Your Kung Fu is Strong – Chinese MMA

With the slow emergence of a middle class in modern China, companies and entire markets are looking to tap into the new potential revenue stream.  Foreign interests are trying to influence popular culture in order to create a market.  The biggest example to date would be the NBA.  The NBA actively fostered an already burgeoning interest in basketball and reaped massive benefits from their investment.  In this article we’ll take a look at a list of things that need to happen before MMA gets big in China.  You like eating fried crickets?  Well too bad because you’re in the (Chinese) jungle now.


ufc china


Dragon Style: Homegrown Talent


dragon styleEverybody loves it when a local hero makes it big.  We all want a national hero to stand behind, and if they happen to be the same ethnicity as us then it makes it so much better.  Hate on Mayweather all you want but the man’s not stupid: Jeremy Lin would have still been a popular player due to his basketball credential alone but what makes his story so fascinating is that he’s Asian.  To deny that biases exist along ethnic lines in sports would be to deny that they exist in politics.  We’re not colorblind, nor are we race-blind.


The Chinese need a Wong Fei Hung of MMA they can stand behind.  Someone that will get them excited about watching MMA.  The fighter needs to be talented, charismatic, and most importantly, Chinese.  MMA is a relatively new sport in China, but if China’s economy has shown us anything it’s that the Chinese have no problem playing catch up.  China Top Team has a solid stable of fighters already, but we have yet to see a Chinese MMA superstar.  If the Chinese MMA market is an unlit bonfire, the first Chinese MMA champion would be the spark that ignites it.  What’s needed is a Chinese MMA version of Yao Ming.


The closest to being such a folk hero is Zhang Tiequan.  He is currently the only citizen of the People’s Republic of China competing in the UFC.  He is of Mongolian descent, something that could hinder him in garnering a fan base among “purists”, and let’s not pretend, they exist by the dozens all across Asia.  However, if Zhang keeps winning and winning impressively, people will gladly overlook his Mongolian ancestry when he’s holding the golden belt.


Tiger Style: Education and Participation


tiger style MMA isn’t a sport anybody can watch.  Unless you know what’s going on, when the fight hits the ground it’s boring.  The reason anyone can watch boxing or kickboxing is because you don’t have to understand the intricacies of the sport, it’s just fun to watch people dish out brain damage to each other.  In order for the MMA market to grow, the Brazilian Jujitsu and MMA training center market has to grow as well.  In no market including the US is there a large MMA fanbase where there isn’t a population that trains and fights as well.  People who participate in the sport are integral to MMA because what the sport lacks in numbers it makes up for in intensity.  How many people who watch boxing can call themselves boxers?  Not many, but that’s OK because the sport has been around for so long and it’s fun to watch whether you know how to bob and weave or not.


With a new sport like MMA it’s a different story.  In order to truly enjoy watching MMA you have to understand all aspects of it, including the wrestling and jujtisu.  Grooming a grappling and MMA base for participation is key.  We’ve all watched fights with complete newbs and their newbie questions like: “Why did he tap?” When someone’s caught in a triangle choke, or “Why does that hurt?” when someone lands a leg kick.  You can’t fault them, they just don’t know.  Right now there are precious few jujitsu schools in China.  China Top Team is ahead of the curve, bringing in Team Quest wrestlers to help them up their ground game, but that’s a grain of sand on a massive beach..  The next step in educating the fan base would be to see MMA and Brazilian Jujitsu practiced on a wide scale.  This might be difficult in such a Kung Fu rich land, but it’s really a scenario of viewership and participation going hand in hand  As the Chinese fan base gets more interested in MMA, they will naturally want to participate, and as participation increases so will viewership.  It will take some time but in order to create a lasting market in China, a participating fan base must be created.


Snake Style: Marketing


The NBA was successful in China largely due to Yao Ming, who took an already burgeoning interest in basketball and put a figurehead that everybody could get behind on it.  MMA needs to do the same, but it also needs a strong organization or organizations to promote the sport as well as the players.  The NBA has the advantage of being the only “serious” professional basketball league in the US.  Right now MMA doesn’t have an overall governing body.  It’s a playing field full of competitors using different rules, weight classes, and point systems.


What’s needed to light the fire in China is for an organization or organizations to invest heavily into the Chinese market.  It’s a tough thing to do because it will require a lot of money but the rewards aren’t guaranteed.  Being the first successful organization in China will reap a lot of rewards, but even if you’re number 2 or 3 you can still come away with a decent amount of money.  That’s why no one’s really willing to take the first step.  The benefits simply don’t outweigh the costs.  Until now.


The biggest MMA organization in the world is the UFC.  The UFC puts on an average of 3 shows a month, and has expanded their weight classes to include the featherweight, bantamweight, and announced plans for a flyweight division.  That means more fights, more titles, and more action.  It also gives more fighters a chance to showcase their skills, which ideally would lead to more exciting fights, a bigger fan base, and more money in everyone’s pockets.  The UFC opened up it’s Chinese website and and office in Beijing back in 2010, but no further developments have been reported.  This could mean a number of things.  One thing it could mean is that progress has stalled and the UFC has quietly abandoned the Chinese market for now.  Another reason the UFC has been mum on China is becasue things are progressing, but it’s too early to report on.  After the UFC bought PRIDE, everyone was immediately talking about how the UFC should return to Japan for a few shows, eventually making Japan a permanent venue.  But that took years.  PRIDE was bought by Zuffa owned UFC back in 2007, and we’re now just about to have the first UFC event in Japan.  That’s 4 years in a culture and country where MMA was already popular, not to mention a country where the UFC has put on shows before.


Doggie Style: Final Thoughts


China is a completely new market, culture, and country.  Not to mention that all businesses are “Government owned”, navigating the business waters of the People’s Republic of China can only add to the frustration.  The people trying to put on MMA shows in China should be patient.  They should remember that MMA has never been a top-down sport, where you can promote the sport through giant marketing campaigns and superstars.  It’s always started out as a grassroots movement, with a few fighters and fans training here and there, eventually garnering interest, and then becoming a viable market.  Owners should also be patient becasue of the relative newness of MMA.  Even in potential markets like Japan and Korea MMA organizations struggle to survive.


One things fans can do is support the Chinese MMA scene in any way possible.  The best way would be to participate in MMA, but that’s not a viable option for everyone.  Support Chinese fighters and organizations in any way possible, whether it’s simply clicking “Like” on their Facebook page or buying their t-shirts.  Just like tai chi, if enough momentum is built up China can easily become the biggest MMA market to date.  Think of all the untapped potential a population of 1 billion holds.  More than anything else, as a fight fan I’m excited to see all of the exceptional Chinese talent waiting in the wings for their chance to put on those 4 ounce gloves, and I’m sure you are too.


Authored by Michael Ahn



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