Harnessing the power of China's MMA talent
Macau is the venue for the UFC's Fight Night this weekend and it's where the destinies oftwo promising mainland fighters converge
It's midmorning in the mountains north of Beijing and Ning Guangyou is racing towards the collapsed section of the Great Wall around Mutianyu. Every few steps he throws a left-right combination at the waves of heat radiating up from the ground. Other than his bursts of breath, the only sounds are the buzzing of gnats and the pounding of his feet on a dusty path.
More than 3,200km to the south in Phuket, Yang Jianping pounds the pads at Tiger Muay Thai, one of Asia's premier mixed martial arts gyms. Some of Asia's best fighters and coaches look on.
Ning and Yang are mixed martial artists who will finally come face to face at the Ultimate Fighting Championship's Fight Night in Macau this weekend. A showdown between these two has been on the cards since they first competed in the Art of War mixed martial arts promotion in 2009, but every planned bout has been derailed - until now.
Ning and Yang, who represent opposite sides of the Chinese MMA spectrum, will decide who is the champion featherweight.
The two fighters could be considered members of the second generation of mixed martial artists coming out of China, a generation with half a dozen fighters competing in the UFC, the largest and most successful MMA promotion in the world.
Despite this, MMA has been very slow to catch on.
Liu Shangqing, who runs a Chinese-language website dedicated to MMA, estimates the number of hardcore MMA fans is somewhere in the tens of thousands.
"People here don't really know about it," he said. "I'd say there might be somewhere in the tens of millions in terms of people who have heard about it, or watched something on television, but only a small circle of people have a clear idea of what MMA is."
Modern mixed martial arts has been in China for more than a decade and for most of that time you could count the number of mixed martial artists competing regularly on two hands.
But today there are several promotions vying with the UFC for a market that has shown signs of stirring, including the Singapore-based ONE Fighting Championship, the Ranik Ultimate Fight Federation (RUFF) and Kunlun Fights.
There are now hundreds of mixed martial artists in China, including young mixed martial artists such as RUFF's Lu Zhenhong, 19, and Song Yadong, 20, who are inspiring kids to consider MMA as a career path.
Yang, 25, is one of the few to make a lucrative career out of fighting. He has been the face of Henan Television's Wulinfeng for several years, and has also done stints on popular television shows Strictly Come Dancing and Super Boys. "I have been photographed for every gym magazine in China," said Yang. "I am making my first movie later this year, with famous actors like Zhen Zhongji."
Yang is also part owner of Dongfang Rongyu, one of the largest MMA gyms in China and says he can make 100,000 yuan a month. He bought a Mercedes-Benz when he was 22. He is, and wants to remain, a member of the upper class. "I can give others the impression that Yang Jianping made it through his own efforts, through MMA," Yang said. "I made my own destiny, and control my own life."
Ning, 33, has spent most of his martial arts career scrabbling for the funds to train. He hails from a small farming village outside of Cangzhou, Hebei province, and has been a farmer, security guard, airport baggage handler, and glorified chauffeur in addition to martial artist and coach. Ning is a family man, and his parents still live in their tiny village home of 200 families.
"My family was very poor when I was young," Ning said. "We didn't have many things. But people like me, who grow up in the country, we are the ones who have the fighter spirit. We are accustomed to hardship. It's the same when I train, I can train harder, and endure more."
For Chinese MMA, it may not matter who wins or loses. If fans are convinced Chinese fighters can put on a good show, and compete at a high level, that is already a step forward.