are winning in the cage. In April, several members of Evolve’s fight team competed in OneFC 8, hosted in Singapore and headlined by the championship fight between Aoki and Lightweight Champion Kotetsu Boku. Aoki, whose ease in the stand-up was evident from the beginning, moved the fight to the ground and submitted Boku in the second.

“My wrestling and BJJ, they are getting better,” Aoki says. “We have the best BJJ in the world, and now, because of Coach Sims, I can get my opponents to the mat much easier. I am the best I’ve ever been.”

Aoki won the lightweight belt via second-round submission, but his win wasn’t the only one for EvolveMMA. Former NCAA Division I national qualifier Jake Butler, who moved to Singapore to pursue a career in MMA after a successful career on Wall Street, also secured a first-round knockout, improving his professional MMA record to 2-0. The Princeton graduate was originally brought in by Chatri as an answer to the gym’s lack of wrestlers, but now with the help of Saknarong and Namsaknoi, Butler has added striking to his formidable ground game and takedown attacks.

Next up for EvolveMMA is Rafael dos Anjos’ fight against Evan Dunham at UFC on FX 8 on May 18. The Brazilian is riding a three-fight win streak largely because he’s spent his training camps in Singapore and intermixing world-class BJJ with the striking prowess of the gym’s two-dozen Muay Thai champions.

“All of our fighters are headed in a different direction, but they are all making money and are able to focus on their training,” says Chatri. “That’s what we’ve done here—we’ve created a family that all makes money from their own work ethic. I put the pieces in place, and I try to make sure that everything is working for them, but I don’t make their money or win their fights. That’s them. They do the work.”

image descSaknarong takes pleasure in leading his stable of coaches and developing his fighters into champions. He nods as he watches Aoki land a final combination of leg kicks and straight jabs. The buzzer sounds and the fighters break to get water. Saknarong peels away from his fighters and grabs the railing by the edge of the mat space. “You know, I own four houses, and I rent them out for money,” he says, looking through the floor-to-ceiling windows. In front of Saknarong is the city’s impressive skyline, and off to the side, Aoki is talking to Namsoknoi about the techniques covered in practice. Saknarong notes the moment by sweeping his hand across the room.

“Four years ago,” he says through a smile. “I had nothing. But now I’m here, and I have everything.”

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