Until recently Paul Cheng’s main claim to fame was being signed by the BC Lions as a first-round pick in the Canadian Football League (CFL), but the 34-year-old from Taipei was making headlines last week for his exploits in a completely different sort of sport.
The 112kg frame that made him ideally suited to the role of defensive linesman has also served him well as a heavyweight mixed martial artist and, after enjoying success competing in Canada, he has just been snapped up by Asia’s biggest Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) organization.
ONE Fighting Championship officially announced last Monday that Cheng was the latest addition to its rapidly expanding roster. He is the first Taiwanese fighter to sign with the Singapore-based promotion and does not expect to have to wait too long to find out who he will be facing first,
“I was told my first ONE FC fight could be in June. I know MMA is not [that] popular in Taiwan, but I hope I can help make it a mainstream sport and my biggest dream is to fight for a world title in Taipei,” he said.
Cheng was born in Taipei and speaks fluent Mandarin, but moved to Canada with his parents as a child. It was there he was introduced to gridiron football and after excelling in the sport at school and university he became the highest-drafted Asian player ever when he was a first-round pick in 2002.
Unfortunately Cheng could never quite live up to his early promise and what looked set to be a glittering CFL career ultimately ended in ignominy.
“I lost my confidence after going to four different teams in three years and 2005 was my last season,” he said.
Having set his heart on being a gridiron star it was a devastating setback and meant Cheng was forced to look for an alternative means of employment. His size and athleticism led to him getting a job as a stunt double and it was on a set that a colleague suggested he start learning martial arts.
“I was working as a stuntman and I didn’t do any martial arts. Another Asian stuntman told me I should learn to punch and kick to make fight scenes more real and to get in better shape. It was the best advice I ever got,” he said.
Cheng’s first taste of professional fighting came in the boxing ring, where he ran up a respectable 3-1 record before deciding that he was more suited to life as a mixed martial artist. Tasting success in one sport had given him an astute idea of what it would take to replicate that achievement in another and MMA felt like a perfect fit.
“I started training [in] MMA in 2010 because I was looking to compete in a sport that I can reach a high level in quickly. I already had some pro boxing fights and I wrestled in high school and university as well as playing pro football so the transition was easy,” he said.
The top Asian fighters are all signing with ONE FC and when matchmaker Matt Hume discovered that, despite living and competing in Canada, Cheng was ethnically Taiwanese, he immediately offered him a six fight contract.
So far ONE FC has held events in Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Manila and Jakarta, but Taipei is definitely on the list of future destinations and Cheng believes that, sooner or later, he will get to fight in the city where he was born and raised.