Sporting violence enthusiasts, celebrities, Hong Kong movie starlet Karen Mok, Michael Buffer (of "Let’s get ready to rumble!" fame) and representatives from China Economic Review‘s Beijing bureau were all on hand to witness China’s latest Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) tournament on Saturday. Located at the Olympic auditorium, the "Art of War 12 Fighting Championship" (or "championshop" as it appeared on the program given to spectators) was not the first MMA tournament in China. Nonetheless, it was marketed as a special event because it was sponsored by the Abu Dhabi’s crown prince, who flew out scores of VIPs from the United Arab Emirates, some of the most famous fighters of yesteryear, as well as a cadre of Western journalists (business class, we were told!), housing them all in the Crowne Plaza hotel for a week. It’s good to be the prince, apparently.
MMA is relatively new on the world’s sporting scene and has both its ardent supporters and detractors. Those in favor see artistry in the blend of wrestling, boxing and martial arts. Critics claim it’s little more than a street fight with pretensions of grandeur. What I witnessed was something in between. This was certainly not a street fight. From discussions I had with referees prior to the match, and media who cover MMA full time, there’s more to the sport than just two guys trying to knock each other out with a punch or a submission hold – though there’s certainly that, too.
But can MMA pick up in China? While the auditorium wasn’t entirely sold out, there was a healthy crowd and most of the seats were occupied. Pierre Justo, director of Sports Research in Asia for TNS Sport/CSM Media Research, said that MMA’s prospects in China are "quite good indeed," as the Chinese have already expressed interest in martial arts sporting events.
"These types of programs are usually highly watched on TV, so the prospects for a new type of ‘violent’ sport event is reasonable," he said.
The crowd at the MMA event was certainly enthusiastic, and cheered loudly for their Chinese champions. Some held signs bearing the image of Dai Shuang Hai aloft as he fought Atsuhiro Tsuboi of Japan, a fight that ended in a draw. And when Wu Hao Tian repeatedly pummeled Japan’s Yutaka Kobayashi’s face for victory in the main event – let’s just say the crowd went wild.
Nonetheless, MMA faces competition from boxing, Wushu and other martial arts better known on the mainland. Justo said the key to success for this new sport will be what kind of berth it can find on television.
MMA is currently being broadcast on Inner Mongolian satellite television, which was one of the reasons Swiss air purifier maker IQ Air decided to sponsor the "Art of War" event, according to the firm’s vice president Mike Bearden. He also believes that China’s history of martial arts may make the mainland a natural market for MMA.
"MMA is an up-and-coming sport, and it’s kind of what defines China as far as Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee – they’re not only heroes here in China, they’re also heroes around the world," he said.