MMA: making history, breaking barriers


Contributing Writer

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Shenzhen, Aug. 31 — the hearts of every audience member of the crowd pulses with anticipation. This was the event that everyone in attendance was waiting for. Seconds felt like hours; minutes were days. It was as if time stood still, forcing everyone to acknowledge the sheer and utter significance of what was about to occur in the stadium.

Then it was time and, less than 60 seconds later, it ended. It took only 42 seconds for MMA Weili Zhang to dismantle and demolish Jessica Andrade, the best women’s strawweight (115lbs.) fighter on the planet. The  crowd, roaring with excitement, knew Zhang stood on top of the world, not only as the new UFC strawweight champion, but as the first Chinese MMA fighter in the history of the organization to earn such a title. This wasn’t just a win for Zhang. It was a win for MMA in China, and I couldn’t be more ecstatic.

The sport of MMA has always had a difficult time gaining traction in the world’s most populated nation. Already boasting many martial artists, such as Shaolin kung fu and wing chun, many in China are of the mindset that MMA is just a Western style of martial arts that’s trying to replace the traditional and culturally significant Chinese martial arts — and there is merit to this argument.

While MMA focuses on the “martial” aspects of the practice, most of the Chinese disciplines focus their attention on the “art” aspects of martial arts. Anybody who has witnessed Chinese martial arts can see the beauty and elegance of the practitioner’s movements. In addition, many traditional Chinese martial arts focus on spirituality with inner peace as the main goal of the art form. And while there is genuine merit and benefit in practicing beautiful and peaceful martial arts, the time spent away from the “martial” aspect of martial arts leads many of these ancient art forms to be less effective in fights than was once believed.

MMA, on the other hand, is a relatively new discipline that focuses almost exclusively on the “martial” aspect of martial arts. While there are a few examples of people combining martial arts to create more effective fighting systems (notably Kanō Jigorō, the creator of judo, and Bruce Lee, creator of jeet kune do) the inception of what is now MMA is commonly accepted as the first UFC event, held in 1993.

There, eight fighters of different disciplines fought against one another to determine which martial art was the most effective fighting style. The early days of MMA saw fighters train solely in their first discipline. In the modern era, numerous martial arts, including many Chinese martial arts, were deemed less effective compared to other martial arts. In a scramble to find the best martial art, thousands of practitioners jumped ship from their original style to a different style that was more effective against other martial arts (Brazilian jiujitsu saw the most growth at this point).

But, over time, fighters realized that combining styles from different martial arts was more effective than just training in a single one. Most fighters incorporated techniques from boxing, wrestling, kickboxing, Brazilian jiujitsu, muay thai, sambo and judo, which were all arts deemed effective when it was the only discipline used by a practitioner in an MMA fight. But now that modern fighters know the basics of what they need to know to be successful in the cage, techniques common from once-abandoned martial arts are coming back into the sport, notably from kung fu.

Zhang, a fighter whose roots in MMA came from kung fu, has famously stated that she will bring as many techniques from kung fu to MMA as she can. With kung fu in her arsenal, she has been on a 20-fight win streak, with 10 knockouts and seven submission victories.

Feared rising star Zabit Magomedsharipov, No.5 UFC Featherweight, of Dagestan, Russia, has been seen using flashy double spinning back kicks, wheel kicks (also used in taekwondo), and trips associated with kung fu to skillfully, yet savagely, smash his opponents into oblivion.

If the hype around kung fu in MMA isn’t enough evidence to suggest a shift in popularity, an example of another sport that once gained popularity in China should convince even the most skeptical — basketball.

Like martial arts, basketball has been popular in China since its introduction. But the sport’s popularity skyrocketed when Yao Ming became one of the best players in the NBA in the early 2000s. As far as the Chinese people were concerned, if Ming was winning, all of China  was winning, and basketball became far and away the most popular sport in China.

Now with Zhang as a UFC champion, it wouldn’t be surprising if the Chinese were to adopt the same mentality they have of Ming scoring buckets, to Zheng winning fights.

And new fans of fighting means new talent to the sport, something that I couldn’t be happier about. Zhang’s new belt is a momentous victory for her personally, and is equally a large victory for the Chinese. I just hope that the momentum carries through, leading the sport to become more popular in the country, bringing new talent to the table and thus creating more art of a martial variety for the world to see.