MMA fighters in struggle for recognition in China

By Zhang Zhilong Source:Global Times Published: 2013-1-30 19:08:02


Chinese MMA fighter Liu Wenbo beats Yang Hae-jun, from South Korea, during Legend Fighting Championship events in Hong Kong on August 24, 2012. Photo: courtesy of Legend Fighting Championship
Chinese MMA fighter Liu Wenbo beats Yang Hae-jun, from South Korea, during Legend Fighting Championship events in Hong Kong on August 24, 2012. Photo: courtesy of Legend Fighting Championship

The Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) may be taking more and more of the world by storm but so far mixed martial arts (MMA) has lacked a reach advantage in China. Indeed, only one Chinese fighter, Zhang Tiequan, has made it so far to the bright lights of the UFC, the world's biggest MMA organization. However, despite mixed results in his fighting career, Zhang serves as an inspiration to coaches and athletes trying to live their dream and has helped expose MMA to a growing audience in China.

The appeal of MMA is that it brings in martial artists specializing in many different styles of fighting with the UFC being the home of the very best. Therefore, the UFC rule-set has been adopted by Chinese coaches since 2005 as they seek to train their fighters to join these elite ranks.

However, compared with countries like the US, Brazil and Japan, China remains a virgin territory with few international-level fighters.

MMA in China

Zhang Tiequan, 35, shared his experience with the Global Times at his gym in Beijing. The team he runs with a friend, China Top Team, is home to a stable of over 10 MMA professional athletes who train there daily.

Zhang began as a practitioner of sanshou, a Chinese martial art originally developed for the military, before switching to MMA in 2005. This was due to the influence of his coach, Zhao Xuejun, who works with Xi'an Physical Education University, and is hailed as the godfather of MMA in China.

Zhang was one of four students that Zhao introduced to MMA. Three of them, including Zhang, came from Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region and one from Hebei Province.

Zhang showed the most prowess and went on to fight in the UFC although several of his teammates have stayed in the industry, becoming coaches or promoters. Dai Shuanghai, one of the original four, now works as an MMA promoter.

Zhao  first realized that sanshou athletes might do well in MMA when compared to other martial arts such as wrestling, Brazilian jiujitsu and Muay Thai, as sanshou involves two fundamentals of MMA: striking and wrestling.

Zhao was introduced to Andrew Pi, who was then promoting MMA in China. Zhao convinced Pi that his original quest for pure wrestlers only was misguided. They then worked with Liu Pulei from China's national Wushu Sports Management Center to develop MMA fighters.

Zhao's instinct about sanshou fighters proved correct, according to Qiao Bo, director of business development for Hong Kong-based Legend Fighting Championship.

 "Everything must keep pace with the times, and turning to MMA is a trend in the martial arts world," said Liu. Zhao agreed with Liu and noted that the principles and concept of MMA were consistent with his own martial arts doctrine. 

"For wushu (kung fu), fighting should come first, instead of just posturing," Zhao told the Global Times.

Build the fascination

For Zhang Tiequan, the attraction of MMA was to diversify his skill base and have experiences that he could not have anywhere else. 

The MMA attire such as the small, open-fingered gloves suited Zhang's grappling style of fighting and allowed him to work on his submission game. Zhang explained that in MMA, victory can be obtained through knock-out or submission, meaning forcing the opponent to tap out through manipulation of joints or chokes.

However, just because only one of them has made it to the UFC does not mean Chinese fighters have nowhere to ply their trade. They can compete in Legend Fighting Championship, Ranik Ultimate Fighting Federation (RUFF), and Ultimate Fight Alliance (UFA), also called China Mixed Fighting Alliance-1.

The rules of these homegrown promotions are virtually identical to the UFC, said Qiao. 

Legend, based in Hong Kong, is a platform for fighters from across the Asia-Pacific, including China, Japan, South Korea, Mongolia, Australia and Thailand.

The popularity of RUFF and UFA has suffered due to limited audiences. RUFF receives a limited international broadcast but it has not found a home on Chinese airwaves. UFA, based in Xi'an, has its fights shown on SXTV-7, a local TV channel which is only accessible within Shaanxi Province.

"We can't choose a broader TV channel because we don't have enough money," said Zhao. This reflects the awkward economic conditions of holding MMA events in China.

To gain the certificate allowing it to hold events, RUFF pays 1.2 million yuan each year to the General Administration of Sports of China, said Zhao. It was the first mainland Chinese MMA organization sanctioned by the administration, but the national sports body has not provided any fighters, despite training many top candidates.

