Fighting poverty with MMA

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.

"The UFC is like every other sports league in the world - they see enormous financial possibility in China," said Mr Jonathan Snowden, author of an encyclopaedia of the sport.

"What they see are more than a billion possible customers. That's very alluring."

NOT GLAMOROUS

The UFC partnered a Chinese TV channel last year, but life for the dozens of aspiring MMA champions fighting regular bouts around the country remains far from glamorous.

Members of one Beijing gym sleep on bunk beds in tiny dormitories, squeezed into unheated slum houses.

"Nearly all of us MMA fighters are farmers," said bearded He Nannan, 22, gulping down cabbage soup. "People from cities have money and don't want to fight."

Wu Haotian is one of China's top MMA athletes and has defeated opponents from as far away as South Africa, but he was unrecognised as he walked home through dilapidated streets, sweating from three hours of afternoon training.

Growing up in a village in Inner Mongolia, he said that "when it rained and we couldn't work outside, we would gather for wrestling matches, that's how I started fighting".

"I thought MMA was great, because there are almost no restrictions."

His favourite move is a downward elbow strike, but he pointed to his forehead to explain a recent defeat.

"I was injured here. It bled a lot and I fainted after the third round."

The prizes he competes for are worth up to 30,000 yuan (S$6,100), with around a fifth taken by his club.

He said: "We don't have enough money to live in apartments. We're poor."

The future of contenders like Wu and He will be decided by the spending habits of Chinese audiences, who pay to see fights and watch TV broadcasts.

Mr Yuan Kaifu, a businessman who had travelled from Beijing to watch Yao fight in Henan said: "I like MMA because it's real. Not fake like some other fighting contests."


This article was first published on August 26, 2014.
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