(A condensed version of this story went up on Fightland)
When the Apocalypse goes down, I want guys like Moses Baca and Juan Quesada on my team. They’re both MMA fighters out of the renowned Cesar Gracie Academy in California, one of the sport’s legendary gyms, and both have years of training and fights behind them. Moses in particular is old school, having grown up and trained with the legendary Diaz brothers, Jake Shields and Gil Melendez during that team’s decade of dominance. That’s enough to give them a special place at the table. They make a great tandem: hard as nails Juan reborn again in martial arts, and soft spoken Moses, a BJJ black belt who loves to play with the kids.
Unfortunately, most of that was lost on their Chinese host. For Sichuan-based C3, the tiny provincial promotion that paid to bring them over, Juan and Moses were just warm foreign bodies, part of a big show for the people of Ya’an, a city at the foot of the Himalayas famous for good fish, pretty girls, and lots of rain.
Moses and Juan were brought over by Tao He, a Chinese wushu instructor who runs the Wu Chi Kungfu Academy in Fremont, California. Tao is from Chongqing, one of the largest municipalities in the world and once a part of Sichuan Province. He got involved in the “foreign fighter in China” business through his ties to the wushu community in Chongqing and Sichuan, and has been supplying C3 with California-based fighters for a while.
Tao also brought over Eric Haycroft and Lindsay Scheer from the Real Fighters gym in Louisville, Kentucky, which surprised me because both of them seemed ready to leave the China fight circuit forever following the C3 show Lindsay fought in last August.
That fight was held in the ballroom of a hotel in Emei Town, beneath China’s second most famous Buddhist-infused kungfu site, Emei Mountain. This fight in Ya’an, however, was in the city’s stadium, capacity 3500. It looked like a big step up for C3, and in terms of the show, it definitely was. There were three rows of VIP booths for the various local officials who were going to attend; several hundred ringside seats sold out at 200USD a piece; a huge screen for the walk-out; lights and loud music, tall white ring girls, and several dozen sponsors with their logos plastered all over the scene.
By 8pm the stadium was standing room only. Ya’an is a small town by Chinese standards, with a population of mostly working class people just a half-step out of the rice paddies and a great leap away from the riches some of the nation is enjoying. There is a lot of money in this town, don’t get me wrong, but it’s not glitzy money. No crazy FDI or LV outlets in Ya’an. Just concrete money. A little bit of tea and tourism money.
Perfect for a fight night.
Backstage in the “foreigner room,” Moses was shadowboxing a bit, Lindsay was on her back listening to fight music, and a black kid from Connecticut named Arthur was getting wrapped up. Arthur has been living and training in Guangzhou for a few months with a bunch of Thai guys who he says pimp him out to promotions like C3. He came alone. No corner, no hype man, nothing. Arthur is in great shape and has a great heart, but I was worried for him. Guys like him are usually set up to feed the crowd’s frenzy.
A Russian Khazak and a Tajik were listening to headphones while a Thai contingent rubbed each other down with tiger balm and stalked back and forth. One guy who caught my attention – and the attention of every young Ya’an girl in the house – was a Frenchman named Pierre who looked like a male model. He was “cornered” by Albie, a tall thin Chinese girl with green contacts who also happens to be dating Silas Maynard, a guy who runs a gym in Shanghai known for supplying foreigners (The Hard-Knock Life of a Foreign Fighter in China) to the Chinese circuit.
There were a few stand-outs on the Chinese side too. Liu Xiang Ming, a Muay Thai fighter with experience in China’s Wulinfeng promotion, looked like a pro. He trains with a guy named Wang Wei, who also helped train Wang Sai, a very good fighter who lost a close fight to Zhang Lipeng in the TUF: Macao fight earlier this year. All of Wang Wei’s fighters tend to have solid fundamentals, so I was excited to see what Liu could do.
Lindsay Scheer’s opponent was a girl named Yang Yang. A thick-necked bull of a girl with a flat top – the Chinese fighter’s do of choice – and huge legs. I haven’t seen too many female fights in China, but the few I have seen surprised me. The Chinese girls were very aggressive, very confident, and had great Sanda techniques. When I saw this bull they had found for Lindsay, I put a check by that fight.
The other fight I was interested in was Pierre’s fight. Turned out he was fighting the local hero, Luo Zigang, a wushu/Sanda badass who’s face took up half the billboard hanging up outside the stadium. He had a huge crew following him around, including some girls and a posse of loud Chinese countryside gangster types with tight black t-shirts made of rayon or some shit, gold chains, and battered, close cropped heads. As soon as I saw that Silas’ boy was fighting the local kid, I knew the fix was in.
