MMA is having a moment in China. And more so suddenly, since the UFC’s first Mainland event rocked Shanghai on November 25, giving MMA fans there not only a much buzzed about star-attraction headliner (Michael Bisping vs. Kelvin Gastelum) but also a lineup of spectacular Chinese talent that got the pumped up crowd roaring “China Power!”
As China continues to hear the voice of traditionalists calling to preserve the values of the national art of wushu, more and more modern sportsmen are embracing the globalism of MMA. And though wushu has been developed for centuries, and MMA was only born some two-dozen years ago, neither a firewall nor an army of Shaolin monks can keep a lid on MMA’s explosive popularity growing by leaps and bounds in the Middle Kingdom. Enter the Chinese MMA heroes who stole the show in Shanghai, and the floodgates just might be officially open.
The Mercedes Benz Arena perches on a small hill in Pudong, shaped like a giant, sleek alien spaceship about to take off. As it eerily glowed from neon pink to cobalt blue and electric green, traffic was stopped for blocks all around, and fans, many of whom had traveled from far provinces of China, poured into the venue with eager anticipation. Days before UFC Fight Night 122 the 18,000 seat arena had sold out, and VIP tickets were going for for thousands of dollars. But even up in the nosebleed section, the raw energy was palpable.
Plenty of drama had already preceded the event’s rollout when Kelvin Gastelum’s scheduled opponent Anderson Silva was pulled from the card for failing a drug test just 15 days before the fight. A scramble to replace him ensued, and Michael Bisping stepped in — only days after he lost the championship on November 4 to George St. Pierre at UFC 217 at Madison Square Garden. In essence, this saved the Shanghai fight for UFC, and gave way to more hype and press than they could have originally hoped.
Those looking for a Bisping redemption story were disappointed however, when Gastelum knocked him out in the first round at 2:30. The crowd didn’t mind a bit, loving the dramatic finish to an evening that told perhaps a much more subtly meaningful story of the apotheosis of Chinese MMA fighters.
For Shanghai, and for China, the emotional resonance of Fight Night 122 came with the victories of featherweight Song Yadong, welterweight Song Kenan, and women’s strawweight Yan Xiaonan on the undercard; and then came the sensational wins of featherweight Wang Guan and welterweight superstar Li Jingliang on the main card.
The evening did not start out so auspiciously for the Chinese as heavyweight Hu Yaozong was submitted with a rear naked choke by Cyril Asker, and women’s bantamweight Wu Yanan was pummeled in 3 rounds by Gina Mazany. But things started looking up when Song Yadong beat Bharat Kandare in the first round with a guillotine choke, and women’s strawweight Yan Xionan bested Kailin Curran in a hard-fought three rounds by decision. Now the crowd was getting pumped up, and when UFC welterweight Song Kenan debuted by knocking out Bobby Nash just 15 seconds into the first round, it was absolutely jubilation heading into the main card.
Likely no small amount of shrewd strategy by the UFC went into putting two top Chinese fighters on the main card that night. Bolstered by 3 wins on the undercard, fans were whipped into a frenzied patriotic fervor for their Chinese heroes Wang Guan and Li Jingliang. Deafening cheers filled the arena, and the atmosphere was electric.
One of the best fights of the night came from featherweight Wang Guan and his American opponent Alex Caceres, a rollicking three rounds of great striking and kicking. When the split decision went to Wang Guan, the arena exploded. Fans jumped to their feet with screams and cheers that nearly levitated Wang as the ref raised his hand in victory.
He said, “I am really proud of myself winning the first debut in my own country. I definitely want to participate in more UFC fights. To the young Chinese fighters, I encourage them to pursue their dreams no matter how difficult it is.” It was a significant UFC debut for the “Dongbei Tiger,” who trains in USA with American Top Team. For my next fight,” Wang stated, “I will return to ATT in USA to train, as my responsibility is to train with the best and be the best.”
Li Jingliang’s fight was a different story – he knocked out his opponent American Zak Ottow at 2:30 of the first round. The crowd went berserk – and if it was even possible to endear himself more to his fans, Jingliang did so by leaping over the octagon wall and rushing into the audience to kiss his wife and young daughter.
After scrambling back into the ring, Jingliang took the mic and shouted, “China Power!” bringing more screams from the audience. “We saw some China power tonight,” he continued energetically, “I believe we will see more and better Chinese fighters coming into the UFC.”
“I didn’t plan that,” he told reporters afterwards about his impromptu celebration with his family,” and added, “To be able to fight in my own country feels amazing! You can hear so many of your fans cheering for you, it just makes you feel so excited during the fight. This is MMA where you need to always adapt to changes of opponents’ skills and techniques all the time. That’s actually how I TKO’d him.”
Jinglian, aka “The Leech” began fighting MMA in 2007, and was signed by UFC in 2014. He is a member of China Top Team squad, and beating Ottow chalked up his sixth UFC victory — one that will undoubtedly propel him as the biggest UFC star from China another step closer to fighting for the championship belt. Both Song Kenan and Li Jingliang got $50,000 Performance of the Night bonuses.
The event was held in partnership with WME | IMG China, and David He, Vice President of Music & Live Entertainment stated, “We’ve been waiting for the right time for UFC to enter the Chinese market and we know that the time is now. MMA is developing rapidly in China and amassing a large fan base and this is an exciting first step to making the sport a mainstay here.”
UFC Asia-Pacific Vice President Kevin Chang stated before the fight, “We are honored to have such overwhelming support from our loyal fans since we announced our inaugural UFC event in Mainland China. This is a historic moment for our company and set to be one of the most thrilling live events UFC has ever brought to Asia.”
After the main event ended, Chang remarked, “I think the Chinese fighters tonight have shown how far the level of talent has come here,” he said, “and it’s definitely in the cards to return in 2018. We can now look at who has the star power to reach the upper echelon of UFC. There are exciting times ahead for the MMA landscape of China.”
Chang continued, “Three Chinese fighters debuted tonight. Soon we will be seeing Chinese fighters on cards all around the world. On the athletes’ side, we see a natural evolution of MMA sport in China. A fighter like Song Yadong comes from a new wave of MMA talent, one that has the entire skill set, not just coming from one discipline. The UFC is also working with schools and clubs, we have a good relationship with clubs in China. Someday we could even have a belt final in Shanghai – anything is possible.”