So stamped the Chinese governmental division that controls martial arts within mainland China, the Wushu Administrative Center, which recently issued one permit to stage mixed martial arts events as a legal sport throughout the country.
While there were several suitors, including Zuffa LLC, Joel Resnick believes his startup group, the Ranik Ultimate Fighting Federation, was awarded the government sanction because it offered the right "mix between Chinese culture and Western mentality. I think that's really what did it."
"We decided right at the very beginning that if we're doing to do this, we're going to do it right. So it's going to be done as a sports event. It's going to have the backing of the government. Most importantly we have to be able to award a country's national MMA championship, which at the end of the day is what we're doing," said the 51-year-old Canadian, a longtime resident of Shanghai and principal in the Ranik Group -- a buying agent that calls Nike a major client.
RUFF is three cards into what its backers hope is the start of something massive. With the foundation of a burgeoning Chinese middle class learning what to do with its disposal income, the government handed RUFF the opportunity to develop Chinese MMA as a sport while selling it as a new entertainment option across the country.
On March 24 in Chongqing, a major city in Southwest China, 4,000 Chinese watched a nine-fight card in a sold-out arena. The event was RUFF's first since the company announced its ambitious intentions through the next Chinese new year. Capped by awe-inspiring prize money per Chinese standards, seven National MMA Champions will be crowned. Fighters aren't required to be Chinese nationals, but they must live and have a work permit in China, Hong Kong, Macau or Taiwan. Each winner will receive RMB 1,000,000, the equivalent of about $160,000. The average Chinese household brings in a bit more than $10,000 a year, so the idea is for the siren song of big money to prompt a generation of quality Chinese fighters to quickly emerge.
"We needed to make a statement out to the general public that said, 'Hey look, this is a new sport, but you guys can do this.' We needed to make it attractive," Resnick said. "We needed to draw attention. Something small wasn't going to do that."
The figure got the Chinese media talking, which is what Resnick and his partners -- Saul Rajsky along with American brothers Neil and Michael Mandt -- hoped for.
"We feel that the events we'll have in the next year will gain attention," said Michael Mandt, 40, who, with his brother, operates the Los Angeles-based production company that will deliver RUFF to tens of millions of Chinese televisions. "It will be natural for Chinese athletes to want to be involved. I think there will be a grass roots development because of the chance to win 1,000,000 RMB. It's not easy to be Yao Ming. To be a RUFF MMA champion, you don't have to be seven feet tall."
It will be natural for Chinese athletes to want to be involved. I think there will be a grass roots development because of the chance to win 1,000,000 RMB. It's not easy to be Yao Ming. To be a RUFF MMA champion, you don't have to be seven feet tall.” -- RUFF producer Michael Mandt, on the low entry qualifications to be an MMA fighter in China
Considering the martial arts heritage of the region, China appears to be a natural fit for MMA, which is among the reasons UFC has maintained an office in Beijing since August 2010. Former NBA executive Mark Fischer operates out of the office and heads the promotion's Asians Operations division.
Just this week UFC president Dana White promised that the UFC will hold an event "in China" this year. Yet claiming that Macau, where the card is expected to take place, is in China "is similar to having a fight in Puerto Rico and claiming to be in the United States," said Resnick, who worked four years inside the bureaucracy of the People’s Republic of China before receiving the license to work with the government. "Chinese citizens require a visa to go from China to Macau. Macau is a separate territory with its own government, currency and passports."
Resnick welcomed the UFC to hold an event in Macau "as it will only bring more attention to the great sport of MMA in Asia."
For the UFC to host something on the mainland, it would need to be considered a one-off cultural event, which means no ticket sales, no revenue streams.
The idea for RUFF came about five years ago when Resnick's son, Brandon, a teenager at the time, talked about his love of MMA. Brandon Resnick, now almost 20 and a Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt, serves as RUFF's matchmaker and talent scout. RUFF fighters compete under the Unified Rules, and referees are certified under John McCarthy's C.O.M.M.A.N.D system. The Chinese government too will be a sort of talent scout via its support for MMA, especially in schools. Resnick expects the government to help with the cost of finding and grooming fighters, as well as regulating them through soon-to-be formed associations.
The government is “really excited about this because this is a growth sport here," Resnick said. "This is something the Chinese public can wrap their hands around, they can get it.
"We're finding that this can be a mainstream sport out here and people are willing to spend the money to come out and see it. As long as they get their value back."
The cheapest ticket to an event costs $15, though live attendance is insignificant compared to the potential access into China's 700,000,000 homes. Through the government, TV relationships are already opening up for the Mandt brothers in Chongqing and other major municipalities. RUFF is the first MMA organization in China permitted to advertise its events in mass media. Neil Mandt, 42, is moving to China, where he'll handle broadcast production of events every other month.
