Way of the Warrior is an ongoing series exploring the growth of MMA in China from a variety of unique perspectives. We’ll introduce the sport’s rising talents, burgeoning fanbase, and cultural ties to China.
When Hong Jian, a 16-year-old high school student in a coastal city in South China’s Guangdong province, details his journey to become a fan of mixed martial arts (MMA), he starts at the very beginning — with a local boxing gym and his quest to lose weight.
“I used to be a little fat man,” Hong tells RADII, “And, while out walking with my dad one day, I saw a boxing gym, and my father let me join.”
This was four years ago, when Hong was 12 years old, and his experiences in the bruising world of boxing have had a considerable impact on his life.
“I gradually fell in love with this sport because it has allowed me to protect the people I love. It has saved me from mediocrity and cowardice — it also made me lose weight,” says Hong, who adds that boxing helped introduce him to MMA — a combat sport he describes himself as a “crazy fan” of.
Hong is particularly fond of the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), an American MMA promotion company headquartered in Las Vegas, Nevada. He praises the UFC for its strong position of authority in the sport.
And Hong isn’t alone.
According to Kevin Chang, UFC’s senior vice-president in the Asia-Pacific region, the fight promotion has more than 170 million fans in China — more than half the total population of the United States.
While assembling this article, we spoke with nearly a dozen people across China who classify themselves as MMA fans. And while our inquiries varied depending on our subjects’ personal backgrounds, we had one overlapping question that we asked: “How would you describe a typical MMA fan in China?”
“MMA fans are of all ages, but most of them are men,” says Hong.
Mr. Wei, a 27-year-old MMA fan living in Shenzhen, tells RADII, “I think fans are 18-35 years [of age], because it’s a young age group and these people are passionate about fighting and self-defense skills — and most of them are males.”
Shi Ming, a professional female MMA fighter who grew up in China’s southwestern Yunnan province, echoed the above sentiments. She tells us, “I think the average Chinese MMA fan is probably a 30-year-old man, because most men this age have a VPN and have seen MMA fights on YouTube.”
UFC fans enjoying a fan experience event at the UFC Performance Institute Shanghai. Image courtesy of UFC
We came into this story with similar expectations: That China’s MMA fans would be under 35 and overwhelmingly — like 90% — male. This, it turns out, is only partially true.
“The majority of our fans are still men, but I think you’d be surprised how many women are also fans. But if you’re going to look strictly at percentages, then [our fans] are mostly men — although that percentage difference isn’t as big as you’d think,” Senior VP Chang tells RADII on a recent visit to the UFC Performance Institute in Shanghai.
According to statistics compiled by UFC Asia-Pacific and provided by Chang, 66% of UFC’s fanbase in China falls between 18-34 years old. However, the male-female divide is not as great as you might expect: 68% of Chinese UFC fans are male, while 32% are female.
Spectators watch fighters at a fan event at the UFC Performance Institute Shanghai. Image courtesy of UFC
The gender balance of fans of Singapore-based MMA promotion ONE Championship, however, is more one-sided. According to data provided by ONE, 94% of the promotion’s fans are male, while only 6% are female.
Sure, men make up the majority of China’s MMA fans, but Chang’s data shows that there is a strong contingent of female UFC fans.
Twenty-six-year-old Shenzhen resident Miki Liu proudly counts herself among the 32% of UFC’s female fanbase.
Originally introduced to combat sports by her boyfriend John Graham, who runs the boxing promotion White Collar Fight Night in South China, Liu says she now classifies herself as a passionate MMA fan — and fighter drama is her favorite part of the show.
“Just watching the fighting, itself, is kind of boring. For me, it’s about the fighters’ stories. My boyfriend will tell me all the background information about the fighters and their drama, like when Conor McGregor threw stuff at that bus,” Liu tells RADII, referencing a high-profile incident when UFC star Conor McGregor used a metal dolly to smash the window of a bus carrying undefeated UFC champ Khabib Nurmagomedov and other fighters.
Miki Liu and her boyfriend at the UFC Performance Institute Shanghai. Image courtesy of Miki Liu
Over the years, Liu has attended live UFC events in Macau, Shenzhen, Shanghai, and Beijing, as well as a REBEL Fighting Championship event in Shenzhen.
