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City Weekend

Hong Kong-based UFC referee who holds black belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu knocks out toughest opponent ever: cancer

Briton Thomas Fan tapped into mental toughness from years of training while battling disease, as community worldwide came together for fight of his life

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 22 September, 2018, 2:01pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 22 September, 2018, 2:01pm

When it comes to life-threatening combat, Hong Kong-based Thomas Fan Wai-kong, a referee for the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), has seen it all, from smashed faces to broken limbs.

Fan, 46, who has a black belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu (BJJ), can hold his own in the ring as well. But in 2016, the seasoned fighter found he would need the help of his friends and family to take on his meanest opponent yet: cancer.

“It started as a lump on my neck,” the British national recalls. “It didn’t hurt. I went to the doctor, who said it would probably go away.” But the lump grew, and after several weeks, Fan found himself at the Hong Kong Sanatorium and Hospital in Happy Valley to have the growth removed.

The procedure was a success and he thought his ordeal was over. But he was next diagnosed with stage 2 diffuse large B-cell lymphoma, a form of cancer that attacks the white blood cells.

“I thought, ‘this could be it’,” Fan says. “I thought about my kids and my wife. Could they manage without me? Then another wave of dread crashed over me.”

At that moment, for his family, he decided he had to commit to the fight of his life.

This meant digging deep to summon up the spirit he had honed from years of training.

Crowdfunding to help needy cancer patients ineligible for subsidies

“There’s a reason BJJ has such a high drop-out rate,” he says. “It’s damn hard. It takes commitment and dedication. In the end, you get what you put in.”

Fan discovered BJJ in the 1990s while studying at the British College of Osteopathic Medicine in London. The UFC, an American mixed martial arts promotion company that holds a tournament, was gaining popularity, Fan recalls.

Of the mental toughness he gained from training, Fan says: “The lesson was: it didn’t matter how big you are or how well you can kick or punch. If you can’t fight when you go to the floor, you’re finished.”

By 2012 things were looking good. He had attained his BJJ black belt, a milestone for any practitioner of the art, and he was married with two children. The following year he got the call that is a dream for many veteran fighting coaches: the UFC wanted him to referee a fight in Tokyo.

“It was huge,” Fan says. “You feel like it’s recognition for the years you’ve put in.”

His appearance proved a success. He became a regular fixture at UFC events around Asia, and has served both as a referee and judge at fights in Shanghai, Macau and Singapore.

By 2016, Fan was coaching BJJ professionally at a commercial gym in Hong Kong. That was when cancer struck.

Stage 2 of the illness meant it had spread beyond Fan’s neck to other areas of his upper torso, requiring extensive treatment. The long itemised bill came to about HK$500,000 (US$64,000).

“How was I going to pay for that?” he recalls asking. “The first round of tests alone had already finished off my health insurance.”

Fan’s oncologist recommended that he transfer to the public institution Queen Mary Hospital to undergo six cycles of chemotherapy – about one six-hour session every four to six weeks. Even under the city’s health care system, some parts of the treatment were still expensive.

Targeted therapy, which uses drugs that attack specific molecules associated with cancer, came in at HK$30,000 per session.

At that point, Fan’s friends rallied. Aided by his wife, they set up a fundraiser. The word went out across social media and through an international network of BJJ clubs, PayPal donations came in from around the world. In total, about HK$100,000 was raised.

You find out who your real friends are when you’re at your lowest
Thomas Fan Wai-kong, cancer survivor

“Many donations came from people who I’d never expected would help,” Fan says. He points out the heart-warming effort showed how tight-knit the worldwide BJJ community is.

“It’s true what they say. You find out who your real friends are when you’re at your lowest.”

As for his cancer treatment, Fan describes it as “brutal”.

“After having those chemicals pumped into your bloodstream, you just don’t want to do anything. You have nothing left.”

But he fought on, and after six months, doctors declared him cancer-free.

He has regained his strength and returned full-time to work as an osteopath, while also focusing on his next UFC appearance, at 2018 UFC Fight Night Beijing, the city’s first such event, scheduled for November 24.

Two years after his diagnosis, his experience has taught him a lot.

“Achievements, money and pride come and go,” Fan says. “But good health and the love of your family are what matter most.”