One: Reign of Kings – meet the Chinese fighter, who rose from sleeping on the floor of the gym to the pinnacle of Asian MMA
Han Zihao will join the main card in Manila this weekend, but it’s been a long road for the Chinese fighter
Friday night at Manila’s Mall of Asia Arena will be about as far from Han Zihao’s humble beginnings in Muay Thai as a man can possibly get. But the Chinese fighter will never forget the hunger.
“I moved to Bangkok when I was 14 years old on a one-way ticket and with no money,” explained Han. “There were four of us living at the gym and some days we didn’t have the 30 baht we needed between us for one plate of Pad Thai.”
So they would share a bowl of plain rice. Then Han would make his bed up on the floor of the gym and then he would dream of fighting in front of a packed arena, fans screaming his name. And, of course, he would dream of having the money needed to never go hungry again.
Now, at 23, that day has finally come as Han sets himself for a debut in the One Championship’s Super Series.
Asia’s leading martial arts organisation is giving international fighters from the likes of Muay Thai and kick boxing a chance to share the spotlight – and the biggest stage the region has – with the mixed martial arts stars who mostly capture all the headlines, and mass market attention.
Hence on Friday night we have the Henan-born Han (57-14), among the first Chinese fighters to have ever set himself up full-time on Thailand’s ultra-competitive professional Muay Thai circuits, in a bantamweight clash against Panicos Yusuf (37-5), unique in his own way as he hails from the city of Limassol on the Eastern Mediterranean island of Cyprus.
Han turned professional soon after a coach on the Chinese national Muay Thai had sponsored his flight to Bangkok and put him in touch with the Lookbanyai gym. He’d started out learning the Chinese kick boxing craft of sanda but had caught the eye of China’s Muay Thai team and quickly fell in love with the martial art.
“I just like the style,” said Han. “It’s explosive.”
Han was – it’s worth stressing – 14 years old at the time of departure, without a word of Thai in his vocabulary, and sheer financial necessity saw Han quickly taking on fights for 600 baht a go. That’s about 140 dollars in Hong Kong terms. To get inside a ring and face men almost always at least twice his age.
“The older Thai fighters would bully me at the gym,” revealed Han this week, speaking after posing for promotional photos.
“They would make me do all the dirty cleaning jobs too. But I grew strong. When I first started fighting my opponent would look at me across the ring like he was wondering why a Chinese fighter was in Muay Thai. They thought, ‘he is from China, he will be easy.’ But I showed them. I showed them I could fight.”
Han – who said he picked up the Thai language “by listening and copying” – has since joined the Mad Muay Thai Gym and gone on to face off against some of best contemporary Muay Thai fighters, including multiple weight division champion Muangthai PKSaenchaimuaythaigym.
Across the past decade Han has witnessed a generation of Chinese Muay Thai fighters establish themselves on domestic fight promotions, after spending relatively short periods of time training in Thailand. But Han remains one of the few from China to give himself – heat and soul – to the country that gave life to the sport.
On Friday night the One: Reign of Kings card will play out in front of sell-out crowd of 20,000 – a certainty given it features three of the Philippines’ MMA superstars in Kevin “The Silencer” Belingon (18-5), up against Vietnamese-Australian Martin “The Situ-Asian” Nguyen (11-2) for the interim world bantamweight belt – along with one-time lightweight champion Eduard “Landslide” Folayang (19-6) and rising strawweight talent Joshua “The Passion” Pacio (11-2).
Both Han and Yusuf have won titles in Muay Thai’s myriad smaller promotions but will have experienced nothing quite like this. They are near the bottom of the main card but know the place will be pumping, in terms of both atmosphere and of opportunity.
“Because I am based in Thailand, not many people in China know me,” said Han. “But everybody knows about One and everyone is watching One. Soon everyone will know who I am.”