Speaking to the moment when she became a passionate, diehard MMA fan, Liu singles out the UFC Fight Night event in Shenzhen when female Chinese fighter Zhang Weili secured the title of UFC Women’s Strawweight World Champion.
“When I became a true fan was when I went to go and watch Zhang Weili’s fight in Shenzhen. We were sitting in front of Zhang Weili’s corner … and we watched her fight and become China’s first UFC champion,” says Liu. “That day, on my WeChat Moments, all the women I know were posting about Zhang Weili. She represents the power of women.”
Miki Liu at “UFC Fight Night: Andrade vs. Zhang” in Shenzhen in 2019. Image courtesy of Miki Liu
When we asked her who she envisions when thinking of a typical Chinese MMA fan, she was quick to point out that women are fans too, stating, “I have a lot of girlfriends that like to watch MMA, especially after Zhang Weili won the title.”
Chang agrees, noting that Zhang has become an icon and empowering figure to women in China and around the world, showing them that they don’t have to fit into society’s mold, that they can pursue their dreams — whatever those dreams may be.
If you were somehow magically transported into Mercedes-Benz Arena in Shanghai on the evening of November 27, 2017, you’d perhaps have been forgiven for thinking you were in a stadium somewhere in the continental United States. UFC logos flashed across the stadium’s jumbo screens, and a sold-out crowd roared with excitement around the fighting promotion’s trademark octagonal cage.
This success didn’t come easy, though. It took years of concerted effort to generate enough interest in MMA to fill a stadium.
“When I started with the UFC in 2010, it had a very small fanbase – but very loyal, very passionate,” says Chang. “It was a very small group, and that’s what we had to work with.”
Image courtesy of UFC
It took a measured approach to bring the UFC to a broader audience in China: dispelling misconceptions (no one dies during an MMA fight, for example), educating the public, gaining exposure, and, of course, jumping on Chinese social media and streaming platforms. This was the building phase.
“2017 was the first big step. We understood that we had the critical mass to bring our first event to mainland China — to Shanghai’s Mercedes Benz Arena,” Chang tells RADII. “We had previously done events in Macau, but then we came to Shanghai, and then Beijing and Shenzhen in 2019.”
As mentioned above, the UFC Fight Night in Shenzhen is particularly notable because Zhang became China’s first UFC champ at the event.
Beyond inspiring women, this was a defining moment for MMA and, in particular, the UFC in China. Long-time fans ecstatic about Zhang’s accomplishment and China’s state-backed media outlets jumped on the story, introducing the combat sport to a new legion of fans.
“At that moment, Zhang Weili set the world on fire. We’ve grown from a niche American sport to the mainstream in China — and that is the ultimate,” says Chang. “When Zhang Weili won, CCTV and Xinhua and Beijing Daily were all coming to us.”
Since Zhang’s title-clenching victory, MMA has enjoyed a much higher profile. According to Chang, the UFC has an estimated 173.8 million fans across China, with 71% of fans based in the top 13 provinces.
Zhang Weili raises the Five-Star Red Flag in the Octagon following her split-decision victory over Joanna Jedrzejczyk in her first title defense during “UFC 248” at T-Mobile Arena on March 7, 2020, in Las Vegas. Image courtesy of UFC
ONE Championship, meanwhile, has 5.16 million fans spread across greater China, according to data provided by company representatives, with the greatest concentration of followers in Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou.
While vastly different in scale, both of these numbers are huge and surely enviable for other sports organizations trying to break into China (here’s looking at you, NHL and NFL).
With a burgeoning, diverse, and increasingly passionate fan base in China, the UFC, ONE Championship, and other fight promotions are right where they need to be.
And one could argue that these MMA organizations have offered more than just entertainment. They’ve challenged gender stereotypes, elevated combat sports, and encouraged youth like Hong Jian to get in shape and learn self-defense. With that kind of impact, it’s difficult to argue that China’s MMA scene isn’t here to stay.
Cover image: Chinese fighter Shayilan Nuerdanbieke punches Australian Joshua Culibao; courtesy of UFC
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