Dai concurred with his teacher. "We are in need of athletes, but those who like MMA cannot fight because they are backed by the national sports administration," said Dai.

Awkward reality

MMA's relative newcomer status in China means many people don't understand it, Dai told the Global Times. "MMA fights need to be televised to let more people realize their glamour," he said, adding that currently international level events like the UFC can be watched online, on sites like PPTV, Sohu, Sina, and QQ, but that this is far from enough to effectively promote the sport.

Every UFC event sees audiences in the tens of thousands and many more watching on television or pay-per-view while at MMA shows on the Chinese mainland, a few hundred die-hards are the only ones in attendance. 

A UFC event in Macao in November 2012 impressed Zhao. He said almost all seats were occupied. "The cheapest price for a ticket at the end was HK$1,500," said Zhao.

But TV stations have proven very reticent to show MMA. "Officials have never seen this kind of fighting, and simply dismiss it as cruel," lamented Dai. But according to Zhang Tiequan, MMA's safety record is better than those of boxing, sanshou or even soccer, despite its violent appearance.

Dai used a metaphor to compare MMA to traditional martial arts. "Fifty years ago, few Chinese could speak English. You can insist that you know a foreign language, but it doesn't help if nobody else speaks it," said Dai, adding that traditional martial arts lack real-world applications and cannot necessarily be used in self-defense. 

People should be open-minded to the fascination and interest MMA can create, said Liu Suibin, a master of traditional martial arts from Sichuan Province.

Dai said efforts are being done to improve the sport's visibility but the fact that the TV industry remains shut to the sport is proving tricky to overcome. Recently, a boxing event held in Beijing's Shunyi district on January 24 was aired on the national sports channel, CCTV-5, which came as a result of compromise. There has been some limited television coverage of MMA in the past. Art of War, an MMA promotion, was approved by Wushu Sports Management Center of the Beijing sports bureau. It came into being in 2005, and was closed down in 2009.

Art of War events were broadcast on CCTV-5 in December 2006, only once and as a pay-per-view event. Its cards were later broadcast on Inner Mongolia TV for a year. However, this interest has not continued.

Dai is concerned that China is losing a potential market for MMA since the UFC holds a virtual monopoly worldwide. "Why not let the private sector enter the industry and let the market decide?" questioned Dai.

Sorely lacking skills

Despite being the only Chinese fighter in the UFC, Zhang has been found wanting. He was allowed into the UFC as a marquee Chinese fighter, given the size of the potential market for MMA, according to insiders. Having fought four times in the UFC since February 2011, he has won once and lost three times, his latest defeat coming in Macao in November at the hands of Guam fighter Jon Tuck.

 "I just play the game. To gain fame, you must hold a championship belt, or at least challenge for one," said Zhang, who has competed in the UFC's featherweight and lightweight divisions. He plans to go on fighting for another two years if his physical condition allows him to.

For Zhao Xuejun, it will remain impossible to get support from the government since officials cannot quantify MMA achievements into their track records, since it is not an Olympic event. 

At present, most MMA players are self-employed. "They have to spend almost half their time to supporting themselves, which affects their career development," said Zhao.

He speaks highly of the cooperation between his team and Legend. Zhao trains athletes which show great potential, and Legend has sent him coaches from Brazil to help work on the fighters' Brazilian jiujitsu. 

The model Zhao uses is sustainable, since athletes don't have to support themselves, and they can attend classes in Zhao's university. "The only difference is that my students don't get salaries like those within the sport administration do," said Zhao.

"Legend is quite open. It allows fighters to compete in other promotions unless they become champions," said Zhao, adding that the UFC doesn't allow this as it signs its fighters to exclusive contracts. 

Since 2011, Legend has been working with Xi'an Physical Education University to train fighters. So far, Legend has only held events in Hong Kong, but it plans to hold its first two MMA cards on the mainland this year, according to Qiao.

Zhao knows clearly that the UFC revenue model is hard to copy for China. Their income mainly comes from charging pay-per-view customers, followed by ticket sales and sponsorships.

While in China now, most clubs depend on private sponsors but this amount is still too little for MMA's development here, said Zhao. But Zhao has his own ideas on how to promote MMA.

"We have professional athletes," said Zhao proudly, adding that his "disciples" have fought in four of RUFF's five weight divisions. "We can 'export' fighters to the UFC, and share the income," said Zhao.

Zhao mentioned in particularly Jumabieke Tuerxun, nicknamed The Wild Wolf, a top MMA fighter from the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, who it is hoped will soon be called up to the UFC as he maintains an undefeated record of 14-0, according to MMA website Sherdog.

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