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.
LOST AT SEA: Survivors of a sunken Cambodian ship said they floated for two days in open waters, while a UN official said that traffickers might continue undeterred Chinese survivors from a boat that sank near a Cambodian island, killing three people and leaving eight missing, said they embarked on what they believed would be a short-term fishing job and ended up without food and water aboard the vessel, and their belongings were taken away. Cambodian authorities said on Friday they rescued 21 people one day after the boat small wooden fishing vessel sank near Koh Tang, a Cambodian island close to the maritime border with Vietnam. Nine more people were rescued by the Vietnamese and three bodies were recovered by Cambodia, leaving eight people still missing, Preah Sihanouk provincial
‘DEVOTED GUARDIANS’: A Chinese foreign affairs official said his nation’s diplomats would not ‘sit and do nothing while our country’s interests are being harmed’ China yesterday signaled no letup in its combative approach to foreign policy in a third term for Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) as leader despite criticism from many Western diplomats that the so-called “wolf warrior” stance has been counterproductive. As relations with the West have soured over issues from trade and human rights to the COVID-19 pandemic, Chinese diplomats have often been confrontational on the public stage, including on social media, a stridency that some critics see as intended for a domestic audience that nonetheless hurts its foreign ties. “We Chinese will not capitulate. We will not sit and do nothing while
Prominent Chinese commentator Hu Xijin (胡錫進) on Sunday said that as China ponders its COVID-19 policies, epidemic experts need to speak out and China ought to conduct comprehensive research and make any studies transparent to the public. Hu’s unusual call on Chinese social media for candor and transparency earned him 34,000 likes on the popular Sina Weibo microblogging platform, as well as frank responses from commentators in a normally tightly policed Internet quick to censor voices deemed a risk to social stability. China’s top leaders warned in May amid the COVID-19 lockdown of Shanghai and widespread restrictions in the Chinese capital, Beijing,
ENVIRONMENTAL DISASTER: Most of the escaped gas is methane, the second biggest contributor to climate change and a ‘potent greenhouse gas,’ an oceanographer said Denmark on Tuesday said it believed “deliberate actions” by unknown perpetrators were behind big leaks — which seismologists said followed powerful explosions — in two natural gas pipelines running under the Baltic Sea from Russia to Germany. European leaders and experts pointed to possible sabotage amid the energy standoff with Russia provoked by the war in Ukraine. Although filled with gas, neither pipeline is currently supplying it to Europe. “It is the authorities’ clear assessment that these are deliberate actions — not accidents,” Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen said. However, she added that “there is no information indicating who could be behind it.” Frederiksen