Hello again, Global Impact readers:
After a landmark year in 2019, Asian MMA has suffered more than any other continent in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, and those struggles spilled into the cage in 2021.
This week, Nicolas Atkin, a production editor on the Sport desk here at the SCMP, recaps some trying times for the sport in Asia, and how its mixed martial arts warriors are fighting back.
Production Editor, Political Economy
Seconds out, what’s in store for MMA in China in 2022?
After pouring US$13 million into a state-of-the-art Shanghai Performance Institute (PI), with the intention of producing a steady production line of Chinese talent, the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) probably expected a bigger return on their investment than what they saw in 2021.
Going into last year, Chinese fortunes had been riding high in the world’s biggest mixed martial arts promotion, mostly on the back of Zhang Weili. “Magnum” became China’s first-ever UFC champion in August 2019, and defended her belt in 2020’s Fight of the Year just days before the coronavirus pandemic turned MMA – and the world – on its head.
While other promotions in Asia, like the Singapore-based ONE Championship and Japan’s Rizin Fighting Federation, ground to a shuddering halt, the UFC quickly found a way to persevere while their competition was initially stuck – just not in China, with Beijing closed for (fight) business.
No matter. The UFC still signed an exclusive, lucrative broadcast rights deal with China Mobile subsidiary Migu in February 2021.
But Chinese fortunes would swiftly come crashing down inside and outside the cage, when Zhang’s historic strawweight title reign was brought to a sudden and shocking end in April, with American “Thug” Rose Namajunas claiming the belt inside 78 seconds at UFC 261.
In what was the company’s first show back with a full arena of fans since the onset of the pandemic, the scars of anti-Asian hate – opened up by Covid-19 – were loudly felt inside Jacksonville’s partisan VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena.
Zhang was subjected to loud jeering and “hateful rhetoric” from the Florida crowd. It didn’t help that Namajunas – whose family fled Communism in Lithuania to the United States – invoked some cold war rhetoric when she remarked in the build-up to the fight that she would be “better dead than red”.
Zhang wasn’t the only fighter on the card subjected to abuse, with three of her compatriots all given the same treatment as they tasted defeat on what proved to be a chastening night for Chinese MMA.
While there were some rare bright spots in 2021, such as victories for “The Kung Fu Monkey” Song Yadong and “The Tibetan Eagle” Su Mudaerji – and movement up the UFC’s bantamweight and flyweight rankings, respectively – that night in Jacksonville proved to be foreshadowing.
Though putting on a much-improved performance and going the full five rounds, Zhang failed to reclaim the belt from Namajunas in their November rematch.
Five more China Academy fighters would then fluff their lines on Dana White’s Contender Series, and failed to “graduate” through winning a UFC contract. The only name to make the grade was lightweight Maheshate – whom White singled out as special in his appraisal.
Not that UFC president White seemed too bothered. “100 per cent,” he said, when asked if the Shanghai PI had been a worthy investment.
But that assessment couldn’t paper over what had been a big step back for Chinese MMA in the UFC in 2021.
It is fair to say that the pandemic – and the restrictions imposed by China through its zero-Covid policy – played a big part in this backward trajectory.
Asia’s biggest MMA promotion, ONE Championship, also found China and its main overseas markets closed, and fell back to its home city to host all of its shows last year at a mostly-empty Singapore Indoor Stadium.
With domestic MMA events shut down in China and Covid-19 restrictions affecting training, many Chinese fighters were forced to find other avenues to sharpen their skills, and several high-profile names in the UFC uprooted their lives and left the mainland behind for the US.
Zhang prepared for her title rematch in Glendale, putting some of the blame for her shock April loss down to the logistical nightmare of training in Beijing and arriving late in the US.
Hong Kong’s own UFC China Academy star Ramona Pascual also left the Shanghai PI behind amid its closure during lockdown, and left from her home city to settle in Las Vegas.
A couple of first-round finishes in the last six months in smaller promotions have the 33-year-old Pascual knocking on the door of the UFC, and her gamble looks to be paying off.
Pascual was supposed to be part of the inaugural Dana White’s Contender Series Asia in early 2020, which could have propelled her and many of her teammates straight to the UFC.
Hopes to launch the show in 2021 again failed, and Chinese UFC hopefuls are now having to do it the hard way to get to the promised land.
Count them out at your peril, though.
Leading the charge, as usual, is Zhang. The 32-year-old is primed for a longer stay in Arizona this year.
Things are looking up on ONE Championship’s front, too, with the promotion set to mark a return to full crowds with March 26’s 10th anniversary show, ONE: X, in front of 12,000 spectators in Singapore.
After the endless body blows of the past two years, things could finally start improving for MMA in China, and Asia as a whole.