Part one of “Back to the Roots” explored martial arts’ role across Chinese history. We tracked its use as a symbol of both liberation and suppression over time, bringing us closer to understanding how a lack of clear identity had created a rocky national MMA landscape where the sport’s potential had not yet been realized.

In the modern day, public, governmental and sociological interests continue to impede the growth of MMA in the Middle Kingdom. Reviewing the state authority’s apathy towards private companies like Chinese MMA promotion Ranik Ultimate Fighting Federation, and exploring the lack of American-esque patriotism throughout the country, we can see two of the greatest obstacles to MMA’s success in China.

Government “Regulation”

In RUFF’s effort to establish and legitimize professional MMA in China, the group sought approval from its highest sporting body, the State General Administration of Sports. Much like the UFC’s cooperation with state athletic commissions in the United States, RUFF wished to comply with the national government to position itself as a safe and credible sport in the eyes of a domestic consumer audience.

For RUFF’s efforts, the General Administration of Sports of China charged the promotion 1.2 million Yuan (nearly $200,000) a year to hold sanctioned events. That’s a hefty price tag for any small MMA promotion that hasn’t hosted its first event yet.

The Administration’s request for a large up-front sum from such a young company failed to acknowledge the long-term economic benefits of supporting the sport in its infancy. Through nurturing in the sport’s early stages, MMA prosperity in the future could return a much greater dividend. Valuable capital that could secure media exposure, improve production values or acquire higher caliber talent was spent before the project could even lift off the ground. As the first mainland Chinese MMA organization to be certified by the People’s Republic of China, RUFF showed a desire that was rewarded with short-term financial interest from a governing body long associated with corruption, notably in the country’s state-run soccer league.

In exchange for the hefty bill, one might expect a dedicated regulation of RUFF events, or perhaps access to the nation’s finest wushu talents training under state supervision. In reality, regulation was lax, while RUFF received no significant talent from the governing body’s Wushu Administrative Center.

RUFF’s debut show, RUFF: Genesis, came on August 27, 2011. The event was marred by allegations of illegal hand-wrapping and a failure to communicate the Unified Rules of MMA to fighters or officials. In return for the promotion’s costly “certification,” government supervision of the event was minimal. One fighter on the show, Ramsey Dewey, claimed hand wraps were even made from “a combination of gauze, sports tape and illegal elastic adhesive tape.” Against the interests of fighter safety, these “protective hand wraps” became reinforced gloves. The fallout from the event prompted questions of who the General Administration of Sports of China had assigned to regulate the event. If the regulation fee wasn’t being invested back into making the sport safer, where was the money going?

To RUFF’s credit, the promotion overcame its initial growing pains and hosted its 13th event, RUFF Fu, on June 7 at the Hongkou Indoor Stadium in Shanghai. In light of other promotions like Legend Fighting Championship falling to the wayside over financial concerns, RUFF remains the flagship of domestic MMA in China for its tenacity and patience in the face of government bureaucracy. Until the sanctioning process is streamlined and its spending policy is made more transparent, the governing body’s apathy to new sport start-ups will continue to deter other entrepreneurs.

The Shortcomings of “The Patriot Card”

In spite of an active state authority that appears to have integrated itself into most facets of sporting life in China, a lack of outward patriotism and national identity complicates MMA’s establishment in China further.

As several established MMA promotions across the world, and particularly in Asia, provide intense competition to acquire the sport’s elite talent, MMA promotions like RUFF have placed a focus on recruiting Chinese fighters in an attempt to create a slight competitive edge. In theory, a commitment to the sport’s domestic health offers an intangible quality that the UFC, ONE FC and other organizations cannot, with business models firmly grounded outside of China. A state population of over 1.3 billion people would also, in theory, provide a strong pool of competitors to choose from.

The impact of a national champion being the face of an organization is well documented in MMA’s history. Kazushi Sakuraba was integral to Pride FC’s popularity in its heyday, and the Japanese star’s decline paralleled that of the organization. Similarly, Randy Couture, Ken Shamrock, Chuck Liddell, Tito Ortiz and Matt Hughes each played key roles in the UFC’s initial growth period under Zuffa ownership as English-speaking fighters who could directly communicate with the promotion’s majority.

