Sanshou – What is It and Why is It Bigger than MMA in China?

Over the last few years, the Ultimate Fighting Championship has made several attempts at breaking into the Chinese market. It has signed a host of Chinese fighters, such as Guangyou Ning and Zhang Lipeng.

It has promoted events in the administrative region of Macau.

Perhaps most notably, it created a special season of its reality show, The Ultimate Fighter, filmed in China and featuring a cast of talented Chinese featherweights and welterweights. Yes, it’s safe to say that the UFC has made some real, tangible efforts to tunnel its way into China. Yet so far, it has not had a lot of success in that regard.

Promoting Mixed Martial Arts in the PRC is not impossible—Singapore’s One Championship has done so several times. Art of War, a Beijing-based MMA promotion, has been hosting events since 2005. It shows that there is indeed some demand for MMA in China.

So far, however, no promotion has been able to turn MMA into a marketable, mainstream attraction in the country.

It has become just that in nearly every other major international market, but China remains a stronghold within which MMA has not yet caught on in a meaningful way.

So why is that?

Well, you may hypothesize that MMA is simply too brutal for Chinese tastes. This was the case in Thailand for years, until One Championship was able to maneuver its way into the country. They convince the government that MMA is no more brutal than the bone-rattling “art of eight limbs”, Muay Thai.

While this is what kept MMA out of Thailand for so long, however, it is not the reason for MMA’s failure to gain traction in China. China, after all, is perhaps the most important region in the history of the martial arts. The country is well adapted to the occasional brutality of unarmed combat.

The reasons for MMA’s failure to stick in China, of course, are manifold. There is not just one cause. One major factor in MMA’s failure to catch on in the country, however, and that is the famous Sanda practice.

MMA kick
Mixed martial artists fighting - kicking

Sanshou, which is also referred to interchangeably as Sanda, or Chinese boxing, translates roughly to “free-fighting.”

It’s an amalgam of traditional Chinese martial arts that blends the kind of striking you’d see in pro kickboxing. It works with takedowns, throws, sweeps, and perhaps most distinctively, a surprising volume of kick-catches.

When Sanshou underwent the transformation from a self-defence system to a legitimate, competitive sport, the associations that governed it chose to outlaw strikes to the back of the head, throat, spine and groin.

This sound familiar? Yes, that’s right.

Sanshou is quite close to the MMA that has taken the rest of the world by storm. It’s an MMA substitute with its talons deeply embedded in the culture of every province of China. It explains why the MMA promotions that have attempted to bring their product to the country have gotten lukewarm receptions at best.

Now, you’re probably thinking to yourself: many countries have indigenous combat sports that are quite similar to MMA, and very few have deflected mainstream MMA in the same way that China has.

In fact, many of the top fighters in other martial arts migrated to MMA in hopes of making better livings for themselves. Countless Brazilian Jiu Jitsu fighters have jumped to MMA for this reason.

The same can be said of American collegiate wrestlers and Russian Samboists. MMA is chock-full of competitors with roots in other combat sports. So why don’t we see any Sanda practitioners in MMA?

sanda chinese boxing
Sanda chinese boxing

Well, first thing’s first. We actually have seen several fighters with Sanshou backgrounds break into MMA.

Most notably was Cung Le, who won championship gold in a major promotion called Strikeforce with his Sanshou-based striking. Zhang Tiequan, who realized moderate success in the UFC’s talent-rich featherweight division, also has a background in Sanshou.

Though there are some MMA stars with Sanshou backgrounds, however, Sanshou practitioners are undeniably rare in the sport. The reason for that is quite simple.

While Brazilian Jiu Jitsu fighters, Samboists, Judokas, wrestlers and specialists from dozens of other disciplines frequently jump to MMA in hopes of striking it rich, there is no such need for Sanda fighters.

In China, Sanda is so popular that even low-level fighters are able to make decent livings.

Sanda superstars such as the legendary Liu Hailong, meanwhile, can achieve massive wealth and realize truly transcendent fame. There is no real reason for young Chinese martial artists to set their sights on MMA rather than Sanda.

Really, the only thing that will influence them to do so is personal preference. At this juncture, most still prefer the familiar sight of the Sanda ring or lei-tai (raised platform) to the cages of mainstream mixed martial arts promotions.

Trying to sell MMA in China is, to conclude, like trying to sell Pepsi in a country that has been happily drinking Coke for decades. It’s not that China doesn’t like MMA. There are certainly hundreds of thousands of combat sports fans in the country that can’t get enough of it.

The simple fact, instead, is that China already has a favorite combat sport, and that’s Sanda.

MMA knockout
Mixed martial artists fighting - knock out
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