What else are MMA athletes supposed to do but fight?

Initial report of former policeman in Chengdu giving a home to orphans and training in martial arts has turned into uproar over apparent child exploitation

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 29 July, 2017, 2:42pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 29 July, 2017, 7:19pm

The image of mixed martial arts has taken a battering over the last week. The MMA against Tai Chi controversy had faded into history and the focus again had turned the sport and its growth and expanding popularity across the region.

There was even what appeared on face value to be one of the feel-good stories of the year – that of a former policeman in Chengdu who had set out to give orphans a home, and training in martial arts that he hoped would set them on a more positive path and even, for some, towards the riches being offered to those who become successful in MMA.

Slowly but surely, though, the sheen began to fade and the tale took on Dickensian shades with reports that the whole caper was officially under investigation.

The online community was in uproar over apparent child exploitation as video clips of the young children fighting appeared and that the ex-cop had quickly gone to ground, despite his co-workers claiming everything was above board.

But let’s set a few things straight. The initial defence to the bout in question was that it was an exhibition event used for promotion. And for those horrified at the sight of two kids engaged in battle.

Watch: MMA club adopts and trains orphans to be UFC fighters

Let’s remind them that MMA is a combat sport – what else are these athletes supposed to do but fight? For many who train in martial arts, the formative amateur years include potentially more than 100 fights.

Think of Japanese flyweight Naoki Inoue, who, at 20, made his debut at UFC Fight Night 111 in June and laughed off the surprise of the press when he claimed he had already notched up more than 100 fights in the cage.

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“They taught me how to win – and how to lose,” he said. “I just wish I’d had time to have more.”

Inoue went out and duly won his UFC debut and will return to action at UFC Fight Night 117 in Tokyo in September.

But the headlines that followed the Chengdu story, regardless, reflected once again how far MMA still has to come – in some quarters, let’s stress – in terms of casting off an image it has carried as a throwback to humanity’s less enlightened times.

Such reports such are “disappointing”, says the China International Mixed Martial Arts Federation (Cimmaf) secretary-general Adrian Lee. But, overall, the sport is moving forward.

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“We are trying to regulate the MMA industry,” says Lee. “To improve, to regulate and to provide rule sets and guidelines to the local MMA scene.

“There are so many promoters in China, but these are events that are more like a show, a TV show.

“People are well paid, but they are more like actors, putting on a show – and these are the things we need to turn around; we need to eliminate this negativity.

“We are not trying to eliminate them, we want to work with them. Rules and regulations will help that and help the sport to grow in the right direction.”

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Truth is, the naysayers are in the minority. The sport’s popularity among the masses continues to flourish, as evidenced by the figures sprouted by the likes of the UFC, which claims MMA has around 93 million fans in Asia, including an estimated 77 million across mainland China, and 1.3 million in Hong Kong.

In the weeks ahead, the growth of the sport regionally will also be reflected in the fact that, first, the UFC has reigning featherweight champion Max Holloway coming to Hong Kong to spread the MMA message while, at the end of the week, Asia’s own One Championship rolls into Macau with a card that includes two world titles

Bibiano Fernandes puts his bantamweight belt on the line against Andrew Leone, and Kairat Akhmetov doing the same with his flyweight belt against Adriano Moraes promises to make it an interesting evening in Macau.

There is work going on at the sport’s more grassroots level across the region as reflected by last week’s announcement in Beijing that China would next year be hosting the second edition of the International Mixed Martial Arts Federation Asian Open Championship.

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The Cimmaf, charged with overseeing the growth of the sport across “Greater China”, has started to reach out into the Chinese MMA community as they seek to implement – at the amateur level – standardised rules and regulations covering all aspects of the sport, from the athletes in the cage, to the referees in charge, and to the coaches and medical teams who line the wire.

The Hong Kong China Mixed Martial Arts Association was founded by professional MMA referee Thomas Fan, the first Chinese to take charge of UFC bouts – which he did at events in Macau and Japan – and a man who regularly calls the shots in fights for organisations such as the Beijing-based Kunlun Fight group.

Fan – the first Chinese black belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu – read the reports from Chengdu and says in many regards the sport in China is a work in progress.

“It’s about education and making sure the standards are kept, that people – the fighters and the referees and the medical teams – are trained properly,” says Fan.

“As a referee my number one priority is fighter safety, that people know the rules of the game. The attitude is changing. It will take time of course – but we’re getting there.”

The advice to those remaining naysayers is to sit back and enjoy the ride.