Enter the Dragons: UFC on guard as it prepares for wave of Chinese fighters at elite level
Youngster Song Yadong is at the vanguard of China’s push into elite MMA competition and will aim to put on a show during his sophomore outing in Singapore
Song “The Terminator” Yadong is one of the rising stars of mixed martial arts in China and it’s from that vantage point that he declares it is now not so much a matter of “if” fighters from the mainland will shake up the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) but “when.”
“It won’t be long now,” says Song. “It takes time to have the ability to be a UFC champion but for a Chinese fighter I think this is now mission possible.”
Over the next two months the world will get to see just how far MMA has come in China as a wave of fighters from the mainland take to the sport’s largest stage.
— UFC (@ufc) November 25, 2017
First up is UFC Fight Night 132 in Singapore on June 23 which has so far announced four Chinese fighters – including the featherweight Song (11-3, two no contests) – on a card headlined by American welterweight hero Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone (33-10) and rising British star Leon “Rocky” Edwards (15-3).
Then comes UFC 227 on August 4 featuring two Chinese fighters including the highly touted strawweight Zhang Weili (16-1) making her UFC debut.
But first to Song, and to the story of a now 20-year-old who was a late call up at UFC Fight Night 122 in Shanghai last November and thrilled local fans on debut when dismantling India’s Bharat “Daring” Khandare (5-3) within a round.
History will show just how good the quality of Song’s opponent actually was on that night – it was Khandare’s first turnout for the UFC also – but what was almost as impressive as Song’s effort was the ease in which he graced the biggest MMA platform there is.
The fact that the Tianjin-born fighter has been mixing it with the grown-ups in the professional MMA ranks since he was just 15 years old would certainly have helped in that regard and Song says simply being a part of the UFC machine also gave him an insight into how much he still had to learn.
Hence Song has spent a good share of the money he earned in Shanghai – including his performance of the night bonus – on training under the tutelage of UFC Hall of Famer Urijah Faber at the acclaimed Team Alpha Male gym in Sacramento, California.
“It was an incredible experience,” Song says. “In that time my grappling skills have improved dramatically. Now I’m very confident of what I’m capable of. No matter where I fight, I will fight my heart out. I have almost forgotten what it felt like to make my debut, that’s why I’m can’t wait for the next opportunity.”
On June 23, Song will enter the Octagon to face Brazilian Felipe “Sertanejo” Arantes (18-9-1, two no contests).
Other Chinese fighters engaged include rising female strawweight Yan Xiaonan (8-1), who’s been matched against Brazilian Viviane “Sucuri” Pereira (13-1), welterweight Song “The Assassin” Kenan (12-3) facing Mexico’s Hector Aldana (4-1), and welterweight Li “The Leech” Jingliang (14-5) who’s up against Japan’s Daichi Abe (6-1).
“The Leech” has so far been the poster boy for the development of Chinese fighters in the UFC, having graduated from regional circuits such as the now-defunct Hong Kong group Legend before working his way up through the welterweight ranks.
Li’s varied history certainly shows in the Octagon and rising American lightweight star Kevin “The Motown Phenom” Lee (17-3), who recently toured Asia promoting in the UFC, revealed to reporters while in Malaysia that the common belief in the fight game is that the main thing holding back Asian fighters was just that. Experience.
“I know it’s huge in Asia but you look at the level of fighters, it’s harsh reality but it’s just different compared to the top level in the UFC,” said Lee. “The bigger the sport gets, the more talent will come up and the bigger the organisations get, competitions will arise. The competitions will be good for all of us.”
That’s been the case so far with the well-travelled Li – take for proof the Fight of the Night battle he waged despite losing to rising Australian star Jake “The Celtic Kid” Matthews (13-3) at UFC 221. It remains now to be seen just how far the 30-year-old can go in a division that has Tyron “The Chosen One” Woodley (18-3-1) presently as its ruler – and a whole host of pretenders to the throne.
But what has sent MMA fans in China all aquiver this year has been the fact that Zhang has signed on with the UFC. The 28-year-old from Hebei will face American Danielle “Dynamite” Taylor (9-3) in Los Angeles on August 4, while compatriot Buren “The Beastmaster” Wuliji (9-4) has been matched up against Khandare.
Zhang brings the necessary confidence into her UFC debut. When the contract was announced, she declared to mainland media: “Everyone wants to be a champion. The difference with me is I can actually win a UFC title.”
Now, Zhang says she is ready to show the world what she is made of, and that the experience of carving her way through the likes of China’s Kunlun circuit – with only one of her wins ever going the distance – will provide the foundation from which she can launch her career internationally.
“Chinese fighters like Li Jingliang have earned the respect of the UFC,” Zhang says. “I train with him a lot, and we learn from each other. China’s kung fu is very famous all over the world and kung fu is the accumulation of energy, experience, and practise. These things all came from the wisdom of our ancestors. I think the victories we will achieve in the Octagon from now on will not only show ‘China Power’, but ‘Asia Power’ as well.”
And Zhang – like Song – believes that time will soon be at hand.