Mixed martial arts: why China could be huge for MMA thanks to deep talent pool, sport’s heritage and support trainee fighters get
Pummelling his opponent with hammer fists and kicks, Chen Lei frees himself from a leg lock. His Indonesian opponent Jeremy Meciaz, looking frazzled, strikes Chen in a final counter attack, only to be met with another barrage of punches. The onslaught stops only when the referee calls the bout, awarding Chen a technical knockout.
Chen’s May victory in Singapore, in a fight staged under the auspices of the ONE Championship – a mixed martial arts media company based in the Lion City – continued the rising Chinese MMA star’s winning streak.
Dubbed “Rock Man”, the 28-year-old native of Hunan province has won five fights since he arrived on the scene last year. Yet the former car salesman says he had only intended to learn martial arts so he could teach his mother self-defence.
“She was not physically strong, so I learned tai chi to teach her,” he says. “Then I learned muay Thai, boxing, wrestling and sanda. Later I left for Shanghai to follow Sergio Cunha, a [Brazilian] trainer who has coached seven MMA world champions. He taught me everything: boxing, Brazilian jiu-jitsu, cage fighting. He said I would become the best fighter.”
Chen’s victory in Singapore was his first international fight and a boost to the Chinese MMA scene. In recent years the sport has been growing rapidly in popularity in China, which has its fair share of aspiring future champions, including Guan “The Dongbei Tiger” Wang, Xian “The Executioner” Ji, and Zhang “The Wolf” Tiequan.
MMA gained added notoriety in China in April after a video of MMA fighter Xu “Madman” Xiaodong thrashing self-proclaimed tai chi master Wei Lei into submission in 10 seconds went viral.
The ONE Championship, established in 2011, entered the China market in 2015 with a tournament in Beijing. It has since held four events in the country and has three more lined up this year – in Shanghai, Shenzhen and Beijing. Co-founder Victor Cui, a former ESPN Star Sports executive, says China is an important market for the group.
“We’ve opened two offices, in Shanghai and Beijing, and I relocated [to China] last year so that I can focus on the China’s business,” he says.
China’s reputation as the birthplace of martial arts gives it a unique opportunity to foster world champions, says Cui, who has a black belt in tae kwon do, as does his wife.
“It’s very difficult for China to produce the best athletes in the world for baseball and basketball. [But with a background in martial arts] lots of people in China have the ability to transition to MMA.
“MMA events take place every month in China now. Although they’re just local events, not major national events like ours, there are very good events like Kunlun Fight [developed by Beijing-based Kunsun Media]. They help train local athletes. When they are good enough, they can compete in ONE Championship.”
The term MMA dates to 1993, when the Ultimate Fighting Championship (better known as UFC) debuted in Denver, in the United States. Broadcast live on pay-per-view cable TV, there were no weight classes, rounds, time-outs or referees. With just two rules – no eye gouging or biting – bouts ended only in a submission or knockout.
UFC, now the world’s largest promoter of MMA, has yet to stage an event in China, although an increasing number of Chinese fighters are on its books.
Cui insists that the original innovator of MMA was Chinese kung fu superstar Bruce Lee, whose jeet kune do style of fighting in the 1960s was a hybrid of various disciplines he had practised.
“As Bruce Lee said, it doesn’t matter what the name of the martial art is, kung fu, wushu, sanda or tae kwon do. Just take the best of every martial art and combine them to make yourself a better martial artist,” Cui says.
According to Chen, MMA is the purest form of competitive fighting. “Wrestling, Brazilian jiu-jitsu and muay Thai all have limits. But MMA is freewheeling and lets me express myself the best,” he says.
Former professional MMA fighter, coach and commentator Vaughn Anderson is now a talent scout for the ONE Championship. After winning four fights, in Guam and Taiwan, the Canadian first competed in China in 2007, in Beijing. He has witnessed the exponential growth of the sport in China over the past few years.
“In 2007, there were about five tournaments a year. Now, there are often more than five on a Saturday night. Even in 2012, when people asked me what I did, I had to explain what MMA was,” Anderson says.
Being a full-contact combat sport, combining both striking and grappling, MMA incorporates a number of techniques from Chinese kung fu. Anderson cites the example of sanda, also known as sanshou, which is characterised by rapid successions of punches and kicks.
“It’s a very useful base for MMA. Sanda fighters do well in MMA because they can defend takedowns, [while] maximising their striking power. Ten years ago, almost all Chinese MMA fighters had a background in sanda. Now, as times change, you see more Chinese fighters with a background in other combat sports.”
Chinese MMA fighters have another advantage, in that they enjoy the same level of support as Olympic athletes, says Anderson, who received star treatment in Beijing, even though he lost his first fight there.
“I was disappointed, but the trip opened my eyes to how athletes live in China. The Chinese government has programmes that support athletes training for Olympic sports. MMA gyms, competing for talent, also offer [similar] support to attract athletes who would [otherwise turn to] boxing, wrestling or other government-supported combat sports.
“In the West you find a gym, pay tuition and train, trying to turn your hobby into a profession,” Anderson says. “Some fighters start that way in China, too, but most join a team that pays for their food and housing as soon as they begin training to be a professional. It’s very difficult to find amateur MMA fighters in China.”
Anderson was hired by a gym in Beijing, which provided him with free housing, training, and a cook who also cleaned his flat. The gym paid for doctor’s visits, training equipment, and even gave him a monthly stipend.
Buhuoyouga has dreams of being a world MMA champion. Born in the Liangshan Yi autonomous prefecture in Sichuan province, his flair for grappling was spotted by a talent scout in his remote mountainous hometown at the age of 13.
He was sent to a sports academy in Chongqing to hone his wrestling skills. In 2013, aged 20, he won a title in the national Greco-Roman wrestling tournament. He switched to MMA last year after being captivated by online videos of the sport.
In the 25-year-old’s first outing for the ONE Championship, in Hefei in 2016, he beat two opponents to advance to the semi-finals for the China Four-man Bantamweight Tournament Championship. Buhuoyouga’s background in wrestling gave him a big advantage, he says.
“Wrestling is very similar to MMA, except that there’s no striking in wrestling,” he says. “Before my switch to MMA, my trump card was the headlock. I won the Greco-Roman championship using that trademark and I’ve refined my headlock skills for MMA.”
Buhuoyouga now teaches wrestling part time in a Chongqing school and says MMA has changed his life.
“I come from a poor family. My house deep in the mountains doesn’t even have electricity. I grew up eating potatoes because we were too poor to afford rice. My school results were not good, so if not for sports I would have got married and stayed in the mountains. MMA gives me a livelihood,” he says.
“Unlike other fighters I don’t have a coach or team behind me because I can’t afford it. I train at a gym owned by my friend. I learn by watching online MMA fights and imitating the moves. I put in more effort than others and my goal is to win a title in the ONE Championship.”