As he pinned his opponent down and punched him repeatedly in the head, Yao “The Master” Honggang (姚紅剛) was — like other emerging Chinese mixed martial arts fighters — beating his way out of rural poverty.
Yao was once a national wrestling champion, but switched to mixed martial arts (MMA) a decade ago, when it was barely known in China.
It combines grappling with kickboxing and jiujitsu 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.
For his latest contest, he returned to his home Henan Province and a sports center in Zhoukou, near the quiet plot where his parents still make a living growing corn.
Yao sprinted toward 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. However, the Mongolian slid from beneath Yao’s legs and leaped back to his feet, swinging wildly.
Yao’s journey to MMA stardom saw him endure years of struggle and deprivation as he trained with a Filipino coach in Beijing.
“Both my parents worked in the fields. My dad also worked as a PE 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 and fights in the US 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), whose annual revenues reach into hundreds of millions of dollars.
“The UFC is like every other sports league in the world — they see enormous financial possibility in China,” said Jonathan Snowden, author of an encyclopedia of the sport. “What they see are more than a billion possible customers. That’s very alluring.”
The UFC partnered with 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 do not want to fight.”
Wu Haotian (吳昊天) is one of China’s top MMA athletes and has defeated opponents as far away as South Africa, but went unrecognized as he walked home through dilapidated streets, sweating from three hours of afternoon training.
While he was growing up in a village in Inner Mongolia, “when it rained and we could not work outside, we would gather for wrestling matches. That’s how I started fighting,” he said.
“I thought MMA was great, because there are almost no restrictions,” he added.
The prizes he competes for are worth up to 30,000 yuan (US$5,000), with about a fifth taken by his club.
Even so, “We do not have enough money to live in apartments. We are poor,” he said.
The future of contenders such as Wu and He is to be decided by the spending habits of Chinese audiences, who pay to see fights and watch TV broadcasts.
Backstage, contenders from Australia, Africa and Russia covered themselves in muscle-heating oil and sparred as a German coach played the Rocky theme song Eye of the Tiger from a mobile handset.
After the initial grapple, Yao dodged his opponent’s right-handed punch, hoisted him up and brought him crashing to the ground.
Stuck in a choke-hold, Munkhbayar tapped the ground three times and a bell marked Yao’s victory — after just 53 seconds.
Balanced on the ring’s white ropes, the winner drank in the adoration of the crowd, flashing a smile which revealed a gum-shield in patriotic red.
“Next time, I’ll try and win more slowly,” he said.
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