Converting theory into practice, Joel Resnick’s RUFF forged an express focus on nationally based fighters, demanding all competitors on RUFF’s roster live in China and own a legitimate work permit. Taking the emphasis on China one step further, RUFF’s titleholders were not given the customary title of “world champion,” but were instead named “National MMA Champions of China.” These decisions catered to a hardline state government and a domestic consumer audience conditioned to its nationalistic teachings.

In 2014, RUFF and Chinese MMA unfortunately lack that defining talisman—a fighter whose ability and popularity is catalyzed by their nationality. The closest China has to that personality is Zhang Tiequan , a UFC fighter and co-founder of China’s most notable MMA camp, China Top Team. However, his star has been dimmed by a three-fight losing skid in the UFC’s most competitive and populated weight class, lightweight. The UFC has sensibly harnessed “The Mongolian Wolf’s” name value and Chinese military fighting style of sanda to strengthen its footing in the Middle Kingdom, using Tiequan as a coach on its The Ultimate Fighter: China series. At 35 years old, however, Tiequan’s torch will soon need passing.

Across a state speaking many different languages, including Mandarin, Cantonese, English, Portuguese and Mongolian, the strong element of provincial identity undermines patriotism’s effect as a marketing tool. The social and cultural nuances separating these Chinese provinces even present themselves physically as regionalized adaptations of martial arts practice. Northern martial art disciplines like changquan and xingyiquan highlight fast and powerful kicks, explosiveness and agility. In contrast, southern styles like wing chun profile close-quarters, upper-body techniques, and Mongolian territories favor the grappling and wrestling elements of martial arts.

On the operational side of MMA, the failed patriot card has caused more problems than it has solutions. A shallow pool of skilled Chinese talent willing to fight professionally has given the fighters more bargaining power over pay. While having a fighter handsomely rewarded for his or her dedication is not necessarily a bad thing, this leverage comes at the behest of fledgling promotions in a primitive MMA market that can be outbid by global competitors.

Former RUFF fighter Zhang LiPeng is one fan-favorite in China whose relationship with RUFF collapsed over contract negotiations. Taking his talent elsewhere, LiPeng would notably win The Ultimate Fighter: China and become the latest addition to a stacked UFC welterweight division. With RUFF’s ranks depleted by attractive competitors, the organization had to renege on its biggest selling point, relaxing entry criteria to allow foreign talent from Mongolia, Russia and former Soviet republics to compete on its roster. South African bantamweight Irshaad Sayed and Brazilian lightweight Rodrigo Caporal have even claimed Chinese National MMA Championships.

RUFF’s canceling of its ambitious nationalist policy revealed that Chinese MMA needs more than jingoism to overcome contentious regulations, a lack of crossover from wushu and the absence of a national star, and to secure its long-term future. In the complex and diverse sport of mixed martial arts, a simplistic concept like patriotism is not enough to satisfy the wide palette of MMA fans.

Next week, we will examine market forces, including a disjointed media landscape and the lack of an amateur MMA infrastructure, as we conclude this series and determine how to help the sport grow in China.

About The Author

Aidan O'Connor
Staff Writer

A native of Maidstone, England, Aidan has been covering MMA in a news or feature capacity since 2010. In addition to writing for The MMA Corner, Aidan also runs the MMAmusing Twitter account and enjoys the sport as an avid enthusiast. A graduate in English and American Studies, he currently works in marketing and public relations.

  • saschaCD

    Hi, great work. I was wondering what you would come up with for Part 2. I think the regulatory lack of support is an interesting angle, and it would have been cool to get more details on that. RUFF uses the permit they received as a marketing tool, letting everyone know that RUFF is the only MMA promoter allowed to do combat sports shows in China. That is supposedly very valuable, and coupled with the fact that Wushu has stayed out of RUFF’s way (because they are not famiiar with MMA) and also rebuffed efforts – so far – from other promotions to hold shows on the Mainland, I am not sure if regulations stand in the way as much as other issues. But yeah, Wushu doing or not doing is an interesting topic that hasn’t been covered.

    The patriotism card. I believe you have completely misunderstood that one. It’s an interesting angle you took – that lack of patriotism means national champion strategies don’t work here – but only in a fictional world in which hard core Chinese patriotism doesn’t exist. I believe the exact opposite is true: patriotism at extreme levels has hindered MMA here, and RUFF’s strategy failed more due to the impossibility of marketing across a nation as large as China, rather than the message falling on deaf ears.

    Good stuff though man, solid writing.