Already hugely popular in the West, thanks to UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship), the race to dominate the MMA scene in China is heating up as rival leagues battle it out to conquer the market.
The first contender is Asia’s own ONE Championship. Established in 2011, ONE Championship entered the China market in 2015 with a tournament in Beijing and are already believed to be the equivalent of the UFC in the East.
However, UFC is also muscling in on the action by signing up more Chinese fighters and staging their debut tournament in mainland China at Shanghai‘s Mercedes-Benz Arena on November 25.
China’s reputation as the birthplace of martial arts gives it a unique opportunity to foster world champions. As the world’s most populated country, there is enormous potential. However, despite China’s long history of martial arts, the number of talented fighters able to mix disciplines in China is smaller than in some other countries.
“Chinese professional MMA still needs time to develop,” says Kevin Chang, UFC’s head of Asia, in an interview with the Financial Times.
It was Chinese kung fu superstar Bruce Lee who is often credited as the original innovator of MMA. Lee’s jeet kune do style of fighting in the 1960s was a hybrid of various disciplines he had practiced.
More recently, the interest in MMA in China increased when a video went viral showing local MMA fighter Xu Xiaodong flattening a Chinese practitioner of a martial form of tai-chi in about ten seconds. The video sparked debate on Chinese social media about the value of traditional kung fu, or wushu as it is known in China, versus more modern fighting styles.
So far it seems that ONE Championship is winning the battle for the crown of biggest MMA promoter in Asia. CEO of ONE Championship, Chatri Sityodtong, told The Drum: “Metrics indicate that ONE Championship is at least five to ten times larger than UFC is in Asia. In six short years, ONE Championship has become Asia’s top global sports brand in history.”
It’s clear that interest is growing, and now ONE Championship holds at least one event every month in a major city in Asia, and are aiming for at least ten events in China this year.
UFC is also taking a swing at China. Headlining the UFC’s debut fight in Shanghai on November 25 will be American fighter Kelvin Gastelum and Brazilian fighter Anderson Silva.
The UFC signed its first Chinese fighter back in 2010, Tiequan Zhang, who has since gone on to become a pioneer for Chinese MMA on the world stage. Other Chinese stars of the UFC include Li “The Leech” Jingliang and its most recent signing, Wang Guan, from Beijing.
ONE Championship will beat UFC to staging its first match in Shanghai with a September fight already announced. ONE Championship welterweight world champion Ben Askren will defend his title against Swedish fighter, Zebaztian Kadestam, on September 2 at the Shanghai Oriental Sports Center.
In an interview with MMA Mania magazine, ONE Championship’s co-founder, Victor Cui, was keen to point out some key differences between ONE Championship and its U.S.-based rival.
“Arrogance, trash talking, and disrespecting your opponent is very prevalent in western MMA. We are the complete opposite of that. We espouse the traditional values of martial arts such as respect, humility, honor, and work ethic, and this is why we resonate so well with our partners and audiences in the region.”
However, for a country with the world’s biggest population and a tradition of martial arts that is centuries old, it looks like China has room for both ONE Championship and UFC to flourish. For global MMA overall, it seems only a matter of time before China becomes its greatest champion yet.
In the words of UFC’s latest Chinese fighter Wang Guan, “Chinese fighters need more time to develop our techniques for the sport but one day we will win the UFC title, and this day is not very far away.”