Controversial front man of mixed martial arts (MMA) and the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) President, Dana White has often claimed that “the UFC will be the biggest sport in the world by 2020”. Or perhaps it already is. Few other sports except football (or soccer for North Americans) command such global appeal. MMA has become synonymous with the UFC. When it comes to the various styles of MMA, the first ones that spring to mind tend to be the grappling art of jiujitsu, either Brazilian or Japanese, or Muay Thai, Thailand’s deadly form of kickboxing. Western/American wrestling (freestyle and Greco-Roman, not to be confused with Hulk Hogan’s brand of “entertainment” wrestling) and boxing may even come to mind. Karate or tae kwon do are also given credence as being “effective” or “successful” styles in the Octagon, the eight-sided fighting ring surrounded by a chain link fence and patented by the UFC.
But rarely are martial arts such as Chinese kung fu, sanda (“sanshou”) “freefighting” or shuai chiao grappling talked about much, nor are Chinese MMA fighters. Yet China is arguably the historical, spiritual and ancestral home of the martial arts, which have flourished there for thousands of years. While modern MMA is a cross-cultural amalgam of systematic hand-to-hand combat developed at different points in history, there can be little doubt about China’s long, rich history with the martial arts. But China also has a strong modern link to MMA. After all, Hong Kong is of course the birthplace of one of the world’s best known martial artists, and was home to perhaps the “modern grandfather of MMA”, Bruce Lee.
Picking up where Lee left off, MMA has made swift inroads into China, evidenced by the fact that in November 2012 the UFC came to Macau for the first time ever to a sold-out event. Ironically, however, the event featured few actual MMA fighters from China, with only Tiequan “The Wolf” Zhang as the main headliner hailing from the mainland. The fact that Zhang even headlined in the event is a step forward for the sport, which despite its popularity has faced many obstacles in gaining wide acceptance in China.
In China, there are very few commercially successful MMA promotions. Ranik Ultimate Fighting Federation (known as RUFF and based out of Shanghai) is one. Legend Fighting Championship (Legend) from Hong Kong is another. RUFF, founded by Canadian businessmen Joel Resnick and Saul Rajsky, is the only MMA organization to be sanctioned by the General Administration of Sports of China, and is the largest exclusively Chinese MMA promotion. Zhang himself was a product of the now defunct Art of War Fighting Championship, in which he started competing professionally in 2005. Zhang later branched out and competed internationally in the World Extreme Cagefighting (WEC) promotion, which was acquired by Zuffa, the parent company of the UFC in 2006, and was eventually absorbed into the UFC.
Zhang’s fighting record in the UFC has thus far been mixed. Out of four fights he has only one win and three losses, despite a rather impressive overall MMA career record of fifteen wins and four losses. Coupled with the fact that he is one of only a few Chinese fighters talented enough to have made it into the UFC, makes him both something of a novelty and also a trail blazer, helping to pave the way for more talented Chinese MMA fighters to follow. Much of this has to do with the UFC’s continued growth in Asia, as well as its commitment to continue to grow by focusing on Macau.
The UFC is planning two shows per year in Macau. Mark Fischer, UFC Executive Vice-President of Asian operations, has stated that a big part of the reason for choosing Macau is that it is “really a gateway to China. In fact, it’s becoming a central entertainment hub for much of Asia.” The UFC is taking another main “product” of its highly successful brand, the hit television show “The Ultimate Fighter” (TUF), and bringing it to Macau as well with “TUF China.” It will be a chance to open the floodgates for the next generation of Chinese MMA fighters to be introduced to the world.
This is in keeping with both MMA’s global appeal and its Chinese cultural roots. For Zhang, who helped open that gate, nothing could be better. He said, “I believe that, with more media attention, MMA will increase in audience ratings and a lot of people will start to like the sport.”
The text has been updated from the original version.