How Hong Kong’s MMA community is reconnecting after the ‘traumatic’ end of Epic
Former club member Tesa Ho lifts the lid on the personal struggles she and others went through after the clubs liquidation
When Epic MMA Club closed it doors in July, Hong Kong’s mixed martial arts community was left in limbo.
The city’s first high-end mixed martial arts club went into liquidation, leaving hundreds of members out of pocket – but more importantly without a home away from home.
“The beautiful thing about Epic is they did a really job of bringing together people from different communities,” said former member Tesa Ho, a freelance trader who has been training Brazilian jiu-jitsu for 13 years.
“From the jiu-jitsu community, the CrossFit community, the Muay Thai community ... a lot of people were able to form long-lasting friendships.”
Ho, who has lived in Hong Kong for six years, was returning from a trip to Australia when she heard the devastating news.
“Leading up to it, you could see the signs they were financially in trouble,” she said. “Membership sales, huge discounts ...”
As members picked up their belongings from Epic’s three Central gyms and its Tung Chung branch, many were left wondering what would happen to Hong Kong’s fledgling MMA community.
“It really was traumatic for some people to have their routine, to have that unity, taken away,” said Ho. “People were upset for the most part. It is difficult.
“The nice thing about Epic was that it was really convenient. It was right there, a 10-minute walk if you’re working downtown. There’s not quite anything similar.”
It’s no surprise to see gyms shut down in Hong Kong given sky-high rents.
When struggling gym chain California Fitness closed its operations last year, many members lost money but it was more of a minor inconvenience as they were able to sign up to other gyms.
But for MMA aficionados there was nowhere quite like Epic that they could migrate to – and there is unlikely to be any time soon.
“It would be really difficult to make something similar work financially,” said Ho. “Most jiu-jitsu gyms in the US are all in the ghetto areas, they end up being in areas nobody wants to be in so the rent is so cheap.
“That’s how they make it work financially. You’re trying to make it work in Hong Kong but rent is your biggest expense.”
The outlook was bleak – but for the past two months, Hong Kong’s MMA community has been rallying with the dust settling.
“People are starting to explore other gyms and other places,” said Ho. “They’re starting to reconnect and find each other in different communities.
“The gyms around Hong Kong were very nice – they let everybody try out. It was just about finding something that works, for their schedule and their time.”
Ho, who competes two or three times a year including at August’s World Master Jiu-Jitsu IBJJF Championship in Las Vegas where she came third in her weight division, before reaching the final of the openweight tournament, has managed to stick to her strict training regime.
Some of those mornings will be spent rolling on the mats at Hong Kong-born black belt Viking Wong’s Hurt Locker studio in Tsim Sha Tsui, or at The Studio by JAB: Mixed Martial Arts in Central.
“I’m a trader so my hours are usually set by the market, but I train every day. It’s definitely hard, but I try to make it work,” she said.
“I have to train every day, because I feel better when I train.
“I know a lot of guys who have families, so they have to get up really early at 5am, because they have to train. When it bites you, you just find a way to make it work.”
It is that fearless attitude that first led her to the sport with Gracie Elite Team when she was working at a bar in San Francisco.
“A guy walked into my bar and he got kinda angry, he started throwing glasses,” she recalls, laughing. “I had to kick him out and he grabbed the back of my neck, and I just grabbed his throat.
“He was a really big guy, a muscular guy. And I was in this situation where my taekwondo wouldn’t have worked because we were so close to each other.
“I had been riding my bicycle past this jiu-jitsu studio every day, looking through the window and all the guys were super gnarly with tattoos, just these shady looking guys, and I was like, ‘maybe next time, maybe next time’.
“But after this guy grabbed my neck, I finally got him to the bouncer and I was like, ‘OK, let me go sign up’. So the next day I signed up.”
It is why she is not afraid to roll on the training mats with any and all comers, male or female.
“I try to train with the biggest guys and the strongest guys, to just keep pushing myself, right?” she said.