Former UFC champion Demetrious Johnson has long streamed himself playing video games to increase his following.
Sage Northcutt blew up in the UFC largely thanks to viral victories, interviews and acrobatic celebrations.
But even these hyper-online athletes agree that if their current home of ONE Championship is to increase its credibility among American viewers, that revolution must be televised.
The first step in any such rise comes Wednesday as the promotion for the first time hosts an event televised live across the United States, the opener for a series of events on TNT this month.
"It's huge exposure," Johnson said. "I feel like ONE Championship has always had the best exposure in the eastern side of the world. Now to be live on TNT, next to AEW [pro wrestling], it’s a step in the right direction to expose the ONE Championship athletes to the American audience."
Johnson, a UFC great before a trade to ONE in 2018, will headline ONE on TNT 1 on Wednesday at 10 p.m., facing champion Adriano Moraes for his first shot at ONE’s flyweight belt. Another former UFC champ, Eddie Alvarez, will appear in a lightweight co-main event against Iuri Lapicus. Later this month, Northcutt returns to the cage for ONE on TNT 4, facing veteran Shinya Aoki on April 28.
Northcutt said having ONE fights air on TNT is a win-win for the promotion and its American fighters, giving the company an attractive platform to expand awareness and lure high-profile talent, all while giving those fighters a chance to maintain their American fanbases.
"There’s so much skill here," Northcutt said. "Having us on TNT, not only does it expand ONE Championship’s brand over here in the United States, but it also keeps my fans engaged and everyone can watch it. I think a lot of fighters want to be at ONE Championship, and the ones that get here like it, it’s different than other organizations."
While some American stars have found their way to the Singapore-based ONE, there aren’t a ton of names recognizable to the average U.S. fan further down a typical ONE card, including Wednesday’s. But Johnson believes fans will respond to a unique product different than what they’re used to from American promotions, with everything from production to fighting styles taking new forms and a deeper than expected roster.
"It’s not a one-man sport, and it’s not a one-man organization," Johnson said. "I think everybody who’s competed under the ONE Championship banner has had some part in building it to where it is today."
Wednesday’s event also features bouts in kickboxing and Muay Thai, including ONE’s flyweight Muay Thai champion Rodtang Jitmuangnon against Danial Williams.
"Once people see Rodtang fight, he goes out there and has a spectacular fight, people are going to be instant fans of what they see," Johnson said. "It just brings a fresh, new product to the marketplace. All the other organizations have this mixed martial arts, but there’s some people out there who don’t like ground game and they just want to see people bang with four-ounce gloves on, watch Rodtang fight and you’re going to see every bit of that."
Fans will get to see another ONE Championship fixture in Johnson’s opponent, Moraes, a three-time ONE flyweight champion with an 18-3 mark and just one loss since 2016. That’s more than enough to have Johnson’s full respect and attention.
"He’s good and long, great grappling and great stand-up," Johnson said. "He’s a class-act guy and a great champion. He’s been in the promotion for a very, very long time and I know he’s going to bring everything he’s got, and we’re going to be ready for it."