How It Went Down
The show was spectacular, the crowd was into it, and the fights were mostly sloppy. These small Chinese promotions have the show thing down, and they make money off of every show. The key to making money is keeping it small, keeping it very local, and getting those sponsors. C3 doesn’t care about growing big and leaving Sichuan. They put up the local concrete guy’s logo, invite all of the big local officials, pull a few strings to get some comped hotel rooms and an army of college volunteers from the local technical school, and then charge at the door.
An interesting side note was the fact that each of the Chinese fighters had their show money highlighted on the fight card. Most of the fighters were between 2000 – 3000USD, but I found it particularly Chinese to advertise this information. It tells the audience member that these fighters are the real deal, that it costs serious money to bring them in. Ironically enough, not a single foreign fighter had their show money highlighted. Middlemen like Silas and Tao ain’t trying to make that shit public.
But what this means is that the fighters are the lowest priority. Making weight is completely off the radar, and that process is filled with comic errors and nigh tragic sauna sessions. Moses took the fight on a week’s notice after Juan hurt his rib, and like a pro went and cut 20lbs in two days. He turned up to the weigh in looking like a zombie, while his opponent, a Mongolian kid with a bowl cut, showed up a couple lbs over. Lindsay had the same experience.
Matches are made haphazardly, like pulling names out of a hat, with no regard for progression or improvement. It’s all about the show, and that’s understandable because C3 isn’t trying to hand out real belts or have some sort of championship. They’re promoting the fight business in the hinterlands of China, and trying to make money while they do it. From the crowd’s reaction, I think they are doing a good job, even if the fights were at times ridiculous.
Moses was stopped from grappling and using any BJJ whatsoever by an incompetent ref, so he ended up pounding the poor, turtled up Mongolian for a TKO. Lindsay was on her way to a decision loss until she face-kicked Yang Yang in the third and knocked her out. The doctors gaped slack-jawed while Yang Yang staggered around. When I yelled at them to do their job, one of the “nurses” said “i’m not going, you go” to one of the others and went back to her cell phone. Pierre did a textbook Euro Soccer Dive after Luo Zigang hit him in the head early in the second round. It was amazing. He even jerked his body mid-air like Cristiano Ronaldo does sometimes.
The two best fights of the night were between Arthur and the ringer, a kid named Liang Shoutao, and Liu Xiangming’s dismantling of Roman, the tough Russian. I love that Russians will never be the ones to take a dive. Roman was up against the toughest Chinese fighter in the house, and he took a bunch of hard shots, went down twice, and got up to keep fighting.
Arthur also fought his ass off. He told Moses and Juan that most of the fights he had in China were lonely affairs, and it was hard to get his spirit up. But with a couple pros in his corner, Arthur turned it up a notch and boxed his way to a solid, exciting UD over Liang. His left hook to the body was the killer, buckling Liang a few times in there, and putting a halt to any spirited opposition.
This is a Good Thing
There was a lot of incompetence on display during the Ya’an fight, primarily where the fights and fighters were concerned. Proper weigh-ins, compelling match-ups, standard rules that everyone (including the ref) understands, competent doctors who know what they’re watching … all these things are not yet where they should be.
But the crowd loved it. They even liked the rear naked choke – which elicited a collective “wtf” from the stadium when it happened – once it was explained to them by the announcer. They cheered good fights, laughed at Pierre’s Eurodive, and most importantly, they packed the house.
There were also a lot of Chinese fighters in attendance. I spoke with a group of Muay Thai fighters from the tiny, Muslim-dominated province of Ningxia for a while. One of them had spent a year in Thailand training and fighting. I met one guy who asked me where he could find a BJJ gym. I told him Chengdu, a few hours west. There were also dozens of wushu and Sanda practitioners, kids barely 10 years old and seasoned vets who had fought and performed on the regional circuits.
“These young kids are the next generation,” said the guy looking for a BJJ gym. “They see these fights, get excited, and want to do it themselves.”
He’s right. During the fights I was cursing the ref, yelling at the doctors, and shaking my head at some of the fights. Afterwards I joined Moses and Juan in deriding Tao for not taking better care of them.
They were dropped off in the “tenderloin of Chengdu” and told that they had a flight the next morning. Tao then took off and sent couple “you guys still allright?” messages. It annoyed me that fighters of their caliber would be treated like this. Like they were just warm bodies for a show, performers for some country yokels and their officials to gawk at.
But then at some point during our day wondering around Chengdu, Moses said that the scene in China reminded him of the US in the 1990s. Horrible match-ups, bad refs, no real doctors to be seen, and a bunch of shady people cashing in. They took the bullshit much easier than I did, because they had seen it all before. For them, coming to a new country, getting paid to fight, and getting treated with respect by hordes of young Chinese who wanted their picture taken with the foreign fighter is worth sloppy weigh ins and slightly farcical fights.
So I’d expect to see some big names in the MMA world in China sooner or later. Herb Dean already came out here a couple times, and it’s only a matter of time before MMA’s equivalent of Stephon Marbury heads to China, becomes a star, and changes the fight game here forever.