ZHOUKOU, China: As he pinned his opponent down and punched him repeatedly in the head, Yao “The Master” Honggang 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 the uncompromising discipline of mixed martial arts (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.
For his latest contest, he returned to his home province of Henan and a sports center in Zhoukou, just a few miles from the quiet plot of land where his parents still make a living growing corn.
A spotlight picked out local businessmen and government officials— plus a consignment of shield-clutching riot police—in the audience of thousands, and 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.
A billion customers?
Yao’s long journey to MMA stardom saw him endure years of struggle and deprivation as he trained in obscurity with a Filipino coach in Beijing.
To keep his dream aloft, 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 PE teacher but his salary was low. So I had to depend on myself,” he said.
Now he competes for prizes of up to $10,000 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), 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 don’t want to fight.”
Wu Haotian 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, he said, “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 favorite move is a downward elbow strike, but 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 ($5,000), with around a fifth taken by his club.
Even so, he said, “We don’t have enough money to live in apartments. We’re poor.”
Eye of the Tiger
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.
Yuan Kaifu, a businessman who had travelled from Beijing to Zhoukou said: “I like MMA because it’s real. Not fake like some other fighting contests.”
Backstage, battlers from Australia, central 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 phone.
Yao looked relaxed as he secured his gloves with tape and sipped a protein drink.
“I don’t get nervous in the ring, I’m aware of everything that is happening,” he said.
After the initial grapple he dodged his opponent’s right-handed punch, hoisted him up and brought him crashing to the ground.
Stuck in a choke-hold, Munkhbayar’s white and gold glove tapped the ground three times, and a bell marked Yao’s victory—after a contest of 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.
“If I didn’t have MMA, I’d probably be doing some small business, construction or working as a cook,” he added. “Or installing air conditioners.”