The presence of Chinese talent within the ranks of the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) has witnessed significant evolution in the past decade. Nine years have passed since Tiequan Zhang emerged as a pioneer to global MMA audiences, joining the UFC roster as the organisation’s first Chinese-born contender.
In 2020 the UFC is home to around a dozen Chinese athletes with the vanguard including the likes of 22-year-old bantamweight star Song Yadong, currently 5-0 in the world’s leading professional MMA organisation (15-4 overall). Meanwhile, with nine UFC wins and an incredible five bonus awards, 31-year-old Li Jingliang solidified perennial prominence competing in the welterweight division.
While Jingliang had once been earmarked as the face of China’s emergence at the elite pro level of MMA, it has been the nation’s female talent who have secured some of the most stunning triumphs, such as Yan Xiaonan continuing her unblemished UFC tenure in February with a three round dissection of former strawweight title contender Karolina Kowalkiewicz.
Most impressively, 30-year-old sensation Weili Zhang reigns as the current UFC strawweight world champion and most recently defended the crown in a likely ‘fight-of-the-year’ against iconic former champion Joanna Jędrzejczyk. Zhang blazed a trail and shattered the glass ceiling for Chinese athletes in the UFC and will forever be the one to have shone a spotlight on the pathway for a gargantuan collective of unique national potential.
As just two athletes, the impact of Zhang and Xiaonan is small scale in terms of a Chinese takeover at the elite level, yet their sudden dominance upon arrival is certainly rousing. Will China’s female talent continue to overrun the women’s divisions? To bring such opportunity to fruition, the UFC unveiled its Shanghai based Performance Institute in 2019, tasked with developing high level professionals from across the country. Meanwhile, on the amateur scene Chinese athletes have made an impact at the premier level, most notably through women’s bantamweight prospect Guangmei Han (pictured). A series of unanimous decision wins against rivals from Ukraine, Sweden and Ireland saw Han win gold for the Chinese national team at the 2019 IMMAF World Championships and she has since been taken on board at Shanghai’s UFC P.I.
Before reaching the sport’s upper tier, how is China’s female talent currently cultivated and on what scale is it happening? With China’s legendary and storied martial arts heritage commonly associated with men, what part does national culture play in producing generations of MMA athletes and could similarities be to drawn with the success of Russian males fighting out of the Dagestan region, renown for its wrestling and MMA exports?
To discuss the possible factors, IMMAF.org spoke with Joe Qiaobo, General Consultant and National Team Leader for the MMA Department of the Chinese Boxing Federation, the nation’s government affiliated member to IMMAF. Joe had recently shared the below video that gave a brief insight into the scale and intensity of Chinese girls and women practicing martial arts from a young age.
“These girls are around 15-18 years old,” Joe explained. “They are doing Sanda, which is a Chinese style combat sport allowing punching, kicking and throws. This kind of large group is common in China, what you see in the video doesn’t really show the whole training hall, the whole place is at least 8 times larger than what you see in the video and full of young athletes. Chinese style Sanda has formed the fighting style for most of the Chinese [MMA] fighters which is with strong standup skills with solid takedown defense.”
China hosts a significant professional kickboxing scene with major shows such as Kunlun providing a platform for top domestic talent in both kickboxing and MMA. It is clear that disciplines such as Sanda play an integrated role in streamlining young athletes towards the competitive level while recreational levels of participation among women are potentially off the charts in comparison to other nations. As seen in the Sanda training halls, this machine is engaging practitioners at a young age and carves a pathway similar to the one followed by the current UFC strawweight queen. While the wrestling and sambo youth of Dagestan has produced a wealth of MMA’s most formidable names, is China’s own combat sport culture in the process of constructing a similar highway to the top?
“This is a very good point,” Joe responded, considering the possible similarities between Dagestan’s production of male talent alongside that of Chinese women who may be set to follow in Zhang’s footsteps. “There’s a massive pool of young athletes in China like you saw in the video, male and female, and yes, there will be tons more young MMA talents coming to dominate. It is the reason girls like Xiaonan and Weili are doing so well in the UFC and MMA in general, they were originally good Sanda athletes when they were younger and after retiring from Sanda they started to add more elements on top of their base and applied them so well in MMA.”
And it does not stop there, the official status of China’s MMA Department under the IMMAF umbrella has opened up the national body to the Chinese Olympic Program, presenting all new opportunities and extended pathways to truly world class athletes.
Joe added, “In addition to Sanda, China is very diverse regarding MMA Development. China’s biggest potential is our Olympic combat sports talent pool with real top level athletes of Boxing, Judo, Wrestling, etc. These young athletes were chosen for the Olympic Games and we are also transitioning them as future MMA athletes. The world will see Chinese Olympic level MMA athletes from Judo and Wrestling to Boxing and MMA as well as other pathways. However, we foremost focus on the direct evolution of grass roots MMA and well rounded style development, targeting teenagers in China to take on MMA as their introduction to combat sport.”
The direction of MMA in China is operating on two fronts. The current crop of premier battle ready athletes making their way to MMA’s pro level has been funneled through the various disciplines that boast talent pools of formidable experience. Meanwhile, China’s MMA Federation aims to build the sport from the ground up, planting seeds that one day bring MMA participation to an equal footing with that of leading disciplines in the country, but to what extent could Chinese MMA and the national team, with its aspirations for success, strike a balance between engaging unique grass roots foundations while also integrating with the existing waves of experienced young athletes?