CHINESE fighters are making their mark in mixed martial arts (MMA) as the sport gains popularity in Asia, with events being held at Resorts World Sentosa here.
As Yao "The Master" Honggang pinned his opponent down and punched him repeatedly in the head, he was, like many other emerging Chinese MMA fighters, beating his way out of rural poverty.
Yao was once a national wrestling champion, but switched to the uncompromising discipline of MMA a decade ago, when it was barely known in China.
It combines grappling with kickboxing and ju-jitsu in a combat where almost anything goes.
"My ideal is to get a knockout," said Yao, 33, who has a short, muscle-ripped frame and cauliflower ears.
Last month, he returned to his home province of Henan for a match, held at a sports centre just a few kilometres from the quiet plot of land where his parents still make a living growing corn.
As a spotlight picked out local businessmen, government officials and a consignment of shield-clutching riot police, in the audience of thousands, Yao sprinted towards the ring through clouds of smoke and past bikini-clad cheerleaders.
Within seconds of the referee's opening cry of "Fight!", the crowd erupted as he knocked his opponent Jadambaa Munkhbayar to the floor.
But the Mongolian slid from beneath Yao's legs and leapt back to his feet, swinging wildly.
Yao's long journey to MMA stardom had him enduring years of struggle and deprivation as he trained in obscurity with a Filipino coach in Beijing.
To keep his dream alive, he worked as a restaurant night-watchman and an air conditioning repairman, hanging off skyscrapers to fix leaky units.
"Both my parents worked in the fields. My dad also worked as a physical education teacher, but his salary was low. So I had to depend on myself," he said.
Now, he competes for prizes of up to US$10,000 (S$12,500) and fights in the United States and Hong Kong, while the sport's promoters are competing to cash in on what is a potentially huge Chinese market.
The gym where Yao trains has already sent several fighters to the US-based Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), where annual revenues are in the hundreds of millions of dollars.