MMA in Asia. Is China Bringing The Next Wave of Top MMA Prospects?

In late 2019 the UFC opened its second revolutionary Performance Institute (UFC PI) in China, but unlike the PI in Las Vegas, USA, this second one had something special about it.

China, as a landmass, has 1 billion occupants. A seventh of the world’s global population and with 36 million identified as fans of MMA, it has been a target area for the UFC to continue its global dominance.

Speaking with former UFC Welterweight Richy Walsh, now one of the lead coaches at the Chinese UFC PI, MMAUK explored how the UFC is attempting to build the sport and the level of combat athletes in the country as well as the growth already seen in neighbouring APAC markets like Australia and New Zealand.

Richy’s journey to China started one-and-a-half years ago. He had begun coaching full time after 10 years of sporadically coaching alongside maintaining his own fight career. Taking, what was, a leap of faith to move to China to coach in an acquaintance’s gym in Shanghai, Richy was soon contacted by UFC Hall of Famer Urijah Faber about potentially taking a spot as a coach in the blueprinted UFC PI that was planned for China. After several months, Richy got the call and was welcomed by another fellow Hall of Famer, VP of Athlete Development, Forrest Griffin. Since then, Richy, his fellow coaches at the PI and Forrest Griffin himself have all played pivotal roles in the upskilling of those that want to launch into the world that is professional MMA.

Unlike the Las Vegas PI, the Chinese PI has its own agenda. Richy and the team scoured the MMA gyms of China to bring in the fighters with the most potential to form a 30-person academy purely focused on improving the skills of the local fighters. The benefits of training as part of the academy are endless as the fighters sleep in the dorms on-site, are monitored for nutritional/dietary benefits and train in the most technologically advanced performance centre for MMA (potentially) in the world. At a staggering 93,000 square feet and at a cost of US$13 million, the coaches have one aim… to increase the contracted UFC fighters from China and APAC on the roster.

The main hurdle at this early phase is getting the Chinese audience to tune in. The audience are proud of watching their nationals participate. Just look at the Olympics as an example. There is a market ready to tap into, there are TV deals ready to be picked up, the UFC just need to enhance how they captivate the audience there.

At the time of writing, Richy believes One FC still has the notoriety advantage in Asia, but the potential for exponential growth for the UFC is there for the taking. Another challenge is getting Chinese, homegrown fighters onto UFC cards and holding more events in the country. This Saturday’s event in Shenzhen (August 31st) could be the start of an MMA revolution. We will see the direction the PI is looking to take as we will be able to see its first two graduates fight against worthy opposition. Lu Zhenhong and Heili Alateng will take to the cage and be the flag bearers for many more up-and-coming MMA fighters from China to follow in future.

Richy has already seen the sport grow in his native Australian homeland. He has seen Robert Whittaker win championships, Alex Volkanovski rise to Featherweight title contention Tai Tuavasa become a fixture at heavyweight and even across the waters in New Zealand Israel Adesanya, Dan Hooker, Shane Young and another combatant on the Shenzhen card, Kai Kara-France are all showing that the region is a hotbed of MMA talent. It is especially important to look at those in New Zealand that all stem from Eugene Bareman’s City Kickboxing which has risen to prominence in recent years. It is growth like this in neighbouring regions that give the UFC coaches and staff in Shanghai hope for the future. With Weili Zhang fighting for the Flyweight Championship against Jessica Andrade, it could be the catalyst for the market to launch itself into the MMA stratosphere. One FC’s recent signing activity will only help that potential with big names like Sage Northcutt, Eddie Alvarez and Demetrious Johnson joining in the last 16 months.

With the plethora of Chinese talent on display this weekend, Richy sees the PI as a very realistic opportunity to increase the amount of contracted UFC fighters on the current roster and to follow in Zhang’s footsteps. The comparisons are endless when looking at what the UK had with Bisping, much like what Canada had with Hominick and GSP… Richy believes China needs renowned characters like these to lead the way for others to follow.

However, even when the Shenzhen card is over and the dust settles, the hard work will continue in the background. The academy at the PI will grow further, more fighters will be offered UFC deals and by the first quarter of 2020, Richy hopes to see another 3 or 4 new signees from Chinese PI academy test themselves in the premier MMA organization in the world. From here, he said to expect the domino effect to begin and in the next 5 years, we could have a new MMA mega-power on our hands.


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