'Ultimate fighters' brace for finale
China reality television series comes to a head in Macau showdown as part of a UFC programme
Zhang Lipeng says his family didn't really know quite what to make of it when he proclaimed he'd decided to become a mixed martial artist.
Growing up in Inner Mongolia had ensured a rough-and-tumble childhood that gave Zhang his fair share of bumps and bruises but nothing out there on the steppes could really have prepared him for the sort of punishment he's had to endure since signing up for the Ultimate Fighting Championship's The Ultimate Fighter China reality television series.
"I just think it's the most exciting sport there is," said the 24-year-old. "My family didn't really understand or support me in the beginning because they didn't know anything about it."
They certainly do now, as do the tens of millions across China who have been tuning in to the series across a 12-episode run, that comes to a head on Saturday night as part of the UFC Fight Night Macau & The Ultimate Fighter China Finale programme at the Venetian Macao.
The main event on the eight-bout card sees a match-off between welterweights "Stun Gun" Kim Dong-hyun (18-2-1) of South Korea and England's John "The Hitman" Hathaway (17-1), probably the most well-spoken man in the game.
Meanwhile, Hong Kong welterweight Alberto Mina takes a 10-0 record into his UFC debut against American Zak Cummings (16-3).
But the lion's share of attention in these parts will be on the TV series finale, another welterweight match-up with Zhang (7-7-1) facing off against the Beijing born-and-bred Wang Sai (7-4).
The reality series has been part of the UFC push into Asia, which has included previous cards staged in Macau and Singapore, with plans now being rolled out to host future events in Manila and in Japan.
"About 150 came to try out for the series, which we thought was great as the sport is still relatively new out here," said UFC Asia managing director Mark Fischer.
"From there it was down to 16 very interesting fighters with some real talent. It gives us the chance to reach all corners of China with our programme, with our sport and with our brand and to create local interest and local relevance by showing Chinese fighters.
"The reaction has been very positive. We've had about 10 million people tuning in to at least part of it every week."
The 28-year-old Wang gets straight to the point when asked why he signed on to the UFC, and to the series in which every move he has made has been beamed across the nation - along with every blow he has taken.
"It's a ground-breaking programme for China and I just had to be part of it," said Wang, who has been in the sport for four years.
"Joining the UFC has been the dream, which I've been pursuing since I started in the sport. Once the opportunity came, I didn't have any hesitation in joining the series."
Both fighters are hoping the experience and the exposure the TV series has given them will lead them to successful careers in the UFC as the sport continues to spread its wings.
"Mixed martial arts is different because it includes all kinds of disciplines," said Wang. "Physically, I've developed all different kinds of skills. Mentally it has developed my self-confidence and given me a much bigger heart."