Art of War: The Rise of MMA in China

Jad SemaanSenior Analyst IAugust 8, 2008

Among the world’s preeminent nations, China retains perhaps the oldest and richest martial-arts legacy and warrior culture.

From ancient combat in the Warring States period and Three Kingdoms era, to influential military manuals such as the Art of War, and to styles such as Shaolin Kung Fu and Tai Ji Quan, hardly any other civilization can trace such an outstanding historical resume in regards to the development and perpetuation of battle techniques, strategies, and expertise in every kind of armed and unarmed conflict.

Thus, it should be no surprise that the world’s fastest-growing sport has finally come to the world’s most populous country. The first promotion to hold a professional MMA event in the People’s Republic of China was the aptly-named Art of War Fighting Championship (not to be confused with America’s Art of War Undisputed Arena Fighting Championship).

Their inaugural event took place on Nov. 6, 2005 at the Beijing Sports University. They have held 10 events in total, all in mainland China.

Of course, a promotion is nothing without a stable of upper-tier fighters to support it. Art of War FC has played host to some of China’s best MMA fighters, including multiple world judo champions, karate champions, wrestling champions, and several Olympians.

Foreign talent has also competed in China, notably European Muay Thai champion Filippo Cinti of Italy, DEEP superstar Jeong Ho Lee of Korea, and Japan’s own Setsuka Tayeda, a practitioner of Karate and Jiu-jitsu.

Many Chinese MMA fighters are proficient in Sanshou (or Sanda) and have competed professionally in that discipline. Sanshou is the style of current Strikeforce Middleweight champion Cung Le.

It emphasizes striking and wrestling, with an abundance of throws and trips. Fighting on the ground is not permitted, however. Still, Sanshou has served as an adequate base from which Chinese fighters have developed a better-rounded repertoire of skills.

A large audience for the fighters results in unprecedented exposure. Art of War became the first MMA promotion to be aired on CCTV-5, which is China’s largest sports broadcasting platform.

It reaches a worldwide audience of one billion people. Art of War IV, held on Dec. 29, 2006, set the record for the single largest MMA event broadcasted to the world.

Success brings with it renewed anticipation and vigor.

In March 2008, Art of War FC signed a broadcasting agreement that will bring the tournament into the homes of 200 million viewers around the country on a weekly basis, including such regions as Macau, New Zealand, Australia, and Hong Kong. This move is expected to bring a whole new level of popularity to the rising phenomenon of MMA in China.

Matchups in the Art of War Fighting Championship regularly feature foreigners fighting against Chinese combatants. These are the types of fights that really please the audience, and they add a sort of tournament atmosphere to the proceedings.

PRIDE FC, in Japan, did something similar; as the fans there loved to watch their heroes compete against fighters from other countries.

Weight classes start at 60 kg (132 lbs) and go up by 6 kg all the way to heavyweight, which is 96 kg and above (211.5 lbs). The cards usually feature 12 bouts. The largest live crowd so far has been 4,000 persons, and this was at Art of War III, held at the Xi’an Communications University on Mar. 25, 2006.

There are no belt holders for each division yet.

Though all eyes will be on China for the upcoming summer Olympics, it is unfortunate that MMA, or its older brother, Pankration, is not an Olympic event yet. Jim Arvanitis, the “Father of Modern Pankration,” tried to get his sport sanctioned for the Olympics in Athens 2004. However, the bid was rejected. There has been much talk recently about introducing MMA in its current form to the Games sometime in the future.

However, if this happens, I think it will follow the rules of current Pankration or amateur MMA, instead of the rules that we would traditionally see inside the cage. I also think that only amateurs would be allowed to compete, similar to boxing in the Olympics.

Yet, there is still hope that we may see an international MMA event someday, with professional fighters representing their countries in a tournament-style competition, similar to the Davis Cup in tennis. Or the format could resemble soccer’s World Cup. But such speculation is perhaps best reserved for a future article.

It seemed like only a matter of time before MMA came to the homeland of such revered combat-oriented historical figures as Sun Tzu, Zhuge Liang, and Bruce Lee. China’s legacy in warfare and the martial arts is far-reaching and distinguished. Thus, the Art of War Fighting Championship is the perfect way to introduce MMA to China’s vast audience.

And who knows? Maybe the next great mixed-martial-arts champion will come from the land known to the natives as Zhongguo, the “middle kingdom.”


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