Sponsors have taken notice. Chinese arms of multinational companies -- Nike, Ford, Ducati Motorcylces and Sofitel Hotels -- have already aligned with RUFF.
"The exposure RUFF has on TV and magazines is something we're interested in," Mike Bordiga, CEO of Ducati Asia Pacific, is quoted as saying in the organization's promotional packet. "The audience has a low average age; It's exactly what we're aiming for."
There's talk of a North American-esque reality show aimed at the core 18-28 demographic. But this is first and foremost a sporting venture in a country that does not have much in the way of pro sports.
"We're starting a sports company in China," Resnick said. "That's amazing. The most amazing thing is we're bringing martial arts back to China. This is where it all started. That's the coolest thing."
It’s a weekday morning in Las Vegas, 6,000 miles away from Zhang’s home in Beijing. He steps into the ring with American boxing coach Jimmy Gifford, who doesn’t speak a word of Chinese. Zhang is equally inept at English.
A translator stands outside the cage on call, but it’s amazing how little he’s used. This is what UFC president Dana White has been ranting about for years: Fighting is universal. It is, you might say, its own language.
“I kind of make some sounds and give him the motions of what’s going on,” Gifford told ESPN.com. “Sometimes, there was miscommunication, but after so many sessions there’s an understanding between us.
“He’s been getting workouts to learn English words. He calls me ‘boxing guru.’ And he knows the phrase ‘Make him pay.’”
Zhang, who faces Issei Tamura at UFC 144 in Tokyo on Saturday, has traveled to the U.S. before for a training camp -- but never at the request of the UFC.
With the promotion continuing its push into foreign markets in 2012, the UFC organized a sort of one-sided fighter-exchange program for Chinese athletes this year, bringing over Zhang and two other prospects -- neither of whom are in the UFC -- to Las Vegas to train with American coaches.
The UFC is not trying to artificially create a Chinese star -- if it were, matchmakers wouldn’t have originally scheduled Zhang against the tough Leonard Garcia on this weekend’s card -- but it’s common sense that if one emerges, well, it wouldn’t be a bad thing.
In 2010, the UFC established an office in Beijing and appointed Mark Fischer as managing director. In that short amount of time, Fischer says the brand has found its way into 270 million households via television and reaches another 500 million on the Internet.
Phase 1, if you want to call it that, is generally seen as complete. Phase 2 is in progress and would certainly benefit from the presence of a Chinese star.
“It’s very important to build local heroes in each market,” Fischer said. “China is a market where we have such tremendous potential. Once we have local heroes who are successful in the UFC, it will make a world of difference. Hence these programs.”
Whereas an area like Brazil was rife with fighters for the UFC to tap into, the Chinese market is going to require time to produce top-shelf talent.
The biggest hurdle standing in the way currently is what the UFC program looks to address. As of right now, there is not the level of instructors or facilities in China teaching MMA as there is in other markets.
For instance, Zhang says, as a brown belt, he is the highest-ranked Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu practitioner in the country’s 1.3 billion population.
He trains out of a gym he helped found, China Top Team. The facility has no ring to spar in and only a handful of qualified coaches. The athletes take turns running on one treadmill. When it’s time to lift weights, they use memberships to the athletic club next door.
“I feel like [the Chinese national] level of wrestling is good, but BJJ is almost nonexistent,” said Zhang, through a translator. “There are maybe 10 jiu-jitsu coaches in all of China. I don’t think there are any Muay Thai instructors, but we have some Mongolian boxing.”
Enter the UFC’s program. During the month Zhang spent in Las Vegas, Gifford said that although it was treated as a normal training camp to prepare for this week’s fight, there was also a bit of “teaching to teach” incorporated.
In a rare move, he allowed what he was teaching to be videotaped so the fighters at China Top Team who didn’t make the trip could watch. He’s also open to a two-week seminar in China -- something Fischer says is a real possibility as a mainstay in the future.
“They need work. They need coaching,” Gifford said. “I’m not opposed to doing a two-week stint in China. We can help coach coaches. That’s what they need.”
Once the sport grows in China -- currently, the UFC brand is recognized by an estimated 15 percent of the population -- there is reason to believe it could turn out some of the future’s biggest stars.
Obviously, martial arts has existed in the area for years. Sanda is the closest thing to MMA, which allows takedowns but no grappling and is fought with bigger gloves than the four-ounce version the UFC uses.
The nation’s best athletes are typically gobbled up by other sports at a relatively young age; however, Zhang says interest in his gym has increased dramatically since the UFC started building a presence there.
Even though the Chinese government is effective at signing talented youth to contracts, Zhang believes that from what we has seen, the time when some of the top athletes choose to compete solely in MMA is not far off.
“The biggest difficulty has already been overcome,” Zhang said. “Right now, everybody in China and the government is already starting to accept the sport. There will be enough Chinese fighters to host a UFC event in three to five years.”